1. Introduction: Fear in public communication
The coronavirus pandemic declared in March 2020 became a phenomenon of global analysis in many aspects, including public communication. As an unknown threat that affected the whole world at an impressive speed and severity, the emotion of fear had a central role in the pandemic (Camezzana et al., 2022). As a social expression of uncertainty, fear is used in critical situations to motivate compliance with special rules.
During the pandemic, lack of information or fear of death were factors of psychological impact on citizens (Molero Jurado et al., 2020). Some studies have shown that the fear of death increased obsessive searching about coronavirus (Ramos-Vera & Serpa Barrientos, 2021; Silverio-Murillo et al., 2021). This obsession was an expression of fear for the threat itself but was also an anticipation of future menaces (Hernández Márquez & Rojas Mancines, 2021). Thus, fear has affected social groups differently (Etxebarriet et al., 2020). For example, the issues that have most concerned young students were the contagion or death of family and friends and the interruption of the academic trajectory (Szapu et al., 2022). On the other hand, the lockdown meant suspensions in economic activities, with the consequent threat to a good part of the population of job loss and economic instability (Víquez et al., 2020).
For the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1651), anticipatory skills are the key for sovereigns to control the citizens in dire circumstances. According to the philosopher, the management of emotions is the only way that there is no external stimulus that generates the feeling of danger in the population. Faced with the defenselessness of citizens against possible threats, it is power, which Hobbes calls Leviathan, that stands as a protector (Gutierrez, 2020), thanks to which it can legitimize its actions. From that perspective, individual fear can turn into collective emotion when a community faces an emergency like the coronavirus health crisis (Social Corona Research Group, 2020).
Fear is a primary emotion generated through the perception of threat, danger, or pain, real or presumed. Emotions are spontaneous psychophysiological reactions whose visible manifestation expresses a physiological reaction as adaptative behavior. Neuroscience studies identify six primary emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust (Damasio, 2018). Among them, fear has gained interest as a correlate of the reactions of indignation and fury that cross the politics of the xxi century (Nussbaum, 2018).
Since the first psychology studies, fear has been a fundamental factor in propaganda strategies (Domenach, 1986) as the irrational component is part of the mechanisms of manipulation and advertising (Berger, 2020) (James, 1985; Lippmann, 1925). Public communication has traditionally been approached from the rational perspective, although in recent years, sociology began to incorporate the emotional variable (Bericat, 2000, 2016; Castells, 2009).
Emotions are also variables that allow us to understand the phenomena of instrumentalization of disinformation (Manfred et al., 2022). Fear makes individuals passive when making decisions or actions, so fear can be used as a persuasion tactic to «control the masses» (Cárdenas Rica & Lozano González, 2021). The use of disinformation to generate uncertainty and manipulate people has antecedents in public communication and diplomacy (Rodríguez Andrés, 2018). However, it has offered numerous examples during the pandemic (Casino, 2022), especially of deliberate use by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, and Venezuela (Torrealba et al., 2022). For example, the threat of contagion allowed the Argentine Government to validate a vaccine without a scientific background, such as the Russian Sputnik V. The vaccine based its legitimacy on aggressive propaganda (Amado & Rotelli, 2022) on social media and press with a particular emphasis in Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela (Linvill et al., 2022).
In addition, fear is a central component in emergencies and the communication management they demand. In these cases, communication becomes an institutional resource to counteract citizens’ fears and disseminate calmness and safety (Vernetti, 2020). Hence, public communication facilitates compliance with sanitary procedures as it helps people to reduce anxiety and increases resilience (Aleixandre-Benavent et al., 2020). On the contrary, its deficiency can lead to «a loss of confidence and reputation, economic impacts and, in the worst case, loss of life» (Hoya & Zapatero, 2022).
Fear enhances uncertainty if citizens ignore how to act or how administrations manage the crisis (Losada Díaz et al., 2020. For this reason, government communication is essential in communicating well-being and calmness to minimize uncertainty and avoid panic). In this way, society responds positively to the threat by complying with government recommendations as communication facilitates the understanding of the Executive’s dispositions for citizens to easily accept and comply with them (Plain Guibarra & Eagle Sanchez, 2020).