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The following is an excerpt of a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia published on June 22, 2022 on Commpro.biz

In May the head of the Food and Drug Administration warned that misinformation has become the leading cause of death in the United States.

The January 6 Committee hearings are making clear that misinformation is a leading cause of political division. And that it is a growing threat to American democracy.

In both COVID misinformation and the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen, there is another common factor: People who knew about the misinformation, who saw the consequences of that misinformation playing out, and who may have been able to raise the alarm in time, eventually spoke out. But by then it was too late to prevent the harm.

Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward knew that President Donald Trump understood how dangerous and contagious COVID was and that he was lying about it.

Attorney General Bill Barr knew that Trump’s “Stop the Steal” narrative was, in his own words, “bullshit,” and that Trump was told so. So did many in Trump’s inner circle, whom campaign manager Bill Stepien referred to as “Team Normal,” in contrast to “an apparently inebriated Rudolph Giuliani” and his minions. None of these people spoke out until well after the January 6 attack.

And Trump continued the lies, even to today. And Americans continued to die.

Duty to Warn?

This dynamic raises a moral, ethical, and civic question: When does a public official or public figure have a duty to warn? At what point should civic leaders, public officials, and even engaged citizens sound the alarm when leaders are behaving in ways that put lives and civic order at risk?

For example, on February 7, 2020, before a single American had died of COVID, Trump told Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward that he knew that COVID is airborne, transmitted by breathing, and more deadly than the flu.

This was a turning point moment in the pandemic: a moment when a responsible president would share that news with the American people so that they could begin to understand the risks and take precautions. And a moment to begin a whole-of-government public health response to address those very real risks. But Trump did not. Instead, he lied to the American people about what he and the government knew about the virus. And Americans started to die.

On March 19, 2020, when 265 Americans had died of COVID, Trump repeated to Woodward what he knew about the dangers of COVID, and added that even young people can get it.  In addition, Trump told Woodward that he was intentionally playing down the risks. Trump continued to lie to the American people, and Americans continued to die.

Trump’s firehose of COVID misinformation in the spring and summer of 2020 had at least two effects. First, Trump failed to emphasize the need to take basic public health measures, such as masking, distancing, testing, and contact tracing. Instead, he focused on miracle cures, on discrediting science and scientists, and on disparaging those who challenged him. Second, many of his followers and others believed the misinformation and acted on it, including failure to trust science and scientists. Their belief in the misinformation has persisted well beyond Trump’s presidency to include refusal to get vaccinated or to wear masks.

The World Health Organization has long warned about the dangers of misinformation:

“Misinformation costs lives… Misinformation can circulate and be absorbed very quickly, changing people’s behavior, and potentially leading them to take greater risks. All this makes the pandemic much more severe, harming more people and jeopardizing the reach and sustainability of the global health system.”

Cornell University’s Alliance for Science conducted the first comprehensive study of COVID misinformation. It reviewed more than one million articles with COVID misinformation published in the first six months of the pandemic. It found that Trump was directly quoted in 37 percent of all instances of misinformation. But when the researchers included Trump misinformation that was retold by others, they concluded that he was responsible for fully 50 percent of all misinformation statements about COVID.

The study concluded that Donald Trump was “likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’”

It further noted that,

“These findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.”

We saw just this phenomenon play out in the summer of 2020.

And in all that time, Woodward said nothing.

Then, on August 14, Woodward finally said something. With the launch of his book Rage, Woodward released recordings that revealed what Trump had told him. By then 167,000 Americans had died of COVID; more than one thousand Americans died that day alone. And pandemic response had become thoroughly – and seemingly irreversibly – politicized.

In Rage Woodward asks, “Who was responsible for the failure to warn the American public of the pending pandemic?”

Woodward is right to ask the question. And he should look in the mirror.

From both a moral and ethical perspective, I believe that Woodward shares some culpability here. He knew when the death rate was low that Trump was privately acknowledging the severity of the virus and its form of transmission, but publicly saying the opposite. In doing so, the president was putting American lives at risk. But even as the death rate soared, Woodward kept silent until the release of his book in mid-August.

When does the duty to warn overtake the journalistic convention of storytelling? Or the commercial possibilities of a best-selling book? Before any fatalities? At 256 fatalities, as in mid-March? At 167,000 fatalities, when he launched his book?

Continue reading here.

The following is a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on CommPro.biz on January 3, 2022.

This week marks the start of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

By the end of 2021 more than a half million Americans were catching COVID-19 every day. One in every six Americans had come down with the virus; one in every four hundred had died.

Much of this was avoidable. And we return from our holiday facing the latest surge and wondering whether it’s safe to reopen as planned.

COVID-19, Crisis Management, and Leadership

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the United States has mounted the worst COVID-19 response in the developed world. In 2020 the American response was driven by incompetence, dishonesty, and neglect.

2021 began with a glimmer of hope, and by April – when vaccines became universally available – the daily death rate plummeted.

But by late June both vaccinations and masks became highly politicized and deaths began to soar again. By year end hospitals were at capacity; the overwhelming percentage of hospitalizations and deaths were among the unvaccinated.

 

https://www.commpro.biz/?s=crisis+management+helio

Illustration 1, Source: New York Times

 

But there is opportunity in every crisis. COVID-19 provides an active case study to learn not only about public health, but also foundational principles of crisis management. As the Greek philosopher Plato said in The Republic, if you want to understand something difficult, study the biggest instance of it that you can. Then apply those learnings to smaller matters. There’s no bigger crisis right now than COVID-19.

For decades in my crisis management practice, I have preached that the severity of an underlying crisis does not determine how the crisis turns out. Two organizations in the same crisis at the same time can have dramatically different outcomes. Rather, the timeliness and quality of the response determine whether or not an organization suffers a catastrophic outcome. Act effectively and quickly and the crisis resolves or plays out with minimal damage. Delay, deny, or dither and things get disproportionately worse.

It is uncommon for multiple organizations to go through the same crisis simultaneously. But COVID-19 is a crisis with which every organization around the world has been grappling. We now have experienced a kind of laboratory experiment of how different jurisdictions responded to the pandemic differently. We can track the different outcomes. We can learn from them. And we can apply those lessons, not only in the continued pandemic response but in future crises, as well.

Crisis Management Works

All the trends point to a common conclusion: Crisis management works. But only when we manage the crisis effectively. Failing to follow crisis management principles can have devastating consequences. There are four rules that lead to the successful resolution of a crisis:

  1. Take the crisis seriously.
  2. Take the risks seriously.
  3. Mitigate those risks.
  4. Act quickly: the longer it takes to mitigate the risks, the harder it is to do so.

We can see clearly how the death rates in different jurisdictions varied based on leaders’ adherence, or lack of adherence, to these rules.

Continue reading here.

This is an excerpt of a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Commpro.biz on September 21, 2021, in honor of International Day of Peace.

Around the world, and here at home, ideologically-driven opportunists are very good at using communication in ways that lead to oppression, exclusion, and violence.

Communicators of good will have an opportunity to channel our gifts to counter this prevalent and dangerous trend.

The Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide defines “dangerous speech” as:

“speech that increases the risk for violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. It includes both speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.”

We see examples of such dangerous speech all around, here and abroad:

  • Fundamentalists of every stripe hijack the identity and vocabulary of religion to promote oppression, exclusion, and violence in the name of religious purity.
  • Nationalists hijack national identity and the vocabulary of patriotism in ways that lead to violence in the name of racial, ethnic, national, and ideological purity.
  • Supremacists hijack the vocabulary of science and society to commit cruelty and violence against immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and those who support such groups.
  • Even some American governors hijack the language of liberty and freedom in ways that put their citizens at risk of contracting a deadly disease. And they stand idly by as their hospitals overflow with unvaccinated patients and announce that they can no longer accept patients with other life-threatening conditions. Worse, citizens so mobilized commit violence and threats of violence against healthcare workers, school districts, restaurant owners, and others who are simply trying to protect themselves and the people in their care.

There is much hand-wringing in the media and elsewhere about just how polarized American society has become. And with good reason.

But engaged citizens can do something about it, here and elsewhere in the world.

In particular, members of the communication profession can challenge the use of communication to divide and to oppress. We can model communication in ways that protect those at risk. We can call out the dangerous speech and its consequence when we hear it. We can hold leaders accountable when they persist in using such language.

And we can help institutions to reclaim their identity and vocabulary to more fully fulfill their missions:

  • We can help religious organizations reclaim the identity and vocabulary of religion as a source for peace. We can highlight the deeply-held and widely-shared moral teaching of all faith traditions: kindness, reciprocity, and service to community.
  • We can help reclaim national identity and the vocabulary of patriotism to show that we are part of a common civic enterprise. We can show that not only are all created equal, but all are also equally deserving of respect and dignity.
  • We can help at-risk communities harness their power, and we can hold those who attack those communities accountable for the consequences.
  • And we can use the ballot box to hold accountable those political leaders who know better but who pander to an ideological agenda that puts their citizens at unnecessary risk of catching and succumbing to a deadly disease.

Silence in the face of oppression always helps the oppressors.  If ever there was a time for communicators to up our game and deploy our gifts, it is now.

Read the full article here.

This is an excerpt from a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Commpro.biz on January 18, 2021.

National Archives, Public Domain

Today we commemorate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this day it is important to note that the man who for two more days is the sitting president has spent nearly a decade systematically attacking the very dream Dr. King described in his 1963 Lincoln Memorial Speech.

Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency were themed to evoke an America before the civil rights wins that began to dismantle some of the worst abuses of the Jim Crow era. And it happened right before our eyes, as Trump embraced white supremacist policies and normalized white nationalism.

And twelve days ago, on the Elipse just a mile from the Lincoln Memorial, Trump inspired a crowd filled with white supremacists to invade the U.S. Capitol, where some hoped to assassinate the Vice President and Speaker of the House.

That evening, after watching the Capitol assault on television, Trump told the attackers, “We love you. You’re very special.”

Dancing with White Supremacists

In my latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I track what I call Trump’s dance with white supremacists. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has followed a recognizable pattern: He signals to white supremacists, and they signal back. Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, has frequently referred to it as a “wink-wink-wink” relationship.

It began nearly ten years ago, when private citizen Trump addressed the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and declared he would run in 2012 to unseat President Barack Obama. He revived the long-discredited birther conspiracy that Obama was secretly Kenyan and Muslim. This got the attention of white supremacists. He continued pounding the birther theme for six years, straight through to the last month of his 2016 campaign.

White supremacists perked up even more in his 2015 campaign launch when Trump declared that Mexicans are rapists, when he called for a wall on the southern border, and when he later promoted a total and complete ban of Muslims entering the United States.

In early 2016 Former Klan leader David Duke endorsed Trump and urged his followers to volunteer for his campaign. He said, “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.”

In late August 2016, Trump named Breitbart News co-founder Stephen Bannon to lead the Trump campaign. Bannon had previously said that Breitbart was the “platform for the alt-right.” The phrase “alt-right” was coined in 2010 by Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who later was one of the Charlottesville organizers, as a less menacing phrase for white nationalism. After the election Trump named Bannon his senior White House strategist. In this way, the alt-right had a direct channel into the White House.

God Emperor of White Supremacists

On the day Trump was declared president, white supremacists celebrated and took credit for putting him in office.

The Daily Stormer wrote:

“We won, brothers. All of our work. It has paid off. Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor. Make no mistake about it: we did this. If it were not for us, it wouldn’t have been possible… And the great news is, we’re going to be given credit for it.”

David Duke tweeted:

“This is one of the most exciting nights of my life -> make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump! #MAGA”

Richard Spencer tweeted:

“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback. #Trump.”

Making Whiteness Great Again

Ten days after the election, in an auditorium of the Ronald Reagan Office Building several blocks from the White House, Spencer addressed the white nationalist group he ran. He said,

“We willed Donald Trump into office. We made this dream our reality. . .  And this Trumpian dream is only the beginning . . .  We demand to live in the world that we imagine… For us it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man, that our fate is entirely in our hands… That is the great struggle we are called to. We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace. We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet. We were meant to overcome—overcome all of it. Because that is natural and normal for us. Because for us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again.”

Spencer closed his speech with a rousing call,

“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory.”

Spencer raised a glass up high with his right hand, in an apparent toast. Members of the audience rose and gave a Nazi salute extending their right arm out to the front. One man gave the salute multiple times, shouting “Sieg Heil!” – literally, “Hail Victory” in German.

In August of Trump’s first year Richard Spencer, David Duke, and other white supremacist leaders organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Trump and others insisted that the Charlottesville protest was about the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. But it was much more.

On its website, The Daily Stormer admitted that the Charlottesville protest was not simply about a statue:

“Although the rally was initially planned in support of the Lee Monument, which the Jew Mayor and his Negroid Deputy have marked for destruction, it has become something much bigger than that. It is now an historic rally, which will serve as a rallying point and battle cry for the rising alt-right movement.”

One of the organizers, Michael Hill, president of the white nationalist group League of the South, tweeted to his followers:

“If you want to defend the South and Western civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies, be at Charlottesville on 12 August.”

The Daily Stormer posted on its Facebook page:

“Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”

“Battle cry” is not a casual reference. The Daily Stormer live-posted during the protest, including this:

“THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A WAR! WE HAVE AN ARMY”

After counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi, President Trump said that there was hatred and bigotry on many sides. The Daily Stormer wrote:

“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.”

Two days later President Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides,” David Duke tweeted a thank-you to the President.

Daryl Johnson, former domestic terrorism expert at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, wrote a Washington Post column in which he noted the alignment of the white supremacist agenda and Trump’s policies and priorities:

“Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, militia extremists, and other radical right-wing zealots march side-by-side at pro-Trump rallies across the country. Trump’s endorsement of the border wall, the travel ban, mass deportations of illegal immigrants — these ideas were touted on white supremacist message boards merely 10 years ago. Now they’re being put forth as official U.S. policy. Such controversial plans have placated white supremacists and anti-government extremists and will draw still more sympathetic individuals toward these extremist causes along with the sort of violent acts that too often follow, like Charlottesville.”

Fifteen days before the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump declared himself to be a nationalist. He addressed a rally crowd and said,

“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am, I’m a nationalist, OK. I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word!”

The following year, when Trump called for four congresswomen of color to “go back to where you came from,” The Daily Stormer wrote,

“This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for.”

The Final Days

Capitol police in the House chamber protecting members of Congress.

In Trump’s final days in office the twice-impeached president has said he will not attend the inauguration, which Twitter interpreted as,

“[E]ncouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.”

And now Trump has an army: groups of white supremacists – Proud Boys, Boogaloo movement, QAnon, and others – who are mobilizing to replicate what happened on January 6. The FBI is warning about possible violent armed attacks on the January 20 inauguration and on symbolic targets in all 50 states.

The Lincoln Memorial is locked down, as is the National Mall up to the Capitol, protected by fences, razor wire, and more than 25,000 national guard troops in full combat gear including automatic weapons.

The Dream, Deferred

Dr. King’s dream was that we would judge people by the content of their character.

At the end of the Trump presidency, we see that he fails the character test. The tone is set from the top. Trump has spent a decade trying to dismantle Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. In his celebration of white supremacists and glorification of violence, he is the very antithesis of Dr. King.