The novel coronavirus, COVID-19: A case study of the social amplification of risk

In these times, one of the best ways to ensure a post isn’t read is to write about the COVID-19 coronavirus. The story is dominating all channels of communication and marginalizing almost any other story. And that relentless, ubiquitous communication is part of the broader societal story.

The intensive coverage and discussion of COVID-19 creates what Kasperson defined in 1985 as a social amplification of risk. [1] The gist of his contention is that the perception of risk is amplified by the degree to which the risk is discussed or socialized.

Kaperson’s conceptual framework makes comparing the perceived risk of COVID-19 to previous coronaviruses outbreaks such as SARS open to amplification of the perceived risk. Should we be more concerned about COVID-19 than SARS? We don’t know. At this point there are an abundance of known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. [2], [3]

This outbreak will be studied for decades and at some point in the future that question will be answered. At this time, we know COVID-19 is serious, but how much fear is warranted is the harder question to answer. And as we know, fear is one of the greatest drivers of action whether those actions are constructive or destructive.

Consider how social interactions have changed since the SARS outbreak in 2002. If you were even alive in 2002, do you remember the state of internet? Only 9% of adults had broadband access [4] and Facebook wouldn’t reach one million users for another two years. [5] Today, 73% of adults have broadband access and Facebook has more than 2.4 billion active users. [6]

That means eight times as many adults have broadband access now and Facebook has nearly 2,500 times the number of active users that they did in 2002. [7] There wasn’t even an iPhone until 2007 and the Android OS wasn’t commercially available until 2008. Now, there are 3.5 billion smartphones globally. That’s a whole lot of opportunity for interaction – and social amplification of risk.

Because of the supercharged social interaction framework that has evolved, it is difficult to put the perceived risk of COVID-19 in perspective. Often it is not the risk of an event that’s the issue, it’s the perception of that risk that drives or actions and responses.

We see the disconnect between risk and perceived risk in many places. I’ve written many times about the grossly inflated perceived risk of children being abducted from bus stops by strangers. And yet those stories continue to make headlines. The reason is likely what Slovick suggested drove the risk people perceive in terms of two factors – “unknown” and “dread.” [8] The more dreadful the outcome of an event and the less is known about it, the more the perceived risk. That sounds like COVID-19 to me.

In so many ways, the world is profoundly different than it was in 2002, but the psychological drivers of risk perception remain the same. That leaves us in the unfortunate situation of not being able to put the actual risk of COVID-19 in context because of the noise produced by the perception of that risk.

The best we can do is to acknowledge that we don’t know the actual risk, and that technology has elevated our perception of the risk. We should act accordingly and listen more to what public health professionals are saying and less to what our friends are saying, posting, or Tweeting.

[1] “The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework” (PDF)

[2] DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers,

[3] The Johari Window Model,

[4] “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet”

[5] “Number of active users at Facebook over the years”

[6] “Leading countries based on number of Facebook users as of January 2020”,

[7] “Number of active users at Facebook over the years”

[8] “Perception of Risk Posed by Extreme Events” (PDF)

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