‘The effect of the fall of news about ‘corpses in refrigerators in the USA’ is exactly the opposite’

President of the Russian Psychotherapeutic Association Sergey Babin on the influence of the flow of information about coronavirus on Russians

‘The effect of the fall of news about ‘corpses in refrigerators in the USA’ is exactly the opposite’

“The problem is also that our authorities aren’t used to talking with people, explaining everything to us. The authorities rather say they have already decided everything. It is such unilateral communication. Our authorities aren’t asked questions. I switch on the television and expect to be said if the pass system will be introduced in my city like in Moscow or not. If it is introduced, people won’t even be explained why it is necessary. This also augments anxiety,” thinks President of the Russian Psychotherapeutic Association Sergey Babin. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, he explained why conspiracy theories were popular, which explained what’s going on around the coronavirus, how to protect from the information hysteria and why the authorities should get rid of vagueness and contradiction of their messages.

“Why is conspiracy theory good? Firstly, it feels like somebody knows what is going on. Secondly, nobody cares about you

Mr Babin, how does information background influence on people’s conscience?

It creates some agenda of the day. A person’s emotional background depends on what information sources a person has. If I use sources that whip up the situation that everything will be awful and we all will die, in this case, it is hard to resist such mass pressure. Even if I expressed certain criticism and I had my point view from the beginning.

Moreover, information in Russian conditions is very polarised. The information I can read on Facebook and what I hear on central TV differs a lot. During growing polarisation, every person becomes very vulnerable for itself in this sense. Additional effort has to be put to maintain one’s own relatively sound point of view that is different from polar opinions in the information space. Not all people can withstand information pressure and even realise such mechanisms of influence.

How can one protect from the surrounding panic and hysteria?

The situation with the isolation, coronavirus, pandemic has influenced our basic anxieties and problems that are also present in usual life but aren’t very topical. Uncertainty of the environment is one of these anxieties. We can’t influence this uncertainty. As psychologists put it, we can just accept it. We make plans, set targets, make up what we will be doing at some time. This, undoubtedly, should be done, but deep down we understand that man plans, God laughs. My plans can ruin at any moment, but in most people’s usual life this doesn’t often happen. Somebody can fall ill or die, somebody’s flight is cancelled, but it is not global.

Photo: Ilya Repin
The situation with the isolation, coronavirus, pandemic has influenced our basic anxieties and problems that are also present in usual life but aren’t very topical. Uncertainty of the environment is one of these anxieties

This is why there is an illusion that I usually achieve my goals, that I plan everything, I write down everything in the digital diary for the next week and follow my timetable. Now the world is concerned because endless negative unpleasant events are happening, and I can do nothing with it. If in usual everyday life we can hide from it, now this has become completely real. “The uncertainty of this small virus I can’t even see, while it has locked me in the flat for a month and stopped almost everything in general. I don’t imagine what will happen to me, the country, economy, the world tomorrow...” Such anxiety has entered our usual life, and this, undoubtedly, is very unpleasant.

Then there are certain ways to manage anxiety. I have already said about the polarisation of opinion. The next means — negation — can also be called polarised. “This doesn’t exist. All this is rubbish. All this has been made up.” I want to get rid of anxiety through negation. Conspiracy theory is very illustrative in this sense. There are absolutely correct jokes on the Internet: “Why is conspiracy theory good? Firstly, it feels like somebody knows what is going on. Secondly, nobody cares about you.” This really works so massively. “Terrible people, global government, little green men, masons created this situation, but they do know what is going on. And they are aiming at me personally.” There is no such thing in fact, “not a secret lodge but obvious rubbish rules the world”. The thing is that there are general uncertainty and general disorder. Of course, nobody cares about me. None of us is the centre of the universe.

There is an option that I sink into anxiety so much that I have a feeling that an apocalypse has arrived, a collapse of everything. I mean I am fed up with fighting anxiety, this is why I am just sinking into it.

The truth is actually somewhere in the middle. If we come to think of it, before the pandemic we lived in an uncertain world every day but anyway made some plans. Yes, these plans collapsed sometimes, but it isn’t a reason not to make them and live further. The same thing happens in the current situation. Of course, I can’t know when isolation is cancelled, but it isn’t a reason not to talk with relatives, go around my business, read books and so on. Though, of course, it is necessary to say amid this background there are objective anxieties and fears because of the worsening economic situation, a banal lack of money. There is a considerably risen burden on the family, moreover, if there are children. The density of our families in small flats is creating tension. If earlier everybody scattered away, to work, to school and met for several hours in the evening, while now families are spending 24 hours together, maybe for the first time in many years. And it is not a holiday when there is a sea, sun, wildlife or the countryside.

Photo: Ilya Repin
If we come to think of it, before the pandemic we lived in an uncertain world every day but anyway made some plans. Yes, these plans collapsed sometimes, but it isn’t a reason not to make them and live further. The same thing happens in the current situation

But we are going from the real world to the virtual world of the smartphone and computer more and more.

It is the specifics of our time. We unlikely can escape from it. The situation with isolation brought everybody to the Internet and social media, even those who rarely used them. I don’t think that digitalisation is negative. I think that alarmist statements about digital madness, digital autism and so on not very sound ideas. Yes, it is an expansion or change of our lifestyle. Some new gadgets and devices appear. Automobiles didn’t exist 150 years ago, while now it is impossible to imagine our life without cars. People unlikely can refuse any vehicle to save the planet, reduce emissions, cut the number of victims on roads. I think that the virtual world will continue developing. Another thing is that any human activity can be positive and negative. A car can take me home faster but I can hit a pedestrian and have a traffic accident.

The problem is that virtual life can replace the real one. If I am using the Internet to get information for telecommuting, to alleviate tension because of isolation, it is one thing. I can’t go anywhere, but I can see Louvre or Notre-Dame de Reims. It is amazing. But if because of the computer I don’t notice what’s going on in the flat under my nose: what my loved one is doing, where my child is, if the child is in the virtual reality or not, it is bad. The Internet shouldn’t be used to escape from reality.

Alcohol sales have also increased in Russia, which isn’t a good sign. Alcohol is taken precisely to escape from problems and alleviate tension

What will the higher tension among people bring to because of the surrounding tense situation?

Undoubtedly, the situation with anxious and depressive disorders will worsen. The sudden change of the habitual lifestyle has had a bad impact on us, we simply didn’t have the time to prepare for it. As I understand, the amount of domestic aggression is now growing. Alcohol sales have also increased in Russia, which isn’t a good sign. Alcohol is taken precisely to escape from problems and alleviate tension. The aggression that used to be expressed outside the home is now flowing inside a family. It is a very big problem. We already had a lot of problems with aggression, now it has become more manifested.

Do you mean men’s aggression in their family?

Statistically, men express more aggression. According to the Russian Statistics Service, 19,934 women and 6,159 men as well as 7,142 children suffered from domestic violence in 2018. A child who grows up in an aggressive environment also has to react to it somehow. He copies his parents’ behaviour. There is quite a difficult situation in families now. Many parents have seen that it is necessary to spend time with their children, there is no school they can take the child to for the whole day if it is a full-day school, thus shedding responsibility.

Not very clear, contradictory messages coming from the authorities don’t help to reduce anxiety either. Like in that old plot when the powers that be say: “Don’t worry, your savings won’t disappear”, and people rush to the bank. When the authorities say that we have enough products, queues immediately are formed in stores. It is a manifestation of some mistrust of the authorities. It doesn’t matter if they are telling the truth or not, our experience makes us look for a hidden agenda, extra meaning in any phrase. Unfortunately, this is getting worse because the authorities are declaring contradictory things: an emergency state isn’t declared, but holidays, when it isn’t allowed to go outside, are declared. Such things rather augment anxiety and intensify people’s misunderstanding.

“The authorities rather say they have already decided everything. It is such unilateral communication

What did experiments on long-term human isolation scientists did show?

There were a lot of experiments. Most of them were done on militaries, astronauts and speleologists. Isolation is quite tough, moreover, if people aren’t ready for it. Astronauts are deliberately trained, however, they find it hard to do the isolation experiment. Now we are in a state of a global experiment when all humankind has tried to be isolated. It is quite tough for our society.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
I switch on the television and expect to be said if the pass system will be introduced in my city like in Moscow or not. If it is introduced, people won’t even be explained why it is necessary. This also augments anxiety

Some topics have disappeared from the information space. For instance, we have unexpectedly stopped caring about Ukraine, the topic of the fight against terrorists and the war in Syria has disappeared somewhere. Amid this, there is a fall of messages about how bad everything is in Europe, the USA where allegedly graves are dug in parks, corpses are kept in refrigerators and so on. Here it means that we are doing much better than the USA or Italy. This is probably true in the number of infections, but the effect of such messages is exactly the opposite. People anyway understand that the USA has good medicine. And if everything is so bad there, people are buried in parks, it means that something similar will happen in Russia too. When it is said that everything is bad in Bergamo, people from Uryupinsk look outside, don’t see terrible scenes but they anyway don’t start feeling well-being and calmness.

It seems that the mass media themselves are seized by the global idea of the fight against the coronavirus or informing about it, hence the same meters to count how many people infected and died almost on every website. But at the same time, we don’t know accurate numbers. Moreover, accurate numbers of statistics will appear in six months or a year. It is the usual thing. The mortality rate is counted only next year, now we have only approximate data. We can’t receive answers to all questions. Science can’t work as fast as we would like it to. Consequently, in the situation of uncertainty, we can rely on approximate numbers from different sources that contradict each other.

The problem is also that our authorities aren’t used to talking with people, explaining everything to us. The authorities rather say they have already decided everything. It is such unilateral communication. Our authorities aren’t asked questions. I switch on the television and expect to be said if the pass system will be introduced in my city like in Moscow or now. If it is introduced, people won’t even be explained why it is necessary. This also augments anxiety.

By Matvey Antropov