Maxim Behar for BG ON AIR on the topic "COVID infodemia"

Maxim Behar was a guest on the "Bulgaria Sutrin" show on Bulgaria ON AIR hosted by Zlatimir Yochev and the social anthropologist Haralan Alexandrov. The PR expert commented on the lack of information and accurate communication about the COVID pandemic on the part of the people in power.

Host: Probably the same people who legitimized the previously unknown medical terminology to the world, WHO experts, realized early on that along with the pandemic there is no less violent process through the spread of false or misleading information called "infodemia". Both turned out to be difficult to control - something confessed yesterday during the regular briefing of the National Operational Headquarters. How dangerous can be contradictory or deliberately manipulated information, analysis on the topic in the next few minutes with Haralan Alexandrov, who is a social anthropologist and Maxim Behar - PR expert. Good morning, gentlemen.

Maxim Behar: Good morning.

Host: With both, we seem to be stumbling in managing, but we must say that there is a direct connection between them, because it turns out to be misleading information or wrong actions by people can be detrimental to them. And here we are not talking only about someone worrying a little or be afraid in their home, we are talking about the fact that such actions can be harmful for people and end up with fatal outcome.

Maxim Behar: It can be disastrous if there is no clear, accurate, timely, honest, fair information. If I have to define what is happening for nine months in Bulgaria in terms of communication, communication policy, it is just one word - "failure". Even two - "complete failure". It is not possible to have such management that nine months people in Bulgaria still do not know what is happening. People are only informed about the number of sick people and how many of them have died. These are the only two things that are served to us every morning or noon, or evening, or whenever.

Host: And what do you think there should be? Beyond that.

Maxim Behar: I know that many people would say, including my friend Haralan, that it's easy to criticize and say what is failure, but I am just wondering why there is no even a simple call center by which people can be provided with accurate information. You can call and they will tell you "If you live in Plovdiv dial two, if you live in Shumen dial 3". You dial the number and they it tells you "If you live in Krasno Selo, Sofia dial 7", you go to Krasno Selo and then you get clear information such as: "There are so many free beds in this hospital, there are so many pharmacies open, some of them work 24 hours ". It’s simple and we don’t have it. If people who are in power or responsible for that could easily rent an external call center. Bulgaria is the paradise of call centers in Europe, perhaps the most per capita. There is no speaker. How is it possible that there is no speaker? A person who can actually inform not only how many have died and how many have become ill, but also what we can do or how we can do it. There is no template.

Host: There was one such speaker, but he somehow surprisingly disappeared. We rarely see him and he is no longer in that position, I'm talking about the General Mutafchiyski.

Haralan Alexandrov: Yes, because he was insulted, ridiculed, devalued and attacked. I completely agree with what Maxim Behar says. There is a need for much more organization and much more information management, but let us not forget that we live in a pluralistic information society. That we live in a regime, I would call it information anarchy, in which not only the media give different points of view, but everyone on social networks can produce information, explanations, interpretations, facts. More and more false facts are being produced and imposed as genuine, as a result of which people are bombarded by so many and contradictory versions of what is happening that they are in a situation to either panic and stop, which by the way more and more people are doing in self-defense by refusing to be in touch with the information world. And they struggle to survive as long as they can, using their private networks, or they can choose what to believe in and a significant number of people, as we have all found, choose to believe that there is no drama and the virus is harmless. There was a very strong point of view in this regard, it was strongly launched and I think it contributed significantly to the current situation. So this is a joint success of government and civil society…

Maxim Behar: Precisely because we have a super pluralistic media environment, precisely because 5 out of 7 million Bulgarians own media and they have 25 million opinions shared on these media. There must be a place to generate clear, accurate, easy-to-understand information and to inspire trust in people. All the things I've read in the last nine months, it's clear that there is only one way to defeat the coronavirus, only one - with clear and accurate communication. We don't have a vaccine, we don't have treatment, we don't know what's going on, but you can have clear and accurate communication.

Haralan Alexandrov: There is only one way to defeat the virus and it is archaic. And it is like keeping a distance and reducing social contacts, it becomes clear in this period.

Maxim Behar: In particular that's right.

Haralan Alexandrov: That's right. But it is this information and truth that was attacked most fiercely, because there are many business interests and many political interests that are exactly in the opposite direction - to meet people, restaurants to work, we all saw how it happened. That is why there must be…

Host: Gentlemen, do you believe in the words of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov yesterday, who said "Our measures are one of the most flexible and softest" and this was proved, among other things, by an Oxford study stating that we are ranked 22nd out of all EU countries in terms of firm measures, ie we are one of the countries with the mildest measures, ours are softer than those of the Swedes. This is absolutely proven with this study, which is relevant, and you can see it today on digital media - it is interesting. But the Prime Minister said "Our measures are flexible, this way we protect the mental health of the people." Did we protect it?

Haralan Alexandrov: No, I don't think we protected it. There is no doubt that the measures are flexible, but this is because Bulgaria is a typical example of a democracy in which public opinion sets the tone, not the government. The whole idea that the government can impose something is naive, given that public opinion is going against it. it could probably happen in Hong Kong, Singapore, but not here. As for mental health - no, there are very serious indications that mental health is in crisis and it is certain that a special policy will be needed to protect it.

Host: There is another study showing that we are more liberal than the Swedes, who we pointed with a finger. Isn't that weird? When things were light in Bulgaria, when there were few cases the tone was very hard, now things are getting more serious, we see that people are literally dying on the stairs of hospitals in an attempt to get to bed, but we say "Our measures do not need tightening ".

Maxim Behar: I would tell you what soft and hard measures mean, given that Bulgaria has available beds in hospitals, there are a number of beds. As far as I understand 40% of the beds are free, and no one knows where. And at the same time, while these beds are free, God forbid, they die on the steps of a hospital. Well, this thing probably did not happen in Bulgaria during the great plagues a century ago. There must be clear, precise measures and they must be communicated in a way that convinces people. And not just to say "Wear masks". By the way, does anyone know what is the fine if you don't wear a mask? No one knows. Does anyone check if you are wearing a mask or not? Nobody. What does hard or soft measures mean? In my opinion, there should be a communication council to the government or to the people who are supposed to govern, but not a person from the military. Paying respect to gen. Mufchiiski, but there must be people who deal with communication, who know how to persuade, who understand psychology.

Host: By the way, there is a development on this topic, because there were journalists asking why there are no communication specialists at the National Operational Headquarters. They say it’s due to lack of funds. They do not have a resource dedicated to this. And isn't this the most important thing at the moment - to provide people with good information, verified information.

Maxim Behar: The most important thing.

Host: The most important thing.

Haralan Alexandrov: There is no doubt that it is the most important.

Maxim Behar: And for what money are they talking about?

Host: I'm talking about an investigation of Free Europe. I read that there was actually a question from journalists on this topic.

Maxim Behar: There is no communication specialist who does not go to work pro bono or for free for any government for such a cause. The point is, no one wants to do that. Look, we're talking about what's going on below. Well, we have President Rumen Radev say and the Prime-minister Boyko Borissov who don't talk to each other and don't meet.

Host: They talk indirectly on the media from time to time.

Haralan Alexandrov: No, no. Worse - they blame themselves.

Maxim Behar: They have been attacking each other through the media. And all this have a great affect on the whole atmosphere, the people who do not know… How is it possible that a president and a prime minister in such a situation, the most disastrous that we have seen in our lives, do not talk to each other? There are no people who communicate clearly and accurately. No institutions. This is a failure.

Host: Mr. Alexandrov, do you think the political contradictions complicate the situation more?

Haralan Alexandrov: No, it is deeper, it is worse. If it was only political and only institutional, it would be better. I think this is a failure of our entire civilization, which is not made to function and deal with severe crises, but is made to live in a world of ever-increasing prosperity with faith in science and medicine, with the conviction that if we are not today, then tomorrow we will be immortal and that the world is given to us to have fun and have fun, in which we refuse to hear the bad news, in which we refuse to believe in death, in which we systematically attack the truth, because we don’t find it comfortable. And in which we use all defense mechanisms, especially denial and rationalization, to impose our point of view and not be in connection with suffering and pain. This is the world we live in and this is a very big issue, this pandemic, to everyone. After all, the catastrophe happened in the United States, it happened in Europe, it probably happens here as well.

Host: In developed Western European countries?

Haralan Alexandrov: Yes, yes. They failed much more dramatically. Now we will see in the spring if we are alive and well by then. But it is certain that we will have to part with many of our fantasies. Our first fantasy is that we can control nature. We believed that nature was something sweet, sweet like a Chinese panda. It turned out to be a Chinese virus that, by the way, reproduces much better than the Chinese panda. Nature wants to kill us, ie. all this slightly affectionate, slightly spoiled Greta Thunberg green believes that man is at the center of the world and controls everything, must be completely abandoned. You need very serious humility. The second fantasy that we continue to believe, Mr Behar, clearly believes in it, is that the world is governed at the moment in this media situation and in this economic globalization and deregulation and the systematic weakening of states. Suddenly we find out  that without a nation state holding the reins in crisis, we begin to die. And this is also a very sobering discovery. The whole neoliberal fantasy, the whole belief that we can stay in the market. By the way, the Bulgarian healthcare system is made on a market principle, it is made to get rich and profit from it in the late 90's.

Maxim Behar: Under normal conditions. Under normal conditions, however.

Haralan Alexandrov: Under normal conditions. Suddenly it turns out that when the conditions stop being normal, we start looking for someone to take responsibility for us, we feel absolutely dependent and therefore very angry. Because anger and rage are a direct function of addiction. And we begin, of course, to indulge in such accusatory behaviors characteristic of psychological development in adolescence. This does not negate the fact that there is an information failure, I do not negate it in any way. However, I explain the psychological, cultural and civilizational dynamics that lie below. If we survive in a good enough state of mind and public infrastructure, one of the first things we need to do in the next governance, whatever it is, is to reform the health care system, and I very much hope that we will learn this lesson. But I suspect, because I know how human minds work, that we will not do it. That we will conveniently forget what happened, we will mourn the losses and we will look at this period, this episode as a bad dream, as a nightmare to shake off from.

Host: Let's hear, maybe in defense, Mr. Behar has something to say.

Maxim Behar: No, it's not even a defense. I deeply believe that this is a manageable process. It is really a manageable process, mainly through the means of public communication, ethics, honesty, transparency in particular. And I'm not criticizing and I'm not saying this one has failed, that one has failed. I think that a call center should be set up very urgently to tell you how many vacancies can be found in each hospital, and even automatically explain what to do if you are in doubt.

Host: You know how we solve this problem - with radio stations. This is absolutely serious. There are radio stations, which seems quite archaic to me.

Maxim Behar: For example, they could inform you which antibiotic you can take. It shouldn’t be that hard. There is a unified health pharmaceutical system and there all pharmacies are connected to some electronic system. What's stopping you from figuring out which antibiotic is there or not, literally in three minutes from some system. There should be, in my opinion, a communication council to the government or to the Ministry of Health. It is not possible for the Minister of Health to be on camera from morning till night and know everything. Absurd. There should be a communication council to talk, to analyze, to report every week on Friday what have happened, the news, how many people are infected, how many people believe or do not. If necessary, we can even call specialists from abroad. There must be a speaker providing information, whom people can trust, who can send the right messages and know what and how to communicate it.

Host: Gentlemen, since you are both cosmopolitan, can we give another example with a country that has succeeded in this endeavor? I personally watched what happened in Australia, it was very interesting there.

Haralan Alexandrov: Australia, New Zealand, somewhere in Canada.

Host: Yes, they have prime ministers in different areas, they went out and told people very honestly what they should do. They imposed another quarantine and now they have 8 cases a day and not a single person died. Huge countries.

Maxim Behar: Again, natural communication.

Haralan Alexandrov: And a high level of trust in the authorities in…

Host: But this trust has been created before, I guess.

Haralan Alexandrov: The situation finds us in a place where  the faith, the trust in every public speaker, not only in politically empowered persons, is so low that the moment he says something a part of the spectators, the listeners, the audience will immediately choose to misinterpret it. And in this sense we do not have such a figure in Bulgaria, unfortunately. We will probably have to import it.

Maxim Behar: We will import it. It’s a cosmopolitan world.

Host: Actually, this is not a precedent, because we have to go back in history, there have been such cases.

Haralan Alexandrov: We have also imported princes several times.

Host: Yes. Let's look at the following thing - we put a lot of effort into talking about how vaccines develop, studies there, what stage they are in, what percentage is their effectiveness, but sociology shows, a Trend study shows that only 26% of Bulgarians would vaccinated if there is one created and is effective.

Maxim Behar: Due to the lack of communication policy. As a result of clear messages, as a result of precise explanations. Of course, people will look negatively. First - the 5G network. What is this nonsense saying that the 5G network brought the virus to Bulgaria - complete nonsense. Then they say they would chip us by vaccinations. Absolute jerks. However, no one reacted to this thing.

Haralan Alexandrov: We cannot underestimate the conspiracies. I have first-hand experience with a group of anti-vaccine mothers, with whom I argued for 4 hours, I invited my colleague and friend who has a dissertation in Hanover and worked at MaxPoint, one of the leading virologists in Bulgaria and one of the leaders of the pharmaceutical association . After 4 hours, we applied all our charm, they were a little hesitant and left a little disappointed because I did not support them. And they were referring to mysterious posts unknown to me on Facebook. We can't fight empowered stupidity, we can't fight conspiratorial thinking, because the world is too complicated and because people choose to think that way.

Maxim Behar: Yes, but we have to try to fight.

Haralan Alexandrov: I agree. At the moment, staring at vaccines is an attempt to regain our religious faith in science. We cannot experience that the god of medicine is temporarily absent. This horrific gap between the outbreak of the pandemic and the advent of the vaccine is a great drama for the modern world.

Host: But now there will be many gods, Mr. Alexandrov, it will not be one vaccine.

Haralan Alexandrov: I know. One of them is the god of communication, obviously in whom you believe. Let's not deify the communication strategy, it has its limitations. Of course, efforts must be made, of course, the best specialists must be invited.

Maxim Behar: But when it is missing, then we have anxiety.

Host: I agree.

Haralan Alexandrov: However, anxiety is not only based on the lack of communication. It has much deeper existential reasons and is due to the horror of death, which is again among us.

Host: And isn't it from the overdose with this information?

Haralan Alexandrov: That's right, that's right.

Host: Because we have, firstly, many channels, secondly, it distracts us, because there is too much unreliable information, illegitimate, but in spite of everything we somehow absorb it, and on the other hand, we will ever press the "Stop" button?

Haralan Alexandrov: What I completely agree with is that people are left to deal with themselves at the moment. There is neither reassuring nor disturbing information.

Maxim Behar: We are talking about a professional communication strategy. We are not talking at all about who wrote what. We are talking about a professional communication strategy. None of us can say whether we should be vaccinated or not. That is, firstly a personal choice, secondly it is more or less a medical problem. If there is a vaccine, then everyone should decide. The question is how to convince people that they must beware. How to apply the law, when there are still secret night gatherings in some closed restaurants where 200 people gathered together have a great party and probably 200 of them will be potential patients in the morning.

Haralan Alexandrov: That's right.

Host: And we announce them in the news.

Maxim Behar: How to apply the law? How can these people, when there will be fear, how can we instill in them that this fear is real and that they really need to protect themselves from this disease. This is, in my opinion, a matter of communication.

Haralan Alexandrov: That's right, but for this communication to happen, there must be a hierarchy of knowledge in society.

Maxim Behar: Oh, yes. Oh yeah.

Haralan Alexandrov: The hierarchy has been destroyed, we live in a super-democratic communication environment, everyone has the right to declare themselves an authority of last resort, to insult and spit on the authorities they do not like, as a result of which I simply say that the problem is much deeper and has cultural, existential and civilizational dimensions. And of course very psychological or psychopathological. I'm not saying there shouldn't be…

Host: Gentlemen, I heartily ask you for some advice. To me or to our whole team, even to all the journalists who deal with it. Do you believe that if we start showing more and prioritize and start tilting the scales to show positive news, because the world has not stopped doing good deeds, that this will have an effect? Should we do it or will we look funny and stupid? Because people will start blaming us, "Yes, but you're not talking about the coronavirus, you clearly don't believe in it." Here, we showed a report - the birth rate will be higher. There is also a positive thing - there is a baby boom.

Maxim Behar: You know, since I've been in journalism for many years, I've never divided the news into positive and negative. The news is as it is, the ones that are happening right now. Show what's happening…

Haralan Alexandrov: Nine months, Mr. Behar, we are only talking about the coronavirus. 90% of the information.

Maxim Behar: Yes, there are other things and they must be reported, of course, because this is the whole palette of life, we do not live only in fear or anxiety about the coronavirus. Show things as they are, but it is the job of the people who are responsible for Bulgaria to communicate things in a way that convinces people that we have a problem. And we have a giant problem. A pandemic.

Haralan Alexandrov: That's right, I'm just saying that there is no such way at the moment. Whatever you say, I can prove it with research, because I'm researching a very large group. There is not a single fact that is reported that does not immediately receive completely opposite interpretations. But this is a Sisyphean job, you have to push the stone up…

Maxim Behar: That's right.

Haralan Alexandrov:… with the full awareness that it will fall.

Maxim Behar: We missed the train a bit, maybe, for these nine months.

Host: Well, how can we live in peace with ourselves then?

Haralan Alexandrov: I can tell you to live in peace with ourselves - by trying to regain control by helping someone, not by blaming. This is the healthiest way. Any of us who have some resource, whether it is money and can help its employees - there are many entrepreneurs who do such things. It was like some kind of institutional power and he could make a good decision. I will immediately give you an example of good leadership - Gencho Genchev, the mayor of Svishtov, remember that name. A small, poor municipality with a practically bankrupt, bankrupt hospital, where the mayor went as a volunteer, did not move populist considerations and got sick, thank God he is healthy now. I have the pleasure to know him. This is not populism, this is heroism. After all, let's learn to distinguish between the two. Because immediately haters were found – those who insulted him and said that the man was working for his elections. So when you're faced with the existential drama of getting sick and taking the risk of dying or not, it's not populism, and it's good to be aware of that.

Maxim Behar: Oh, there are such cases around us every day.

Haralan Alexandrov: That's right.

Host: And we have to show them.

Haralan Alexandrov: In this case we are talking about an authorized person who chooses this point of view.

Maxim Behar: But they have nothing to do with communication. These are two completely different planes that diverge. On the one hand, yes, we help people around us every day, also my employees in the company.  But this has nothing to do with the fact that there is no clear and precise communication strategy.

Haralan Alexandrov: That's right.

Maxim Behar: This is the big drama.

Haralan Alexandrov: But this has to do with mental health, because when a person receives support from someone, especially from someone authorized in office, whether in business, administration, on the media, he regains the feeling that the world is a good place and it is worth it to do good things.

Host: There was pluralism of views here as well. It was interesting and informative for me.

Maxim Behar: That's great.

Host: Thank you for being our guests.

Maxim Behar: I will only end with one sentence. We can do it if there is good communication, if there is a clear and accurate approach, and  honest, fair, transparent communication.

Host: Yes. I will add the words of Haralan Alexandrov that we must hold on to the good firmly and really get the best out of good causes.

Haralan Alexandrov: Otherwise they will just stop watching media and watching TV.

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