Epidemiology of Fear

Investigating Societal Responses to Pathogenic Invasion


  • Alexi Doan


Human history is punctuated by numerous deadly epidemics. The social environment associated with epidemics often elicits secondary ‘epidemics’ of fear, stigmatization, and moralization. If not properly addressed, these secondary epidemics pose a theoretical threat to public order. Hence, it is vital to develop policy specifically designed to anticipate and quell human responses to epidemics. In order to predict how societies will respond to future epidemics, it is necessary to analyze historical records of disease contained within media discourse. As such, a total of 216 examples of media discourse pertaining to three major historical epidemics—the Second Cholera Epidemic (1831-1833), HIV/AIDS (1981-1983), and the West African Ebola Outbreak (WAEO) (2014-2015)—were collected in the form of newspaper articles and twitter ‘tweets’. The type of language used was then categorized by valence. It was noted that media discourse pertaining to the HIV/AIDS pandemic was frequently inflammatory towards marginalized groups and was more associated with negative valence than news discourse for the other two case studies. There was also a stark disparity between valence levels for social media and news discourse; social media discourse was more often associated with negative valence than all other news discourse. This could be because, anecdotally, language used by social media was far more flippant and even leaned towards fearmongering. In all, fatal disease has—and always will—be part of human society, and it is vital that past responses inform future endeavors to develop effective response policies.