Whatever the White House claims this was, it was irresponsible and a blatant disregard for the lives of the American public.
I won’t focus as much on what Trump does or says, as it’s clear that he doesn’t think, nor care, about his own words and contradictory statements. Instead, I use this example to shed light on the impact of authority figures on the people who trust and follow them.
No one in a position of power should be making jokes or unsubstantiated claims about anything related to COVID-19 right now. Every line to the public needs to be clear, direct, and factual, drawing directly from the recommendations of WHO, CDC, and infectious disease experts. No sarcasm. No quips. No unverified “what-ifs.” Nothing about the origin of disease, transmission, precautions, remedies, or cures. If your job is to lead people, then you need to do just that.
I’m not just talking about politicians. We have opinion leaders at various levels of society: clergy members, teachers, professors, military officers, health professionals, CEOs, and journalists, to name a few. If you have access to a group of people who rely on you for information and guidance, then you are an opinion leader. What you say and write has the potential to influence what others think and do.
At an interpersonal level, we can all be opinion leaders in our own networks of family and friends. Social media posts, tweets, and shares impact people who are linked to us online. Therefore, what you write, how you respond, and the messages that you choose to share can influence others.
Why does this especially matter now? We are in an incredibly vulnerable time, in which uncertainty, fear, and isolation have taken their toll on mental health. Individuals are much more susceptible to accepting misinformation/”jokes” as fact and to adopting behaviors that they might question in their regular, pre-pandemic reality.
I did not laugh at the absurdity of the “inject disinfectant” remark. Nor did I agree with tweets that suggest that those who believed it are “morons” and thus, should be dismissed (or worse, be given a Darwin Award). I appreciate that the makers of Lysol and a number of organizations issued statements warning people not to drink or inject disinfectant, taking the potential effects of Trump’s “idea” seriously. These groups recognized the potentially lethal consequences and addressed the misinformation directly.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make jokes or create parodies. Rather that we should be mindful of spreading misinformation, stigmatizing groups, or offering unfounded advice. A press briefing during a pandemic should never contain dangerous instruction, no matter what justification is given for such remarks (did I really have to say that?).