Dual Disruptions: Overcoming the Effects of Disasters and Mis-, Dis-, and Mal-Information on Democracies

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Lauren McLane


Trust in governments worldwide is declining, thus undermining the social, economic, and political institutions of democracies and, therefore, legitimacy of governments.[1] Income inequality is also widening around the world, leading to increased individual and societal vulnerability, decreased resilience, and mass protests.[2] Simultaneously, catastrophic disasters are increasing in frequency and challenging disaster response agencies to align resources with ethical and equitable principles. Additionally, false information—known as mis-, dis-, and mal-information—is spreading rapidly through social media and other platforms, potentially damaging legitimacy by further eroding trust. Challenges to the legitimacy of democratic states are more likely to occur—or increase—when strategic response efforts are ineffective in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or when individual or governmental resilience is low.[3] As such, democracy stands at a critical juncture in the current environment where mis-, dis-, and mal-information throughout the media ecosystem intensifies or exacerbates disaster challenges. Fortunately, however, crises also expose underlying vulnerabilities in the social, economic, and political institutions of a democracy and provide an opportunity for reforms.

The complex ecosystems of disaster response and recovery, media and social media, and individual and community vulnerability and resilience in a crisis interact to challenge democratic governments. The scholarly literature reviewed for this thesis first focuses on governmental legitimacy in a democracy and the effect and role of communications via social media in a crisis and other online platforms, as well as disaster challenges to legitimacy and resilience. It next explores disaster response, including the ethical application of response resources, as well as individual resilience and vulnerability to disasters. Finally, it tackles the evolving topics of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation, including definitions, the purpose and means of spreading these types of false information, and methods to counter them. This review consistently examines the common themes of social and political structures and leadership, as well as individual and governmental vulnerability, resilience, trust, sensemaking, and narratives.

This thesis uses the comparative case study method to evaluate three international catastrophic disaster responses.[4] Each of these cases were selected because the countries possessed stable democratic governments that experienced a significant disaster event in which false information was spread over social media. It examines the following cases: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant disaster in Japan; the Australian wildfires of 2019–2020; and the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) response in the United States that began in 2020.

This thesis employs four frameworks to analyze these case studies, including democratic principles, crisis leadership, sensemaking, and the social production of disasters. First, Linz and Stepan’s framework describes social, economic, and political institutions that contribute to the legitimacy of a state, along with other conditions such as bureaucracy and rule of law.[5] The second is crisis leadership—which Boin et al. describe as sensemaking, decision-making and coordinating, meaning-making, accounting, and learning.[6] The third framework illustrates how individuals inside and outside the disaster-affected area perform sensemaking through communication platforms such as social media.[7] Fourth, Tierney’s social production of disaster is used to emphasize the social impacts and aspects of a disaster—rather than its physical effects—to evaluate the influences of vulnerability and resilience on individuals and communities after a disaster.[8] These frameworks enable the comparative analysis of these case studies.

This case study analysis finds that false information and complex disasters compound vulnerabilities, disrupt societal structures, and exceed the national capacity to provide for the basic needs of citizens. This comparative case study analysis reveals a weakened democracy in the United States yet stable democracies in Australia and Japan. Each of these disasters triggered significant disruptions to the national social, economic, and political systems required to support a fully functioning democracy. Although all three governments maintained legitimacy following the disasters examined, national leaders and governments lost credibility and trust. In addition, these disasters and the effects of mis-, dis-, and mal-information disrupted the social and economic institutions of democracy through wide-ranging effects on citizens—societal disruptions, degraded social structures, and economic losses, combined with significant disaster-related expenses—especially among vulnerable populations.

This research concludes that socially constructed legitimacy can be undermined by forces that amplify and intensify existing social divides and create instability, including false information and disasters that alter the environment and social structures. However, governments and individuals can support democratic legitimacy by countering disruptions caused by false information and disasters. Counteracting such disruptions involves sensemaking and constructive meaning-making, building social relationships and cohesion, enhancing community involvement in disaster response, and taking actions to stabilize the situation that provide for the basic needs of survivors and societal recovery.

In order to combat these effects on citizens and democracy, responders should deliver an effective disaster response by enacting an equitable, ethical distribution of resources that meets the basic needs of citizens and by rapidly adapting to the situation and clearly communicating. These actions result in the delivery of resources, through funding and direct support, that build citizen trust and support of their governments. Additionally, responders must consider the needs of the community including individual vulnerabilities, resilience, and equity in the disaster response. These actions enhance governmental resilience, enabling democratic states to maintain legitimacy and trust when affected by a crisis such as a disaster or attacks that leverage false information. There is no single method for ensuring resilience or legitimacy; governments must tailor their approaches and be prepared to adapt to new or emerging situations to enhance and support affected communities.

This thesis proposes a model for individual, community, and government networks to evaluate the effects of disaster and false information on democratic institutions and to strengthen and uphold the integrity of their democracies in times of crisis. This model describes disaster responder actions and networks that will effectively sustain democracy when citizens are harmed by the combined forces of severe or catastrophic disasters and mis-, dis-, and mal-information. Kathleen Tierney describes the severity of disasters in terms of the “social production of disasters” in which the emphasis is on “social structures and social processes” rather than the physical effects of a disaster.[9] This model builds on Tierney’s principles and the other primary frameworks to propose a social response to disasters, which describes responder actions that enable networks to uphold democratic institutions when challenged by disasters and false information.

Each of the model’s components contributes to the culminating goal of maintaining state legitimacy by building trust and resilient communities. These components include the relationship of responder actions—including sensemaking, meaning-making, adaptation, community stabilization, and ethics and equity—to the social, political, and economic institutions of a democracy. Similarly, the model describes the relationship of the components of responder networks—volunteers and community responders, online and in-person communities, and governments—to these same institutions. Implementing the social response to disasters model requires collaboration among responder networks, which contribute to the successful implementation of the responder actions described in this model, to uphold the integrity of their democracies in times of crisis.

[1] “Trust in Government,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, accessed January 13, 2021, http://www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm.

[2] “Rising Inequality Affecting More Than Two-Thirds of the Globe, but It’s Not Inevitable: New UN Report,” United Nations, January 21, 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/01/1055681.

[3] Arjen Boin et al., The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 3.

[4] Robert K. Yin, Case Study Research: Design and Methods, 4th ed., Applied Social Research Methods Series, vol. 5 (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2009).

[5] Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 40.

[6] Boin et al., The Politics of Crisis Management, 14–15.

[7] Andrew D. Brown, Ian Colville, and Annie Pye, “Making Sense of Sensemaking in Organization Studies,” Organization Studies 36, no. 2 (February 2015): 266, https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840614559259.

[8] Kathleen Tierney, Disasters: A Sociological Approach (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019), 66.

[9] Tierney, 66.

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