About six years ago, I began having access to a beach house on the coast of North Carolina for one or two weeks a year. I’ve loved extreme sports for a much longer time than that, so I immediately began considering surfing as a new pastime.
Unfortunately, around the same time that I started going to this beach house, I began paying more attention to the news related to the coast. This meant I started hearing news reports about sharks. And, for some reason, these reports gave me an irrational fear of shark attacks. So much so that one year I avoided the water almost altogether.
The strange thing about my reaction is that I am aware of the mass communication theories that account for this effect. Exposure to repeated news cycles of shark attacks can impact your view of the likelihood of it happening to you or, at least, its prevalence in general.
At university, I studied something similar—the impact of views on violent crime that makes people stay away from downtown and urban areas. This could be taken a bit further into the realm of conspiracy theories that play a part in today’s politics.
Conspiracy theories are an absolute belief in a falsehood or, worse yet, a half-truth. Back in school, we often found that people believed that downtown areas were much more violent places than the facts would support. It was a belief in a falsehood or something that offers insufficient evidence for an erroneous posit.
Although it’s taken a few years, I’ve been fortunate to assuage my fear of sharks. Earlier today, I was in the water confronting my fear—while still scanning the surface of the water for fins—and feeling much more comfortable. However, the scanning made me feel a little ridiculous, and I knew that I needed to go and look up how many shark attacks there had been in North Carolina last year.
The answer? 3.
I was honestly surprised. I’d assumed many more, which was in line with the old mass communications theory I studied in school. Just three attacks in North Carolina in 2019. I don’t think I’m that lucky… or unlucky.
The problem with believing falsehoods or, in my case, inflating the likelihood of a shark attack in my mind, is that the deceived individual has to be motivated to take action. I want to be in the ocean when I’m at the beach. I also really want to retire to the coast and take up surfing. So, I was willing to confront my fear. But, importantly, I was ready to go a step further and discover the truth from an objective source.
If someone wants to believe falsehoods and takes no action, which I did the year I chose to avoid the water altogether, they’re in danger of being exploited. If I had decided to continue consuming only my local media outlet during the summer, I still wouldn’t know how few shark attacks there were last year. My imagination would be left to run wild, and someone who wants to sell me expensive shark repellent could seize on an opportunity. Worse yet, that someone might try to convince me it would be best to exterminate all sharks, despite how good they are for the sea.
photo: Gerald Schömbs