Image Description: A hand holding a smartphone, with the words “Help flatten the curve” visible on the screen.

 

By Millie Muroi

 

In a recent debate, Julian Leeser, the federal Liberal member for Berowra, proclaimed COVID-19 to be the “greatest threat the world has faced since the war, requiring a total war response,” before clarifying that he “did not come here to expand the size of government.”

But a bigger government is certainly where we’re headed in 2020.

In a bid to combat an estimated $140 billion reduction in Australian GDP [1] over the next year, the Australian government has thus far pledged over $226.4 billion in fiscal stimulus – eclipsing the $51 billion spent by the Rudd government during the Global Financial Crisis.

Though a deeply interconnected world economy, and daunting human costs of a vaccine-less virus are perhaps chief amongst a multitude of factors, what role might a changing media landscape play in the largely unquestioned expansion of government in Australia during this COVID-19 crisis?

Democratisation of the Media

Information has become increasingly live and accessible; globalisation and the proliferation of technology have engendered rapid improvements in communication efficiency.

Some of the greatest investments are being made in technology firms; of the top ten publicly traded companies by market value in the world this year, seven are multinational technology companies, including Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook.

This in turn has facilitated broader access to their products. Internet penetration in Australia has increased from 71.7% in 2008 – the year of the Global Financial Crisis – to 88% in 2018 according to Statista.

Further, BI Intelligence and Deloitte estimate smart phone penetration to have risen from under 20% of the population in 2007, to around 90% in 2018. This means more people are able to access information around the clock.

The plight of the individual can now often bypass gatekeepers of mass media corporations, potentially ‘going viral’ and garnering greater audiences in a matter of minutes.

When a crisis such as the current COVID-19 outbreak occurs, it makes headlines: not only in traditional media formats, but equally in new forms of media, where the average citizen can now easily share their own news, and access that of others.

According to a special report by We Are Social, half of Australians log into Facebook at least daily, with over 70% of the population being active social media users.

Add to this the fact that a study conducted by researchers Stuart Soroka and Marc Trussler found that we collectively have ‘negativity bias’ – a phenomenon in which we have a profound sensitivity to bad news.

Wider access to information – particularly of the lived experiences of others – paired with such psychological biases, allow for prompt rallying around perceived issues, including implications of gaps in government spending.

New media also allows for the simplified dissemination of recommendations by experts such as public health authorities.

For instance, a concept that originated from a 2007 publication from the Centre for Disease Control, has now widely disseminated via the hashtag and catchphrase, ‘flattening the curve’.

At the risk of oversimplification, such trends perhaps lend easily-understood justification to the increasing scope of government regulation.

More on Media’s Psychological Impact

In an article, ‘Crisis and Disaster Coverage’, Mervi Pantti examines the role of media in shaping peoples’ responses to crises. Whilst they focus specifically on natural disasters, their analysis can be applied to the current context.

Pantti writes that “citizen photographs are particularly effective in appealing to viewers’ emotions…because these ‘raw’ images “promise to eradicate barriers of physical and social distance between spectators and sufferers seen in the media.”

A psychologist at Berkshire Psychology Services reinforced this sentiment, positing that repeated imagery of COVID-19 has a “vicarious traumatisation effect” for the collective psyche.

These effects have been felt in financial markets, with Richard Kozul-Wright, a Director at UNCTAD, stating that there is a “a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares.”

Nigel Barber, a doctor in Biopsychology writes that humans become more obedient to authority in the face of external threats, as “we expect them to be well informed” – a survival mechanism which perhaps explains why people are less likely to question ‘big government’ in the COVID-19 outbreak.

Some Implications

Historically, public spending has spiked during periods of crisis, perhaps predominantly to placate political and social unrest – and this is likely applicable to the current pandemic.

According to economist Robert Higgs, each ‘episode’ of rapid growth sees some reversal but generally has a “ratchet effect”, in which the size of government is permanently increased.

For instance, in 1901, Australian government expenditure as a share of GDP stood at just 7.9%. Following the two world wars, this value increased to 26.6%, and by 2015, it was cruising along at 36.2%.

Matthew McKenzie from Business News WA says, “during crises, people ultimately expect that government has the power to solve things, but don’t always have the information to judge whether a policy response is right, or its long-term impact.”

New media, by democratising news and making immediate our innately human vulnerability, perhaps contributes to the wide acceptance of an unprecedent scale of intervention by governments.

Ongoing developments in media – as with growth in government – are unlikely to be transitory.

 

[1] Based off OECD estimates of a three-month lockdown reducing annual GDP by 6%

 

Image courtesy of Unsplash