Project Fear

Covid Propaganda: Understanding the Communication of Fear

It is interesting to consider just how different the past 18 months would have been without dozens of Government briefings and constant Covid ad campaigns. The propaganda pushed by the Government as part of its Covid response is the subject of an upcoming public lecture by Dr. Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University, on September 13th at 7.30pm. He will argue that the Government has “more or less copied the British wartime propaganda strategy from World War II when dealing with Covid”.

In a previous blog post, which gives a taste of lecture’s content, Dr. Alexander writes that: “The best propaganda is the propaganda that the audience doesn’t realise is propaganda.”

The public information briefings that occurred at about 5pm each day from Downing Street during the first lockdown in spring and summer of 2020 were episodes in propaganda straight out of the wartime playbook. Rather than being ‘public information’ events as they were so described, they were in fact filled with ‘strategic communications’ intent on manipulating the public to the ends of the powerful. They were carefully staged, choreographed and scripted by spin doctors and other political communications professionals working for a Government that is addicted to propaganda and cannot fathom engagement in public communications through any other prism.

Furthermore, the U.K. Government’s approach to Covid briefings in the first half of 2020 may harm the long-term trust of the public in governance and the various organs of state that are entwined with the crisis. Public Health England, for example. Indeed, Chris Witty [Whitty], Patrick Valance [Vallance], Jenny Harries, et al – by standing next to the cabinet minister of the day – may end up tainted as manipulators-in-chief themselves through their (and the organisations that they represent) implicit endorsement of the Government’s approach to public communications.

Tickets for the event, which is free and which anyone can attend, are available here.

Government Infected by Its Own “Scaremongering Propaganda” Over Unlocking on June 21st, Says Professor David Paton

If the Government was truly following the science, it would not delay the lifting of lockdown restrictions beyond June 21st, according to David Paton. Instead, as the Professor of Industrial Economics at the University of Nottingham writes in today’s Mail, the mood at Number 10 is extremely pessimistic because our leaders have become infected by their own “scaremongering propaganda”.

Ministers told us that the vaccines were the route to freedom because they would protect the public and break the link between infections and hospitalisations. That has proved to be the reality.

Indeed, the contrast between the grim peak of the second wave and the vastly improved situation today is stark, despite the advent of new variants.

It is true that the number of cases is currently increasing – up from a low point at the end of April of about 19 positive tests per 100,000 people to 44 per 100,000 now – but the impact of the rise has been nothing like as devastating as previously.

NHS data shows that hospital admissions have risen somewhat from a low of 74 per day to the current average of 103 per day, yet at the peak in January we saw over 4,000 admissions on a single day.

There is even better news when it comes to the number of patients admitted to hospital in the last seven days. The latest figure of 869 is 0.6% down on the previous seven-day period, and nothing like the savage January peak of 34,336.

It is the same story with death rates, which are currently averaging 5.7 per day, up from a low of 4.3 per day, but that compares to a January peak of no fewer than 1,245 deaths on a single day…

Ignoring such hard data, some of the advocates of delay like to bolster their argument by citing the modelling done by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), which sets out some pessimistic scenarios in the event of lockdown’s demise.

But there are two serious problems with this approach. First, SAGE’s record on modelling throughout the pandemic has been poor and overly negative. Second, it was the SAGE models themselves which formed the basis of the Government’s roadmap.

Even against the backdrop of the bleakest SAGE scenario, ministers initially maintained that the reopening on June 21st should proceed.

In fact, fully aware of the gloomiest SAGE projections, Boris Johnson explicitly stated on April 13th that “at the moment I cannot see any reason to change the roadmap”.

Given that the picture has turned out to be much healthier than anything SAGE projected, there would be no logic at all behind any delay. In their two scenarios closest to the Government’s roadmap, SAGE’s models indicated that there could be between 6,100 and 10,200 hospital patients by early June with more increases to come.

In fact, the present total of just 879 is only 14% of SAGE’s lower projection. So we are currently in a much better position than the Government envisaged…

At times it seems as if the Government has developed a bunker mentality, infected by its own scaremongering propaganda and SAGE’s shroud-waving.

But it is time to stop hiding behind the flawed models and fearful messages, embrace openness and get the country moving again without a delay. The real catastrophe would be a timid surrender to the voices of hesitancy and anxiety.

Worth reading in full.

“Covid Anxiety Syndrome” Preventing People from Returning to Normal Life, Says New Report

Fear whipped up over Covid by the Government and the media has resulted in millions of Brits struggling to return to normal life, according to a report which will warn that people are locking themselves down from within. Set to be published next month, the report identifies “Covid Anxiety Syndrome” as a condition which burdens many with a fear of public places and a need to maintain compulsive hygiene habits. Lucy Johnston in the Sunday Express has more.

Up to one in five is believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which would likely stay in place even if the virus disappeared completely. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, said Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored the report.

He said: “Our research suggests a number of people may not be able to return to normality even if the pandemic disappeared altogether. Worrying, checking others for symptoms, and avoidance have, over the months, gradually cemented a state of fear about the virus. Life has become restricted, and many people are experiencing a ‘psychological lockdown’ even if we are coming out of the physical one.”

The recently identified condition – Covid Anxiety Syndrome – is characterised by fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking. 

The findings from the study, which was undertaken in March and April 2021, showed 46% of people feared returning to public transport, 44% feared touching things, while 35% were checking their family members and loved ones for signs of Covid on a regular basis.

Professor Spada and co-author Ana Nikčević, Professor of Psychology at Kingston University, compared these recent findings to those they had collected in May 2020. They found the patterns to be broadly unchanged.

Overall one in five was “struggling with marked levels of maladaptive behaviour” related to the syndrome. Vaccination status – with around 35% of respondents being vaccinated – and a previous diagnosis of mental health condition did not appear to play a role in the severity of the syndrome which affects people from all professions and educational backgrounds.

Those affected are likely to represent the tip of an iceberg with many others suffering less severe anxiety related to fear of the virus making them feel threatened or afraid of returning to normal.

Professor Spada and his colleague are analysing a sample of 6,000 adults across China, Europe and the U.S. in collaboration with researchers from Imperial College to assess the global prevalence and impact of the syndrome. Results will be published by the summer, but preliminary indications show the syndrome is present across all countries surveyed to varying degrees.

Professor Spada said: “Our research suggests many people may struggle or may not return to normal even if the pandemic disappeared altogether.

“Avoidance locks you into fear. People are now locked down within despite the fall in infection rates and vaccine rollout. It appears that the syndrome affects people from all professions and educational levels.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: New polling from Ipsos MORI suggests it may be more than 20% of the population that’s suffering from Covid Anxiety Syndrome. It shows that 28% of British adults aren’t looking forward to “Greeting people with handshake/hug/kiss”, 27% aren’t looking forward to “going to large public gatherings such as sport of music events” and 24% aren’t looking forward to “Going to parties (such as weddings or birthday parties)”.

Fright Night

Today we’re publishing an excerpt from Laura Dodsworth’s new book, A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the COVID-19 pandemic, which goes on sale today. Laura has already got a lot of coverage for her interviews with members of SPI-B, in some of which they confessed to misgivings about using behavioural psychology to terrify the British public. In this excerpt, which is the first chapter of the book, she discusses the oddness of Boris’s speech on March 23rd of last year when he broke the bad news about having to stay in our homes. Here is an extract:

What was it that felt ‘off’ about Boris Johnson’s speech? Johnson is a performer, but he normally performs the ‘likeable buffoon’. You would expect such an important speech to be rehearsed, but it felt too contrived and different to his normal presentation. He was controlled, stern, and at a basic level that was hard to pinpoint, it didn’t feel genuine.

I asked two experts to help me decode Johnson’s body language and style of speech.

Naomi Murphy is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has spent many years working in high-security prisons, often with people who don’t always tell the truth. She echoed my reaction: “His words and some of his body language convey one message, but you sense another message, and that rings alarm bells. He doesn’t seem authentic.” She pointed out that there were times when he was giving a message with his head and hands, bobbing his head forwards and gesticulating, but his body was held back, suggesting that personally he did not believe in the essence of his words.

An appearance of inauthenticity could have been simply down to nerves. It would be natural to feel nervous before such a momentous speech to the nation, and that affects behaviour and body language. As Murphy said, “you can hear his mouth is dry, which is incredible for someone who is used to the limelight. This is a man who likes being liked, and he might be worried that the public will not like him anymore.”

Neil Shah, founder of the Stress Management Society and International Wellbeing Insights, has delivered leadership training which includes how to read non-verbal communication. We watched the YouTube video of the speech remotely over a video call, so that he could analyse it blow by blow.

“Twenty-six seconds in and you can see the tension in his fingers,” Shah commented. “He is clenching so hard his knuckles turn white.” He pointed out Johnson was hunched and leaning forwards like he was holding on for dear life. I asked what it means when someone clenches their fists so hard. He told me it can be for emphasis, or as an aggressive gesture, but “it also looks like a tantrumming toddler. The way he is jabbing his fists at us shows tension.”

Johnson also gives the most awkward and uncomfortable smile when he talks about compliance. Shah added that “it’s almost threatening. We smile when things are funny, but also when we are nervous. When he said that no prime minister wants to do this, a grave look would have suited the moment better than a ghoulish grin.”

Like Murphy, Shah thought the Prime Minister didn’t believe everything he was saying: “There doesn’t seem to be congruence between his words and his body language. It suggests he is not speaking from the heart and doesn’t believe what he is saying.”

Worth reading in full – and you can buy Laura’s book from Amazon by clicking here.

One in Ten Britons Wants Lockdown Restrictions to Last Forever

There’s a horrifying story in the Sunday Times that lays bare the terrible psychological damage wrought by the mind-benders of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B), who, as we know, deliberately set out to ramp up “the perceived level of personal threat” using covert psychological techniques. The story is about the “Covid worriers” – those poor folks who’ve been terrified out of their wits by the endless fear-mongering propaganda pumped out by the Government and the mainstream media, particularly the BBC. Among the revelations are:

  • A study by Ipsos Mori involving 4,896 adults found that 34% of Britons believe lockdown restrictions are still necessary
  • A study of almost 200,000 users of Kooth, an online mental health forum, found last week that 41% of users “feel nervous every day”
  • A study by the polling firm Opinium found that one in ten Britons want lockdown restrictions to remain indefinitely

The Sunday Times has some heart-rending case studies:

Long before the emergence in India of a dangerous new Covid variant, Hayley Martin was worried about the easing of lockdown restrictions in Britain and the prospect of “going out and interacting with people again”.

The government’s warnings last week of the new threat to the nation’s health have redoubled her fears of leaving her home in Congleton, Cheshire. “We’ve tried to go out, but it’s been really anxiety-provoking and stressful,” she said. “My imagination runs wild.”…

For James Bailey, a 36-year-old care worker who lives with his 69-year-old mother on the Isle of Man, lockdown was compounded by the island’s isolation from the mainland. Bailey used to travel periodically to London, but his worries about going somewhere and bringing back a dangerous variant were now “sky-high”, he said.

The Isle of Man’s last confirmed Covid case was on May 2 and “people don’t want Covid back on the island”, Bailey said. “The thought of going away makes me anxious. I haven’t left the island for over a year.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: BBC News has published a piece in which it has asked various scientific “experts” how they’re intending to behave after some restrictions are relaxed on Monday. Sounds like nearly all of them belong to the 10% of the population who want lockdown to last forever.

Stop Press 2: Laura Dodsworth, who’s book A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the COVID-19 pandemic is published on Monday, wrote a piece for the Mail on Sunday about why it is so many people are gripped by an irrational fear of the virus.