It was an otherwise ordinary afternoon in March. I’d been following the spread COVID-19, and I somewhat understood that it was reaching pandemic status in some parts of the country. Suddenly, my local community became hyper aware of the situation and reports started surfacing of runs on toilet paper.

People across America – and the world – witnessed what has become known as the toilet paper apocalypse of 2020, and it’s still happening. In fact, similar hoarding of certain products has become its own epidemic, tied to but separate from the virus itself.

Where’s the rationale in consumers’ shopping choices? Why stockpile toilet paper? We’ve been reassured multiple times that there is no shortage on supply, so where’s the logic? Why are people who don’t have babies stockpiling formula? Who needs an entire shopping cart full of meat? Nielsen has called the response a creation of “pandemic pantries.”

Against this backdrop of panic shopping, we also see report after disturbing report of thousands reacting to the national emergency by joining crowds at the beach, completely ignoring advice to socially distance themselves and help slow the spread of COVID-19. Again, where’s the common sense? It might have been lost to inadequate crisis communication.

Info Vacuums and Infodemics

According to the World Health Organization, we are not only amidst a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also experiencing an “infodemic,” or an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not. There’s now so much information being shared – particularly on social media – people are struggling to know what’s reliable and what should be ignored.

But this abundance of information came on the heels of a lack of valid advice. Much of the world remained in an information vacuum even as details of the novel coronavirus started coming from China in late 2019.

That information vacuum lasted longer in the United States than in other parts of the world. As WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began their messaging about the global dangers of COVID-19, many U.S. politicians continued to downplay the danger.

Health officials warned of the outbreak’s danger as early as December, but on Jan. 22, President Donald Trump told the public he had no worries, calling the spread of COVID-19, “totally under control.” Even in February, he called the virus’ threat a hoax. And, unfortunately, plenty of Americans listened.

People tuned out the messages from medical experts until the pandemic began its spread across North America. It wasn’t until the first U.S. death from COVID-19 on Feb. 29 when many Americans finally started taking the virus seriously. Yet at a time when behavioral changes could have prevented a pandemic, they still were greeted with inadequate information from their elected officials, combined with a whole lot of conspiracy theories and bad advice.

Predicting Fear-based Reactions

So, how does an information vacuum or an infodemic create panic and hoarding? The answer lies in a model developed by communications scholar Kim Witte in 1992. Witte’s extended parallel process model predicts how people react when confronted with fear-inducing stimuli.

According to the EPPM, when experts create messages designed to persuade an audience to take certain actions to protect its health – social distancing, for example – the messages need to meet four criteria to be effective. For a health-related warning to be followed, it must convey: severity, susceptibility, self-efficacy and response efficacy.

Columbus State University assistant professor of communication Sarah Smith-Frigerio knows a thing or two about fear-based responses. She holds research specialties in health communication and crisis communication. Smith-Frigerio explains why people don’t take the most rational courses of action when faced with a pandemic, based on Witte’s model.

“The audience needs to see the magnitude of the threat (severity), that they are susceptible to the threat (susceptibility), that they can do something about the threat (self-efficacy), and that if they did do those things, it will reduce the threat (response efficacy),” Smith-Frigerio explains.

According to her, if an audience sees that a serious threat applies to it, or if it feels that actions needed to reduce the threat are feasible, then the audience is likely to follow the advice of medical experts. Smith-Frigerio calls these adaptive behaviors, which would include actions such as washing hands, social distancing, staying home when sick and regularly disinfecting surfaces.

If instead, however, the audience does not see the severity of the threat, it doesn’t believe it is susceptible to the threat, it doesn’t think the suggested actions will work, or it just feels like the recommended behaviors are not feasible, then that audience instead will adopt maladaptive behaviors, such as hoarding toilet paper or hanging out among hundreds at the beach.

“We have seen a wide range of maladaptive behaviors in recent days – ranging from going out to restaurants and bars (not social distancing), to calling SARS-CoV-2 a conspiracy by a foreign power seeking to disrupt our government, to attempting to hoard masks, toilet paper, diapers and disinfecting supplies,” Smith-Frigerio says. “There are many other maladaptive behaviors that individuals can display, including stress eating, drinking more alcohol than usual, being more irritable with family members and friends, etc.”

Smith-Frigerio argues that understanding the severity of the threat and recognizing individual susceptibility to it are some of the most important ideas for audiences to grasp. But in the case of COVID-19, much of that information either was unavailable or was contradicted by certain elected officials.

“When facing a crisis, the first thing that most individuals do is seek out as much information as they can. Basically, we all jump on social media and/or pull up the news to see what others are saying,” Smith-Frigerio explains. “Unfortunately, we had U.S. politicians downplaying the severity and susceptibility of SARS-CoV-2 and providing misinformation about the virus. This creates the information vacuum.”

Since audiences were unable to determine what was and wasn’t accurate, they were unable to determine the severity and susceptibility of the threat. Since audiences couldn’t determine what behaviors would work, they developed maladaptive behaviors, which can worsen the crisis and place more people’s health at risk.  

“We can see why there is such a spectrum of maladaptive behaviors. Those who don’t accept the severity of and their susceptibility to the threat continue to go out and do things to put themselves in contact with others,” Smith-Frigerio says. “Those who do not see their self-efficacy, or especially, the response efficacy of the proposed behaviors could start hoarding supplies.

“There are scholars who, in part, believe this hoarding behavior is due to lack of trust in our government to provide us with good information and to adequately respond to the threat of SARS-CoV-2.”

University of Southern California assistant professor of economics Daniel Bennett agrees with Smith-Frigerio. According to Bennett, it’s not uncommon for an information vacuum to occur when people seek information on a new disease. He says the situation is exacerbated when policymakers fail to provide timely and accurate information. In the case of COVID-19, however, policymakers offered no such clarity, and even issued contradicting reports.

“In these outbreaks, like this but also like Ebola or swine flu, or these sort of things that don’t happen regularly, we don’t know about the spread or how infectious it is,” Bennett told Business Insider. “And so, when that happens, there’s this kind of vacuum where we don’t have enough information from official sources or objective scientific sources.”

Therefore, Bennett explains, people instead will start looking toward each other for needed information. He calls the response “herding,” because people will “reinforce” each other without evidence from experts. This phenomenon is likely what we’ve seen with the hoarding of toilet paper.

Few may have any idea why they are doing it; they just don’t know what else to do, and so they are following the lead of their neighbors or social media contacts. Just imagine a herd of lemmings stampeding over a cliff. Doesn’t make any sense, but they merely are following the leader with no comprehension why.

Communication Errors in Response to COVID-19

U.S. leaders weren’t the only ones to bungle the COVID-19 situation, leading its citizenry to maladaptive behaviors. China has been criticized for months over its response. The nation’s failure to act in a timely manner caused Chinese citizens to turn toward social media for answers. Even hospitals turned to social media seeking help with the crisis.

“One of the things that’s making the misinformation spread so quickly in this particular case is that there’s an information vacuum. There’s a ton of uncertainty surrounding what’s actually going on with this virus,” University of Washington professor of biology Carl Bergstrom told NPR. “What people really want to hear are these sharp numbers, and if someone makes them up and states them in ways that seem authoritative, those are the kinds of pieces of misinformation that are likely to go spreading rapidly across social media.”

And now of course, we all saw the Trump administration change its messaging in the past two weeks. A national emergency has been declared, and Americans have been told – or in some cases required – to stay home if at all possible. But did the message come too late to prevent catastrophe?

Sure, U.S. politicians at every level of government have changed their tune and now for the most part align their messages with those coming from health experts. But there’s still a whole lot of misinformation out there for anyone to find. Just yesterday a man died after ingesting old-school malaria treatment chloroquine, which the president touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19 (it’s not).

What Comes Next?

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across America, we will likely see plenty more panic. People now are not only afraid of contracting the virus, but many also are equally afraid of how they will pay their bills after entire industries are temporarily closed.

Can enough people conduct business within a cloud-based environment to support the economy? What happens when additional industries are compromised? How many people will need to find a new way to earn a living? Are we looking at a future where we all need to set up a website and create passive income? To what post-COVID-19 world will we emerge? Just where will we go from here?

As new fears spread across America, we may not have concrete evidence of what course this epidemic will lead us, but there is still time to adopt necessary adaptive behaviors – frequent handwashing, social distancing or sheltering in place – and hopefully minimize the damage caused by COVID-19. And it all starts with discerning the valid information from the bunk.

Smith-Frigerio says that now, more than ever, we need to adopt media literacy.

“Not all information (or even what we call ‘news’) is created equal, and it is important to learn how to distinguish between misinformation and sound information,” she explains. “If you run across a piece of information that seems to contradict everything else you are seeing, then it is probably inaccurate. Check it against other sources. Read multiple sources (don’t just rely on one cable news channel)!”

Still, she says, the best course of action is to stick with only reputable new sources.

“Choose local and network news programs over cable news programs, and choose local newspapers and longstanding national newspapers over blogs or social media posts,” Smith-Frigerio says, adding that people should rely on expert public health organizations, such as the WHO, CDC and state public health agencies.

“These organizations are filled with experts who take all of the information and research out there, fact check it for accuracy, critically evaluate what is most important for individuals to know, and then provide us with the best information possible,” she says. “They understand that lives are at stake, and they want to provide us with accurate and helpful information.”

If we understand the basics of crisis communication, then just maybe we’ll stop hoarding toilet paper.