Communication or sheer fearmongering?


Communication or sheer fearmongering?


Thursday, October 31, 2019

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Communication specialists will tell you that gossip, rumour, and outright lies will always spread faster than wildfire. People get a pervasive thrill out of spreading unkind messages. This is especially so when communication from official and formal structures is either absent, weak, or hidden. Indeed, many will gravitate faster to the informal channel of communication, the 'grapevine', for information from their peers, and will claim to believe it is true because it came from so and so. In the majority of instances, those who depend on or believe in the grapevine will not take any time to verify the information before passing it on.

People love to spread bad news. When this occurs the formal channels of communication, for example, in an organisation, or in a country, have to engage in crisis communication to combat what can be the harmful effects of rumours.

What is also challenging in societies like ours is that well-meaning and well-thinking individuals will pass on this piece of gossip, rumour, or bad news faster than they would a piece of good news that comes from a formal and very reputable and verified channel.

Today's high-technology world, with its democratic access, means that many Jamaicans get their news, good or bad, formal or informal, verified or unverified, from social media. In many instances, this news is incomplete, overhyped, or a total fabrication.

Many public and private sector companies continue to use the various social media and text messaging platforms to market their services, products and upcoming events. Young entrepreneurs have piggybacked on this wave to access current and potential clients en masse. Of course, others also use the opportunity to send every single imaginable piece of information, useful or otherwise, true or false, through these portals. Without any clear regulation in place for these portals, the issue of self-regulation becomes a reality. What this really means, though, is that there is a veritable free-for-all. Any and every one can post whatever they want on various timelines and invade people's inboxes with a barrage of sometimes useless videos and photographs that consume storage space and flood timelines.

We now have a clear case with ongoing rumours and controversy surrounding the US Naval hospital ship Comfort, which docked in Jamaica to provide much-needed health care and medication free of cost to citizens. The vessel arrived on October 28, 2019 and will stay in Kingston until November 1. The mission was announced by an October 25 post on the Ministry of Health and Wellness' website, but many Jamaicans, myself included, were alerted to its coming when we received a voicenote via WhatsApp, or through another social media portal, with an attendant photograph. In this voicenote a woman warned a relative or friend to stay away from the ship “from America” coming to offer free medical services. Weaving a frightening conspiracy of death and harm to “black people” in the Caribbean, this woman insisted that the information should be spread to everybody.

Of course, that voicenote spread like wildfire, burning up terrabytes of data and going viral almost instantaneously. Jamaicans at home and abroad fell over themselves in their haste to share with their contacts, discuss, rant, and rave about the imminent danger, the wickedness, the daring, and to figure out if this could indeed be true. These discussions are still ongoing. Many others have staged clapbacks on social media insisting that “stupid and foolish people” should desist from spreading this conspiracy theory, while others have simply suggested that those who need the free health services should avail themselves of the opportunity as they would not be paying for anyone's health care. And the beat goes on.

Black people, Caribbean or otherwise, are always very responsive to conspiracy theories that suggest a deliberate drive to eliminate the black race. The tone of delivery was one of apprehension and fear, ending with the very good and useful Jamaican “Jeezas God Almighty” that imputed every single cry against death and destruction, and the high levels of apprehension that is commonplace when these are supposedly imminent.

Many groups visit Jamaica from abroad annually to offer free health services that supplement those offered by the State. Many local companies, service clubs, non-governmental organisations and private citizens also provide opportunities at different points during the year when a health fair or clinic is staged to offer these services for free. The USNS Comfort has visited Jamaica on two previous occasions in 2011 and 2015. None of its visits have fallen down into the rumour mill and created this level of distraction and controversy. Why now? And, to what end? Whoever the creator, and for whatever reason, this voicenote was a deliberately and cleverly crafted piece of communication. The creator(s) are aware of communication practices and techniques, and understand the role of the grapevine in spreading gossip, rumours, lies, and bad news.

In today's Jamaica, the access to both Internet and mobile technology, with the high usage of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, has created a voluminous and unregulated grapevine. Everybody can be reached almost instantaneously. Well-crafted and/or controversial messages can go viral in minutes. And so, this message was created with specific hooks in place to draw attention and to spark fear and terror in the minds of as many people as possible. This is either sheer genius, outright wickedness, or both.

That voicenote from that seemingly concerned Jamaican woman, purportedly somewhere in “foreign”, was deliberately crafted to stop people from visiting the ship and benefiting from the various health options provided. At the very least, it was crafted to cast a huge shadow of doubt in the minds of many who would have decided to use the USNS Comfort's services. It tugged at the heightened sensibilities that many Jamaicans have about what others plan to do to the “black race”. It also contained instructions that were repeated for emphasis; insisting that it must be forwarded to “everyone in your contacts”.

Many, like myself, received the voicenote and immediately deleted it. But a great deal more felt compelled to pass it on just in case. Yes, bad news, gossip, and rumour burns up communication channels faster than anything else. And going viral is the 'in thing'.

This is a brave new world. Communication has been transformed, but its essential elements remain the same as when I lectured in business communication at the School of Continuing Studies and elsewhere a while back. There is a sender, receiver and a message. The sender encodes the message and transmits it via a channel to the receiver. The receiver decodes the message, and meaning is shared — hopefully. But, of course, nothing is ever always just as simple as it appears. And even the simplest voicenote can create harm and spread fear and controversy, deliberately or otherwise. This time I believe it to be deliberate.

Who could be so wicked? I won't even bother to engage in a discussion about propagandists in this article. That is another story. In the meantime, the communication and public relations team at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, and Minister Christopher Tufton have had their focus pulled away from many things, including the 'Pink Out' campaign this month to support the fight against breast cancer, as they work to reorient the populace's focus away from this voicenote. I wish them every success.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or

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