Laura Dodsworth

Ofcom Complaint About Collaboration Between Sky and Government-Owned Company to Promote ‘Net Zero’

Laura Dodsworth and I have filed a complaint with Ofcom about a report issued by the Behavioural Insights Team and Sky urging broadcasters to use sophisticated psychological techniques derived from behavioural science to persuade people to support the Government’s ‘Net Zero’ agenda. Sky proudly boasted in the report that it was already using these subliminal techniques, which we think is a breach of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code – in particular, the prohibition on using “techniques which exploit the possibility of conveying a message to viewers or listeners, or of otherwise influencing their minds without their being aware, or fully aware, of what has occurred”. Here is the gist of our complaint, taken from our letter to Melanie Dawes, the Chief Executive of Ofcom:

We are writing to alert you to a broadcast license complaint we have made about Sky U.K. Our complaint concerns a partnership between Sky and Behavioural Insights U.K., Known as the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a limited company that was partly owned by the Government at the time the report was published. We believe this partnership – and, in particular, Sky’s adoption of BIT’s recommendations about how to help the Conservative Government successfully implement one of its most political contentious policy, namely, Net Zero – contravenes the Broadcasting Code.

The partnership we’re referring to resulted in the publication of “The Power of TV: Nudging Viewers to Decarbonise their Lifestyles” and the launch of Sky’s ‘Sky Zero’ campaign, which recommended that broadcasters make use of “behavioural science principles”, including subliminal messaging (“nudging” in the parlance of BIT, which is colloquially known as the Nudge Unit), to encourage viewers to endorse and comply with Conservative Government policy. Alarmingly, the report recommends broadcasters utilise sophisticated psychological techniques to change the behaviour of children “because of the important influence they have on the attitude and behaviours of their parents”.

The letter is worth reading in full.

The Threat of Lockdown “Hangs Like a Sword of Damocles”, Writes Laura Dodsworth

There’s a good piece in the Telegraph today by Laura Dodsworth who argues that the fact the Government is holding off on imposing ‘Plan B’ restrictions “at this point” paints only one side of the picture. While new measures haven’t yet been introduced (or, rather, old, failed measures haven’t yet been reintroduced), “the threat of lockdown hangs like a Sword of Damocles”, ‘nudging’ us into courses of action we wouldn’t otherwise take. To put it simply: “Eat your vegetables, kids, or you’ll lose your right to dessert.”

There’s a chill in the air. Not from the changing seasons – it’s still fairly balmy – but from the latest attempts to orchestrate a subtle psychological manipulation of us all.

About 18 months ago, in the lockdown summer of 2020, I started to argue that the Government’s response to Covid is driven not so much by medical science or epidemiology, but instead by the psychological insights of behavioural scientists. In my book, A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid Pandemic, I argue that controversial ‘nudge theory’ lies at the heart of Westminster’s response. It refers to sneaky attempts to prime, prepare and prod us into their desired mindset and course of action, without us ever realising we are being coerced.

Some responses to my book seemed naive. Many believed that Downing Street’s approach was genuinely grounded in public health epidemiology. Now, I think the dial is starting to move; the Government’s strategy becomes ever-more clear. Once nudge is seen, it can’t be unseen. Behavioural scientists were dazzling the public with card tricks. This week, the Government may have overplayed its hand.

On Tuesday, Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College Epidemiologist whose modelling was used as the basis for the U.K.’s lockdown policy, made an illuminating comment on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Nobody likes having their freedoms curtailed by measures but it’s prudent to be cautious, in everyday interactions certainly,” he told presenter Sarah Smith, “and wearing masks certainly helps that: it reminds people we’re not completely out of the woods yet.”

It was a startling admission, if we needed one, that masks are as much about psychology as they are about preventing infection. They act as a social cue, to use the language of behavioural scientists, nudging us into vigilance.

Then, on Wednesday, after NHS leaders urged the Government to implement its Covid ‘Plan B’ immediately (including the reimplementation of mandatory masks in crowded indoor spaces, and advice to work from home), Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng took to television to herald the “hard-won gains” Britain has eked out of lockdown, adding: “I don’t want to reverse back to a situation where we have lockdowns, I don’t think it’s necessary”. It was a deployment of the sunk-cost fallacy: we’ve come so far, we mustn’t allow our good work to be undone. Until hearing Kwarteng’s words, you mightn’t have known there was even a risk of another lockdown. But now the idea has been seeded in your mind, ever so subtly.

Yesterday, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid gave the first Downing Street briefing in a month – surely a portentous sign in itself… – in which he announced that Covid infections had risen 15% in a week, and warned that cases could hit 100,000 a day this winter.

But, he continued: “If we all play our part, then we can give ourselves the best possible chance in this race… [We can] get through this winter and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones.”

Why is Christmas even in doubt, an alarmed listener might think?

These psychological cues are carefully calibrated, more so than many realise.

Worth reading in full.

You can also read a non-paywalled piece by Laura on the topic of Government ‘nudges’ published in her Substack account here.

Government’s ‘Winter Plan’ Is Packed with ‘Nudges’ and Will “Confuse People into Compliance”, Says Laura Dodsworth

Laura Dodsworth, author of A State of Fear, has written a good piece for her new Substack account in which she argues that while the Government’s ‘Winter Plan’ contains some welcome news, it is also packed with ‘nudges’ that – alongside the constant threat of another lockdown – are bound to “confuse people into compliance”. Here is an extract.

The contents are freighted with the sunk cost fallacy; we’ve come so far, we mustn’t allow our good work to be undone. This also taps into people’s innate sensitivity to loss.

The trigger from ‘Plan A’ to ‘Plan B’ will be “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS rather than deaths. It’s under serious pressure every winter so consider yourselves to be put on notice. …

There are no quantifiable measures for what justifies each step from Plan A to Plan B. The parameters are fluid, unspecified. This creates confusion and stress, which infantilises people and makes them look to the Government for direction. Essentially, confusion increases compliance.

The threat of lockdown hangs like a Sword of Damocles. Will we, or won’t we? It seems unlikely that the public and businesses could be persuaded again. Regardless, the threat of lockdown might be leveraged to justify the introduction of Covid Passports, in what is known as a “reciprocation nudge” – we appear to be given a concession in return for reduced resistance to another option.

Covid Passports have been vigorously opposed by MPs and civil liberties groups, and there hasn’t been a vote in Parliament yet. Despite this, they squat in Plan B as a fait accompli, in the denouement of the ‘door in the face’ technique. This is when a huge request is made, then refused, to be followed by a second smaller request, in this case relegation to Plan B and for limited venues only. Boris Johnson said that it’s “not sensible to rule out this kind of option now when it might still make the difference between keeping businesses open or not”. But why would it be sensible when the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee produced a damning report against them and found the Government could make no scientific case in their favour?

Covid Passports appear to be a behavioural science tool, used to increase vaccine uptake. This may backfire. ‘A Cross-Sectional Study in the UK and Israel on Willingness to Get Vaccinated against Covid’ found that vaccine passports deter a significant minority of people who want autonomy over their bodies. This also chimes with the research conducted by De Figueiredo and colleagues at the Vaccine Confidence Project. The bullying and resultant mistrust may impact Covid vaccine uptake as well as other public health initiatives.

Worth reading in full – and it’s worth subscribing to Laura’s new Substack account here.