Whenever there is a major world event, such as the tragic fire that raged through the Notre Dame cathedral this week or last month’s devastating terror attack in Christchurch, top politicians are often the first to air their views. However, a new study has found that politicians manipulate such emotional incidents in a bid to influence public sentiment.
Taking into account more than a decade’s worth of research, Dr Christopher Pepin-Neff looked specifically at public attitudes to sharks and how emotions are pitted against evidence-based policymaking in the wake of shark attacks on humans.
Pepin-Neff called out politicians for using such events to their advantage, manipulating the emotions of their electorate to promote their own beliefs and interests.
He added: “Policymakers manipulate these highly emotional situations to make it appear like they are protecting the public and doing ‘good’ work. This is a scam to defraud the public for mere political gain.”
The public policy expert at the University of Sydney has released a book – Flaws: Shark Bites and Emotional Public Policymaking – in which he argues that fear of a shark attack is a perfect example of the way politics works against the public.
“Shark bites can have tragic outcomes that directly affect sections of the public,” he said in a statement. “However, from an objective evidence-based analysis, what we are seeing is not a reasonable response but a theatrical political process, whereby an isolated and individual human tragedy is made worse when these incidents are politicised and sensationalised by the media.”
He added: “The real ‘sharks’ of this story are the politicians.”
Pepin-Neff drew his conclusions after analysing the “worrying style” of policy responses to shark bite incidents in Australia, South Africa and the United States over the past decade, finding that politicians often put their own agenda over the interests of the public.
“For example, I found that in Florida and New South Wales, sharks had been portrayed as ‘the enemy’, shark bites were seen as intentional, and policy responses appear to be based on ‘public safety’,” he said.
“However, this is not reflective of what the scientific evidence tells us – that shark bites are ungovernable accidents of nature, and that we are ‘in the way, not on the menu’.”
The expert has called on the country’s leading pollies – who are currently embroiled in the election campaign – to “dial back the rhetoric” in the aftermath of highly emotional events.
He added: “I have spent two decades working in politics – the public deserves better following tragedies than politicians trying to protect themselves. The time has come for our policymakers to do better and to stop providing a false sense of security.”