- R.E.M. -
Okay, so the world did not end last Friday afterall (take a deep breath and slowly exhale).
Whew...what a relief. Now we can all take a "time out" to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. That is, before returning to more mundane topics such as the "Fiscal Cliff" and firearms. Nevertheless, there are communications lessons to be learned by the manner in which leading world governments reacted to the "Doomsday 2012" hoax.
Fatally Flawed "Facts"
Why does this matter? Most serious people simply said, don't believe the hype. However, segments of society in America and around the world sincerely believed prophecies of an apocalypse were fatally factual when it turned out they were fatally flawed.
A basic Google search of the date “December 21, 2012” -- two days prior to it -- yielded about 3,700,000,000 results. That's 3.7 billion with a big "B". This titanic figure is roughly equivalent to half the people on the planet.
Doomsayers acted on sheer paranoia fed by folks looking to make a quick buck by selling fear. Some people were thrust into a state of panic and sought protection. These "doomsday preppers" stocked up on guns and ammo, food and supplies, built or purchased shelters, and reportedly contemplated suicide, among other things.
Fortunately, most rational Americans remained indifferent to the ancient prophecies of doom on Dec. 21, 2012 -- and with good reason.
However, the U.S. Government still deserves credit for waging an effective global communications campaign aimed at the pocket of the national and global populace who really believed “Doomsday 2012" was imminent.
China Resorts to Repression
Our friends in the communist government of China waged a far different sort of campaign. They rounded up and detained anyone who spoke out publicly on the topic. The New York Times reported, "Chatter of Doomsday Makes Beijing Nervous."
According to the NYT: "Alarmed by spreading fears in China that Dec. 21 will bring global apocalypse, security officials across the country have been rounding up members of a renegade Christian group whose members have been aggressively promoting the notion that devastating earthquakes and tsunamis will coincide with the end of the 5,125-year Mayan Long Count calendar. In recent days, the police in nine provinces have arrested more than 900 devotees of the clandestine sect, the Church of Almighty God, whose adherents recently have begun holding outdoor prayer vigils and handing out pamphlets that warn nonbelievers that the only way to avoid extinction is to join their ranks."
Photo Credit: Agence France Press - Getty Images via NYT
(Pictured above: Men in China building a makeshift boat to prepare for alleged "doomsday" tsunamis)
America and China represented a stark contrast in government communications and citizen engagement.
The New York Times also reported on panic across Russia and that government's attempt to reassure the public: "In Panicky Russia, It’s Official: End of World Is Not Near".
According to the NYT: "There are scattered reports of unusual behavior from across Russia’s nine time zones...Russia’s government decided to put an end to the doomsday talk. Its minister of emergency situations said Friday that he had access to “methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth,” and that he could say with confidence that the world was not going to end in December."
However, Russian reassurance also teetered on the brink of revenge when at least "one [government] official proposed prosecuting Russians who spread the rumor — starting on Dec. 22," according to reporting by the NYT.
NASA Comms Camapign
As we know, NASA is one of the most beneficial and esteemed federal agencies. It was just deemed the best place to work in the federal government by the distinguished Partnership for Public Service. As if NASA didn't already have enough on its plate, these doomsday diatribes were dumped in the space agency's lap and demanded a response.
Fortunately, NASA launched a well planned out cogent national/global communications (comms) campaign debunking all the doomsday hype. In short, the space agency reassured the world: “December 21, 2012 won’t be the end of the world as we know it, however, it will be another winter solstice."
To its credit, NASA effectively implemented a well balanced, broad and proactive communications approach reaching a global audience via:
1) Social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Google+ and other popular digital platforms.
2) Traditional national/global news outlets such as major print and broadcast media.
3) Specialty press focusing on astronomy, space, and doomsday related topics.
4) NASA.gov, which contains a wealth of solid information which refuted the doomsday hoax.
Check out NASA video here.
Cottage Industry of Doom
The U.S. Government, via NASA, successfully engaged the public by debunking a cottage industry of doom. The plethora of "end of the world" theories were based on everything from the ancient Mayan “Long Count” calendar, to the age-old prophecies of Nostradamus and the like, to astronomical non-events.
Doomsday theories became embedded in popular culture through major Hollywood films, countless books and documentaries, cable TV and talk radio, plus a colossal onslaught of online hysteria -- of course. The message was clear: the end is near.
Moreover, modern day snake oil salesmen defrauded various publics into spending countless sums of money on doomsday preparations. This was product marketing for the end-of-the-world. Remember that old saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” That's one thing which has withstood the test of time.
NatGeo, History Channel Perpetuated Panic
Perhaps you have heard about the "reality" TV show "Doomsday Preppers” on the National Geographic channel (NatGeo)? If not, don't despair becaus you didn't miss much. In the show, purported average Americans allegedly prepared for the coming apocalypse – yes, seriously.
National Geographic is an otherwise respected media outlet that prides itself on, “Inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888." Yet such utter doomsday hyperbole was neither inspiring nor responsible. NatGeo should be castigated for sacrificing journalistic integrity and perpetuating panic for profit. Yes, media sensationalism still sells -- and this was media sensationalism at is worst.
Doomsday Preppers is/was in its second season. It will be interesting to see if it remains on air. Titles of related programs on NatGeo included “2012: Countdown to Armageddon” and “The Mayan Apocalypse 2012.” Additionally, not to be outdone, The History Channel got into the act by airing programs with choice titles like: “2012 The End is Now” and “Last Days on Earth” and “Nostradamus 2012”.
(pictured above: ancient Mayan calendar)
NASA Negates Nonsense
NASA deserves accolades for unequivocally repudiating the multitude of “Doomsday 2012” diatribes that were out there world-wide. NASA told us:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Since the beginning of recorded time there have been literally hundreds of thousands of predictions for the end of the world and we’re still here. For any claims of disaster or dramatic changes in 2012, where is the science? Where is the evidence?”
“There is none," NASA states, "and for all the fictional assertions, whether they are made in books, movies, documentaries or over the Internet, we cannot change that simple fact. There is no credible evidence for any of the assertions made in support of unusual events taking place in December 2012.”
Attention doomsayers: please come out of your bunkers now if you haven't already done so.
New York Times article: As Doomsday Flops, Rites and Ruins of Mayan Empire
CNN video & article: Doomsday predictions and analysis
Washington Post article: China targets members of doomsday cult
CNN videos and article Interviews with Mayans, more
PBS NewsHour: Doomsday Averted; Long Live Doomsday Predictions
Mashable: 21 Hillarious Tweets for the End of the World
* As always, all views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.