War, crisis and alarmism – how should the public approach alarmist communication and what effect does this kind of rhetoric have?2024-01-25
The Supreme Commander’s and the government’s statements regarding the war situation have provoked many reactions. How could alarmist messaging affect the public, how can we manage our fears and anxieties, and could this kind of rhetoric actually be beneficial?
Researchers at Karlstad University can provide some answers.
The recent call for Swedish citizens to prepare for a potential war has caused anxiety and fear in many people. People handle emotions in different ways, which lead to different kinds of behaviour.
– According to the Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, there are several problems with alarmist messaging, says Per Kristensson, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Service Research Center (CTF) at Karlstad University. For one, it can trigger defence mechanisms – a kind of subconscious denial like “it will never happen here” – and it can create a divide between those who believe in the warnings and those who don’t. Both groups collect their arguments for and against a potential event. We can see this in connection with issues related to climate change and vaccines, for example.
During the pandemic, you and three colleagues criticized the authorities for having a naive understanding of how people behave in an opinion piece in DN. What advice would you give in relation to these issues?
– There are various aspects from the field of psychology to consider in order to promote decisiveness and action, as well as to stick to the facts and connect with the audience when communicating publicly. First, avoid alarmism for the above previously mentioned reasons. Second, focus more on actions that people can do and behaviour they can adopt. For example, a good first step is to find out what you can do if the worst were to happen. Then also find out what would happen in your local area if the worst were to happen.
Mikael Granberg, Professor of Political Science at Karlstad University, emphasises how important it is that authorities and people in power do not try to conceal the truth in any way.
– If the assessment is that there is a risk of war in Sweden, it’s reasonable to communicate this to the public. At the same time, it’s also important that this is followed by constructive proposals for what you can do to reduce your vulnerability. In order to promote action, you need a balance between threat and hope. However, it’s interesting to note that this willingness to be blunt applies to the risk of war, but not the threat of climate change.
Per Kristensson, why does war receive more media attention than climate change and environmental problems?
– Research shows that there is a risk of fatigue when people hear the same warning for a long time. It will make people avoid the subject and distance themselves from it. This could be a reason why climate change is not receiving the same attention at the moment. The threat of war is the opposite – since we haven’t heard it before, we give it a lot of attention. Climate change is a slow threat, while war has a very clear starting point. This could also contribute to war worrying people more. Another interesting aspect is that there could be differing political stances surrounding these threats. One group views climate change as an urgent problem but they see the threat of war as overblown, while other groups take the opposite stance.
The big reactions to the Supreme Commander’s speech show the effects of rhetoric when addressing a nation. Even if the contents of a speech are serious, a calm presentation can inspire confidence. For example, a speaker can use rhetoric to calm the audience or use enthusiasm to inspire certain kinds of reactions.
Denny Jansson is a PhD student in Swedish Language at the Department of Language, Literature and Intercultural Studies, and he teaches rhetoric.
Should the Supreme Commander have approached the subject in another way?
– It depends on what the Supreme Commander’s goal was. If his goal was to get people to talk and the audience to listen and think, he was successful. You can see how the discussions afterward have come to be more about how the Supreme Commander said what he said, rather than what he said. If the goal had been to present an analysis of the state of the world and to give a calming message, the tone would have been less pessimistic and more soothing.
The Supreme Commander’s speech was aimed at adults, but the contents of his speech were widely shared in channels largely used by youths. What does this say?
– If nothing else, it shows that the current media culture is incredibly complex and that messages meant for a specific audience – such as adults – can spread very quickly in other channels to other audiences, says Denny Jansson. It makes it harder to find the right rhetoric, since you have to not only consider the intended target audience but also how other potential recipients might understand and interpret the message.
– In the speech that the Supreme Commander held at the Folk och försvar conference, there were some parts with concrete tips and advice that could have been adjusted to a level that would have suited children and teenagers, says Denny Jansson. During World War II, Winston Churchill held several such speeches, where the message of perseverance, staying strong and helping each other conveyed a sense of national pride, and both ignited and reinforced the fighting spirit of the people. One means by which Churchill achieved this was by using the words “we” and “us”.
– The Supreme Commander's speech in Sälen utilises several common rhetorical strategies, says Denny Jansson. One strategy was using images from Ukraine, where the Supreme Commander tried to mentally transport the audience into a situation that has been seen as unthinkable in Sweden. He also used factual arguments in order to inspire compassion and enthusiasm, where the logical conclusion was that both the Swedish Armed Forces and the audience must be prepared – albeit in different but necessary ways.
How important is it who handles the communication? Does it have the same effect when the Supreme Commander communicates, as when the Prime Minister does it?
– Who the speaker is has a great effect on how a message is received. The fact that it was the Supreme Commander that held this speech contributed to people taking the message seriously. This is due to the fact that the Supreme Commander spoke as the chief of the Swedish Armed Forces, and both the armed forces and the position of Supreme Commander have what in rhetoric is called ethos – confidence. Both the Supreme Commander and the Swedish Armed Forces are associated with serious issues regarding national security and defence against foreign invasions, which can seem distant from our everyday lives. If the Prime Minister or the leader of the opposition tried to communicate the same message, it might not have been taken as seriously. It is related to the ethos of the speaker, as well as the role the speaker has. If the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition had made a joint statement in a serious but calm tone of voice, it could have been taken more seriously. We have a tendency to trust experts more, since they are expected to know more than you as a member of the audience does.