The ethics and politics of risk (mis)communication


The ability of our societies to regulate and mitigate local and global risks of catastrophic harm rests on how well knowledge about risk is communicated to its members. For example, the ability to avoid situation of panic and fear amongst the public, the ability to exercise control over the impact and severity of impending harm, and the ability to effectively prevent on-set of an ecological, health, and economic crisis seldom depends on how, and when governments, regulatory institutions, and health authorities communicate about risks to the public and one another.

However, as is evidenced by a number of past crisis and disaster events, miscommunication, or poor communication have proven to amplify the number of risks we now face, and the harms we have so far failed to prevent. Take the recent on-going Coronavirus ‘epidemic’ as a case in point. Political institutions worldwide have failed to coordinate their responses in conveying the seriousness and degree of controllability of risks to the wider public, consequently undermining their epistemic credibility and public’s sense of trust. Poor and unethical ways of communicating about risks to specific vulnerable groups has facilitated rise in instances of certain at-high risk groups being treated badly, and exacerbated new and old forms of social stigma and ostracisation. Moreover, withholding information and lack of transparency about risks on one hand (China in this case), and misinformation or false information about risks on the other hand (US in this case) has resulted in widening of dangerous gaps between public perception of the severity risks (and whether they should take precautions) and the actual ‘facts’.

Given these observations, it becomes clear that how well and quickly societies deal with some novel and irreversible global large-scale risks now, and consequently prevent harms in the future depends largely on how responsibly and effectively various political institutions serve their role as risk communicators to the wider public. This opens up a host of interesting questions for both moral and political philosophers. Here is a short list (in no particular order):

  • It seems that states, governments, and regulatory intuitions have moral and political obligations to communicate about catastrophic risks to citizens. If so, what is the nature of this obligation, what grounds it, and when is it fulfilled?
  • For societies to be able to manage and govern risks, there is a need for improved
    transnational communication about risks, better coordination with respect to implementation of regulations and policies, as well as increased participation of the public. How is this to be achieved?
  • What counts as good communication of risk (and safety), as opposed to poor and unethical communication? Relatedly, how should institutions strive to make risk communication more transparent and democratic?
  • Framing of risks is an essential part of how risks are communicated. Sometimes, framing risk one way rather than the other is used as a political tool to shape public perception of risksand their severity in order to serve certain political agendas and/or to force public acceptanceof certain levels of risk. What are some potential dangers involved in this and how can it bekept in check institutionally?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of differently situated political actors (governments,experts, scientists, media, regulatory institutions, citizens) in communicating risks to oneanother?
  • What are some issues of trust and its influence on risk communication during an event of global catastrophic risk?
  • What is the significance of the so-called ‘expert’ and ‘lay public’ divide when it comes to risk communication?

The workshop aims to bring together moral, political, and legal theorists as well as scientific practitioners and communication study experts interested in global risks, crisis and epidemics, risk regulation and management and to discuss some of the questions listed above (and more related ones).