Coronavirus + internet = record and rising levels of public fear

coronavirusI define human fear as a sense of powerlessness and unknown. The current coronavirus brings us both. When fearful we seek power and control over a situation, something that appears to be slipping like quicksilver through our fingers with the virus.

It appears that the more we know the less we know as the virus speads across the globe. And so we reach out to our global village, via the internet, to seek answers, comfort and assurances.

In 2009 the virus H1N1 ultimately killed hundreds of thousands wordwide. To seek assurances of safety, to uncloud the unknown, millions turned to the internet with searches peaking in October 2009. The line graph below from Google Trends ( shows search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. A weighted value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. Global web searches peaked in October although H1N1 was still very active. This is likely because the public was sensing that health officials had a handle on the virus and a great many clear facts were becoming available. We felt a bit more empowered as the unknown was reduced through effective communications. And so fear was moderated.

H1N1 vs3 historic googletrend

Today we are in very different situation with the coronavirus. The fear is just begining. The fear is stoked by increasing levels of confusion and a sense of powerlessness. The New York Times reports on February 28 that “Fears take hold that a global pandemic is inevitable. From eastern Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Africa, a steady stream of new cases on Friday fueled the sense that the new coronavirus epidemic may be turning into a global pandemic, with some health officials saying it may be inevitable” (

In this face of fear the public again, like with H1N1, is reaching out to the cyberverse (see coronavirus line chart below covering February 21 to February 26). Without a sense of power over the virus, without the unknown being replaced by solid facts, the magnitude of internet searches is dramatically and exponentially exploding with the outcome being more fear-inducing warnings.

vs3 coronavirus febweb

The government warns Canadians to “”Prepare for coronavirus: Stockpile food, meds, Canada’s health minister advises” (Vancouver Sun, Feb. 2, 2020). The U.S. Centre of Disease Control warns Americans “It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.” The Dow Jones collapsed by 900 points in one day with the news. In Iran the deputy health minister, after appearing on international television news sweating and looking ready to collapse on stage, tests positive for coronavirus as the country’s confirmed cases climb.

The Internet is a wonderous communication tool to keep us connected in what Marshall McLuhan first termed our “global village” (1960). Back then in a CBC interview McLuhan noted that “There’s an earthquake and no matter where we live, we all get the message.”

Today in 2020 we all get the message” but in a nanosecond. The research web site Statista tells us that in 2010 there were about 97 million social media users. In 2020 the number is projected to be 2.96 billion. We are indeed getting the message about the coronavirus but so far it is one of global fear. And as Derrick de Kerckhove at the University of Toronto once said, “There is nowhere to hide.”






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