It’s been over 10 weeks since we shut down most of the country. Since then, we’ve heard a lot of talk about “flattening the curve,” seen photos of showdowns between protesters and healthcare workers, and read heartbreaking posts about loved ones lost during this period. For most of us, the way we experienced this global event is through a handheld screen. This is not 9/11. We aren’t gathering at offices or friends’ houses, watching events unfold in real time via television cameras. Instead, we access the information we want… when we want… on demand and on our phones. Perhaps for the first time in history, the world is experiencing a global crisis and collective trauma together, yet alone. Memes make us laugh, but also capture the absurdity of the present.
Almost three months later, and we’re still uncertain and even scared. Even in the midst of violence and protests across the US, COVID-19 is still adversely impacting countries across the world. COVID-19 is not only a public health crisis, but also a crisis in public communication with serious implications for national security. Dis- and misinformation about the virus runs rampant, and what should be an opportunity for the US to lead, has instead left us fractured and vulnerable. This leaves us at the mercy of digital rumors and aggressive information operations (IO) campaigns from adversaries. We are fighting a war, but it’s not against a virus alone.
To win this war requires a better global communication strategy. The US has a fantastic opportunity to emerge as a credible global leader and a champion in a battle against an invisible, seemingly potent enemy. But without a clear strategy, it is our adversaries who will rewrite history about COVID-19. So, what do we do?
THE POWER OF NARRATIVE
In other crises predating COVID-19, we learned a best practice is to both define the problem and what should be done to fix it. In the US, these steps are largely conducted by the President of the United States as the “Interpreter-in-Chief,” a phrase coined by Penn State Communication Arts & Sciences Professor Mary Stuckey in 1991. In the past, US presidents – from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to Reagan during the Cold War, described the country’s role as “a city upon a hill” – and in doing so, nested crisis responses within the concept of American Exceptionalism. This concept calls for a national renewal of values and patriotism, and often uses images of the cowboy and frontier romanticism to tell this tale. These stories helped set the agenda, but – most importantly – defined what kind of country the US was and what direction it could go.
Fast forward to the present. Without a unifying story, COVID-19 is rapidly becoming a threat to national security. While China is no stranger to manipulating the American public’s faith in governance, medicine, and its leaders, COVID-19 presents the rarest of opportunities for this peer competitor to inflict catastrophic, longer-term damages against the US. Right now, they’re winning. For instance, in the past, the US was the only country capable of conducting large-scale international humanitarian assistance. With COVID-19, however, there is a new champion of international humanitarian needs. China’s IO campaign is aggressive and gaining ground by the day. The Chinese government is simultaneously providing medical equipment and supplies to counter worldwide backlash of their handling of the pandemic, with the former a stark comparison to the US (which has not publicly provided generous displays of aid). Instead, the stories being told are tales of the US withholding funds to international organizations (notably the World Health Organization) and redirecting resources and supplies away from other nations during the crisis.
In this new realm of competition where COVID-19 resides, communication, narrative, and language are the weapons of choice. Leaders today do not have the luxury of choosing which audiences hear which messages and which don’t. And today especially, audiences are naturally inundated with competing messages that vie for dominance and attention.
The US could use COVID-19 as an opportunity to prevent further economic damage through logical, deliberate, and data-driven communication. A narrative that frames the nation as a rational actor.
The US cannot therefore afford to be passive, and cannot assume audiences will both find and accept their version of COVID-19 information as factual. What is said on a Monday in China or Iran is replayed and translated into countless languages to be shared an infinite number of times and in an equal number of dialects. Rather than as a consistent and chronologically stable narrative, thousands of little pieces of information are launched into a digital ecosystem to be selectively assembled by audiences. The US requires a deliberate strategy powerful enough to help the world make sense of all these pieces, even more so with very active peer competitor dis- and misinformation programs. We must speak with purpose and conviction in telling a story both vital to the health of the republic and to the strength of our nation on a global scale.
THE RHETORIC OF COVID-19
To own a narrative is to understand and dominate the rhetoric upon which it’s built. Rhetoric is therefore a lot more than just language: it is language in use. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the use of the available means of persuasion.” In other words, it’s the power to persuade, or, quite possibly – the original guide to “winning hearts and minds.” The current rhetorical battle – a new kind of war – is about competing narratives, and it is a type of irregular warfare that military leaders and policy-makers are simply not used to fighting.
Aristotle was proven right: throughout history, rhetoric proved a powerful tool for nation states. When used to its fullest potential, it influences how people feel and ultimately how they act. It also means that the right narratives are capable of preserving a republic and its global position. Ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion and empathy), logos (data and logic), and kairos (timely information) were concepts Aristotle used to explain what successful communication looks like.
It’s no different for COVID-19. First and foremost, American leaders must embrace pathos: be emotional, offering compassion and reassurance within their narratives. Empathy should be, a) expressed to citizens, b) to the rest of the world, and c) turned into action. As the UN clamors to avoid a COVID-19 “hunger pandemic,” the US would be wise to position itself as a leader of a global response community. Humanitarianism and altruism are crucial instruments in a war where emotions are weaponized to gain influence.
Ultimately, the US could use COVID-19 as an opportunity to prevent further economic damage through logical, deliberate, and data-driven communication. A narrative that frames the nation as a rational actor – one putting forth accurate data in a sea of chaos – operationalizes logos. Logos laden communication is essential in winning the great power competition long game, and to remain a global power. Producing accurate data and consistently communicating it, even as things change, is key.
Additionally, the US must put forth reliable communication to establish the nation as an ethos-centric, credible leader. A successful ethos based narrative would position the US as the most trustworthy source of both information and a credible solution to a crisis. Fail, and someone else will take the lead.
Finally, timing – or kairos – is a critical component of narrative success. The longer we wait, the greater the likelihood that the US is forced into a crisis communication narrative, reacting to COVID-19 dis- and misinformation rather than leading it. Those on the receiving end of disinformation are already biased from inconsistency, biased from fear, biased by narratives well established and repeated by adversaries.
Getting a global populace to consider and listen, but also to believe in alternative narratives (even consistent ones) about COVID-19…will be both a struggle and challenge. The US must reassure the world that we will rebound. The ability to give people hope and something to look forward to should never be underestimated. Remind them that this is temporary. Successful rhetoric is the means to all these ends.
Taking a closer look at classical Greek tools of persuasion offers an opportunity and encourages a moment of pause to admire but – more importantly – understand the COVID-19 information problem for what it is. Until the US has the stomach to embrace COVID-19 narratives and what Aristotle saw as “the best available means of [rhetorical] persuasion,” it is in very real danger of losing a much bigger information war. This would have widespread implications well beyond public health.
How we emerge from this crisis is entirely dependent on our acceptance of this rhetorical reality. Importantly, it is the job and responsibility of the US to take ownership of a meaningful and deliberate COVID-19 narrative. The US Government simply cannot afford for others to tell their story for them at present and for future crises.
Dr. Paul Lieber is COLSA Corporation’s Chief Scientist (Data & Social Science); he prior served as the Command Writer for two USSOCOM Commanders, and Strategic Communication Advisor to the Commander of Special Operations Command-Australia. He holds a Ph.D. in Mass Communication and Public Affairs from Louisiana State University.
Dr. Karla Mastracchio is a Professor and Senior Communication Consultant for the US Government. She served as an intelligence analyst at the DIA and has taught undergraduate and graduate-level strategic communication for over 15 years. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa.