Wednesday, March 16, 2011

False alarm

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Here’s what I really want to know: Who are these people who are churning out all these doomsday scenarios and what exactly do they get from instigating panic and fear among the populace?

Do they get an emotional high when they know of someone who almost becomes catatonic after, say, receiving that message they started about a radioactive cloud from Japan slowly drifting to the Philippines? Do they get their kicks from knowing that thousands of students were sent home by one of the largest universities in Metro Manila because parents and students kept on badgering school officials about the alleged threat to lives?

The first text message, which I received last Monday at 12:32 pm, had this ominous warning (some words have been spelled out in full for clarity): “BBC FLASHNEWS: Japan government confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions. Remain indoors first 24 hours. Close doors and windows. Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first. Take extra precaution, radiation may hit Philippines at starting 4:00 p.m. today. Please send to your loved ones.”

I was told there was a mad rush to buy betadine solution in the last two days so at least some people benefited from the text message somehow. I am glad there was no mention of iodine tablets or there could have been a spike in the demand for them as well. Text messages like these make life difficult for a number of people such as administrators who make critical decisions to safeguard others.

The second text message, which I received at around 7:00 p.m., was even scarier. This time, it was in Taglish and was evidently started by someone who was in a state of panic: “WARNING: 4:30 in the afternoon sumabog ang isang nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Kapag umulan daw mamaya at bukas, wala daw lalabas. Kapag lalabas ka, siguraduhing hindi mabasa ng ulan dahil delikado ito at posibleng masunog ang balat nyo, makalbo or magka-cancer. Have Mercy. Please pass.” (Roughly: A nuclear power plant in Fukushima Japan exploded at 4:30 in the afternoon. If it rains later or tomorrow, don’t go out. If you do, make sure you don’t get wet as your skin might get burned; you might lose hair or get cancer.)

Our househelp received a similar text message with some minor variations, indicating that people liberally tampered with the original message and decided to add his or her own piece of advice. What is it that compels people to issue their own advisories to the world—fractured English and all, and worst, shot through with erroneous and baseless information? While we are at it, what is it that encourages others to spread such advisories without even bothering to check the veracity of the information?

It’s frustrating because when we come to think about it, it really is easy to verify information today. The Internet is available 24/7 and media networks, both global and local, post advisories that are updated almost on real-time basis. Even government agencies have websites, for crying out loud. The first text message I received, and which I understand was the one that was forwarded like crazy perhaps because it was supposed to have originated from the British Broadcasting Company, was easy to verify: One simply had to log on to the BBC Web site to check if the network did issue the advisory. Obviously, it didn’t; and while the BBC site did not have an advisory specifically refuting the text messages (they probably are not aware of our penchant for spreading false information) there were a number of items on its Web site last Monday that clearly indicated that the threat of a radiation cloud or acid rain happening in Japan or its neighboring countries was not imminent. Or at least, not yet.

Most local media networks and government agencies also went to town Monday refuting the text messages. Government officials who are usually not seen on television during “normal” times such as the Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo were suddenly very visible, hopping from one television show to another. It’s sad that we only come to know and hear about these people during crisis situations; science and technology are topics we should be devoting more attention to as a country but sadly, they’re not “sexy” enough for media attention. At any rate, I am not sure that people were really listening to what our scientists and officials were saying because the early morning shows yesterday were still asking the same questions over and over again.

Rumors spread under three conditions —when there is ambiguity, when there is anxiety, and when the issue at hand is perceived as life-threatening. All three factors were present in large quantities last Monday.

The problem with discussions about radiation and nuclear power plants is that aside from the fact that the topic is too technical for the average person, we also tend to either talk above people’s heads or focus merely on creating headlines.

For example, it was almost hilarious watching the hosts of one morning show grilling Montejo no end on variations of basically the same questions: Is there a possibility that the seasonal direction of winds change in the next few days and begin blowing south? How can we be sure that Japan is telling the truth about the real radiation situation? In the event a radiation cloud begins drifting towards the Philippines, what should people do to protect themselves? Are we really sure? Doubly sure? No wonder people are panicking, we keep on feeding their fears by reiterating the same doomsday scenarios and articulating their worst fears instead of focusing on the facts. To put it simply, let’s stop telling people not to panic because by doing so we only reinforce the concept further. Rather, let us explain the facts clearly and calmly using a more positive and empowering approach such as focusing on what people can, not what they cannot do.

The threat of radiation from nuclear power plants has once again revived the issue of whether the country should have its own nuclear power plants. What I find strange in the ongoing discussion is that people seem oblivious to the fact that the current radiation threat is coming from another country. We worry about a possible catastrophe that can be brought about by a meltdown should we operate the Bataan nuclear power plant but close our eyes to the fact that some of our neighboring countries have nuclear power plants that can easily affect us. For example, Taiwan has six nuclear power reactors and three active nuclear power plants. In case people have forgotten, Taiwan is much closer to the Philippines that Japan. Vietnam plans to build at least 10 within this decade and Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are also planning to build their own plants.

I am not saying we should have our own because everyone else has. All I am saying is that the discussion cannot be made in a vacuum; and certainly is best done at another time when people can be more objective about the matter. Why do we insist on having this conversation now when we are years away from having a nuclear power plant should we decide to have one?

At any rate, I’d like to see more proactive efforts to educate people on the dangers that come with allowing panic to get the better of us including believing in hoaxes and in spreading false alarms. Clearly no good can come out of these.

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