An Examination of Britain’s Coronavirus Strategy and its Corresponding Propaganda


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It is comparatively easy for an outsider to identify such a strong propaganda climate within another society. However, if one is actually living through it, such dispassionate analysis becomes virtually impossible. It is like breathing oxygen; one knows it is there, but it is difficult to see it for what it is. The sharper manifestations of its existence – print, television and radio products, posters, music – are like condensation.’ – P.M. Taylor

 

Until this year, I lived in Britain. From abroad, I keep in touch with people who hold a range of political opinion and interest. Gazing through my newly established window into British life, condensation makes it difficult to see clearly. My correspondents stay at home; the only connection to their outside world comes from media and a daily walk. In them, I’ve recognised three perceptions of our Government during this time: support; acceptance of limitations, but prioritizing solidarity over dissidence; criticism. The mismanagement of Britain’s COVID-19 response extends to its ‘perception control’ and is a failing likely to have contributed to loss of life. 

The use of propaganda, any movement to propagate practice or ideology, is at the core of governance. It became a political ‘necessity’ in 19th Century Britain. Technological innovations like mass printing, railways and electricity contributed to a politically-engaged population. Combined with a growing population, this meant it was too expensive for politicians to buy votes. Voters now had to be persuaded economically. Propaganda then proved invaluable in WWI; not just for grooming America into choosing England over Germany (e.g. the Zimmermann affair) or demoralizing enemies. It became vital as the war continued and Britain ran out of soldiers. Conscription needed social acceptance. Propaganda morphed from straightforward appeals (like the Kitchener request) to creating an atmosphere of distrust for able-bodied males not on the front (“Who’s absent – is it You?”). The long-lasting effect of anti-German propaganda during wartime did Britain a disservice in the peacetime of the 30’s. Public calls to ‘Make Germany Pay’ and a rejection of German goods made resuming lucrative trade with Germany trickier. Among the lessons learnt from WWI propaganda, the importance of social norms and the longevity of propaganda imagery seem especially relevant today. 

We do not know what was discussed when Britain’s Government held a meeting of Cobra, a national crisis committee, to assess the COVID-19 risk on January 24. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, stated that its threat was “low”. Boris Johnson did not attend. It was the day Britain signed the treaty to leave the EU. On the 22nd, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had heard from respected scientists like Imperial’s Neil Ferguson that there needed to be a dramatic reduction in the virus’ high infectivity rates to protect the population. According to the Sunday Times, it was clear that a lockdown was the realistic solution. It is important to note that although Sage’s minutes are secret, the minutes of NERVTAG, one of Sage’s subcommittees, are available. They do not document Ferguson holding that belief. Minutes from January 28 do, however, acknowledge the extreme transmission rate and effectiveness of Wuhan’s lockdown. Sage’s conclusions on hearing that evidence are hidden. The efficacy of Sage’s role as an independent committee has come under scrutiny after the PM’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, and another aide were found to be part of Sage, compromising the status that it traditionally upheld as a politically independent advisory. It can be assumed that Downing Street was aware of NERVTAG’s intimidating evidence. The potential severity of COVID-19 put the Government between a rock and a hard place. The economy was facing serious pressure due to Brexit. A lockdown would paralyse it. 

On February 3, Boris Johnson outlined Downing Street’s response. He declared that the “beneficial magic” of free trade is failing due to protectionism before announcing Britain’s strategy: 

“we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as COVID-19 will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some Government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other. And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”

Cabinet saw the crisis as an economic opportunity and defended their decision by implying that transmission restriction strategies which might have economic impact are irrational. Boris acknowledged that this response will likely be globally anomalous. Sage evidence has come under fire for expressing the need for economic protection with no explicit concern for lives saved. Once a belief is held by key decision-makers its influence often flows top-down. The presence of high-level aides in Sage could skew its conclusions and the presentation of information towards a pre-established strategy via groupthink. Irving Janis described the symptoms of groupthink in decision-making: overestimations of ability; closed-mindedness (including rationalising challenges to assumptions); and pressure to conform. Janis found higher risk of groupthink in groups who are isolated; lacking impartial leadership; responding to highly stressful external threats; and facing time pressures and moral dilemmas. Analyses of Sage’s advice (e.g. by the New England Complex Systems Institute) have found their models deeply flawed, relying on unchallenged assumptions and ignoring available data. Janis’ essential precaution against groupthink is that leaders should absent themselves from as many meetings as possible to avoid excessively influencing outcomes. Cummings is a direct representative of the country’s leaders, who proceeded with inaction. On 2 March, Sage was told that COVID-19 was “highly likely” to be spreading among the population and that if “stringent measures” were not taken, between 250,000 and 500,000 would likely die. This warning was relayed in the fifth Cobra meeting (Boris’ first) the same day. The next day, Boris held the first TV press conference, where he advised the population: “We should all basically just go about our normal daily lives… The best thing you can do is to wash your hands with soap and hot water while singing Happy Birthday twice.” 

The economist Bernard Lietaer noted that in 1975, 80% of foreign exchange transactions were tied to a product or service (the real economy) and 20% were bets on asset’s values increasing or decreasing (the speculative economy, e.g. stock trading). In 2011, only 0.6% of those transactions belonged in the real economy. This creates an economic reliance on public perception. If one chooses to prioritise the economy during crisis, perception management becomes a necessity. As Italy chose to lock down on March 8, and France, Germany and Spain publically considered it, Britain’s strategy of inaction did not seem strange to many. Politicians looked relaxed. Major events were allowed to be filled with massive crowds, people reassured by their nonchalant Government. On March 11, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic as Rishi Sunak released a budget of tax cuts, business incentives and road-building, alongside a £30bn pandemic business stimulus. Speculators were not reassured. The pound fell 1.2%. That same day, David Halpern, head of the Behavioural Insights ‘nudge’ team appeared on BBC news. His unit advises Cabinet how to manipulate mass behaviour with psychological techniques. He told the BBC about a strategy to ‘cocoon’ at risk individuals while the rest of the population acquires ‘herd immunity’. Examination of Sage documents reveal that the Behavioural Insights team (SPI-B) suggested perceptions of inaction could be made “acceptable” by stating “members of the community are building some immunity”. This proposition was made after their analysis that perceptions of “the Government response strategies [not being] effective in looking after the public may lead to an increase in tensions.” The logical follow-on is that to avoid public tension, either the Government should ‘look after the public’ or manage their perceptions. At this time, there was no conclusive evidence that COVID-19 immunity existed. An unverified model used to support herd immunity circulated around the media, which was promoted by a PR firm with ties to Halpern.

An impression that COVID-19 was only a flu and would not be detriment to public health was felt by many. Major news outlets focused mainly on developments abroad. On March 11, as members of cabinet were falling ill, BBC headlines focused on the USA and asked whether the US could do what Italy has done, portraying a lockdown as an over-response and quoting a Director at Columbia University: “[the lockdown]’s just the antithesis of the freedoms that we theoretically have.” The same day it claimed severe issues in Italy’s population, using the word ‘paranoia’. These are representative of the wider coverage at this point and can briefly be analysed with AMC Lee’s guide to propaganda analysis. Prioritising foreign over domestic in coverage is ‘selecting the issue’: encouraging observation over action and criticism – a distraction. Mentioning weighted concepts like lack of freedom and paranoia in context of lockdown discussion is ‘name calling’: “the practice of short-cutting discussion by giving an idea a bad label, to make us reject and condemn… without examining the evidence”. A thorough analysis of domestic coverage does not fall into the scope of this article, though the BBC’s response to complaints about their coverage gives an indication of their workings:

“All our output is subject to careful risk assessment and is in line with Government guidance in the UK and abroad.”

It is inappropriate to assume conscious decisions without substantial evidence, but it should be noted that journalists do report feeling moral obligations in the face of crises; Martin Bell MP, a veteran BBC reporter, documented in his memoirs that he felt the BBC should have spun their coverage of the Balkans conflict in order to spark international intervention and save lives. As Chomsky or Marcuse note in their analyses of media propaganda complicity, propaganda often results from systemic biases as opposed to conscious decisions by individuals. A Brandwatch survey a week before Italy’s lockdown found that 44% of the British population were not concerned about COVID-19 although 59% believed a UK epidemic to be likely. 87% thought the Government should be proactive, though over 70% did not believe in strong responses like cancelling football tournaments. These opinions represented a population not fraught about disease and revealed Government action could be minimal if it were perceived to be present. SPI-B’s advice was informed by this survey. The Government was not as relaxed as the people. As the crisis developed, Hancock started fearing the predictive models and arguing for lockdown in Cobra meetings, especially with ministers from the treasury. He was unsuccessful, even after March 12 when the WHO remarked concern that some countries aren’t demonstrating the political commitment needed to control the disease, stressing that giving up and accepting spread through the population is wrong. Soon, pressure on the Government grew with WHO spokespeople mentioning the UK directly; hundreds of scientists including senior health experts and the British Society for Immunology writing warnings; and an epidemiology professor at Harvard comparing the UK’s response to satire. 

Broadly speaking, there are two targets of propaganda: influential members of society and the general population. Brandwatch revealed much of the population were relaxed. As March progressed, it was clear the influential were not. In the three days after the budget announcement, speculation caused indexes and the pound to crash. On March 16, Ferguson released a paper that warned of an overwhelmed NHS and “hundreds of thousands of deaths” without drastic action. Ferguson stated that politicians were the decision-makers and Medley, another Sage member, warned politicians were passing the buck onto scientists. That same day, Boris announced drastic action was now needed and issued advice but not policy. Four days later the pound hit its weakest level since 1985, excluding the Oct 2016 ‘flash crash’. Any attempt to prevent economic damage had failed. It was in the context of a decimated sterling that lockdown was ordered on March 23. It is likely that ministers then got nervous as SPI-B warned public disorder is more likely in situations with:

 “absences in police forces, pressures on healthcare facilities, perceptions that there is limited resource, e.g. limited face masks or hand sanitiser, [and] perceptions of inadequate Government response to contain the outbreak.” 

This warning is likely to have impacted propaganda decisions as it became clear that the UK was unprepared. News about test unavailability and poorly managed PPE started to break on the 24th of March, contradicting Deputy Chief Medical Officer Harries’ assurance on the 20th that “the country has a perfectly adequate supply of PPE”. Hancock contradicted the official Sage evidence corpus by repeatedly insisting that herd immunity had never been part of the plan. On the 26th, Harries told reporters that testing was not an appropriate intervention in light of WHO’s “message for all countries: test, test, test”. On April 1, Boris contradicted this by stating he had been saying for weeks and weeks that “testing is the way through.” The same day, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Van Tam said testing “is a bit of a side issue” as the Government confirmed that only 2000 out of 500,000 frontline NHS workers had been tested for COVID-19 so far. On April 2, Rupert Shute, the Home Office Deputy Science Advisor repeatedly stated on a Home Office conference call that the Government believes “we will all get” COVID-19 eventually, before implying they consider hundreds of thousands of deaths unavoidable. 

P. M. Taylor, a propaganda scholar, stated that one of propaganda’s main tenets is to fall in line with policy. SPI-B had stressed this repeatedly and called for communications to give the impression of transparency. The aforementioned inconsistencies are a small example of incompetence in this regard. This incompetence has real effects when a population needs to comply to save lives. On March 31, Boris rehired his election chief and election staff to help mitigate the fiasco. The propaganda response moved into campaign mode, focusing on creating unity and amending perceptions about limited resources and inadequate responses. Orders to “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” were branded similarly to “Get Brexit Done.” This message was necessary; reports of people breaking lockdown rules flooded in. Having cultured the perception that the disease was not threatening, Cabinet now had to reverse it. At the time of writing, this is an ongoing battle. This could be due to the anchoring cognitive bias, where initial information is more influential than subsequent information, as Britain found with its propaganda hangover after WWI. Public unity, effectively meaning lockdown compliance, was encouraged by leveraging social pressures, e.g. nurturing a social norm to publically clap for the NHS every Thursday. Clap for the NHS was successful. It helped to distract, making headlines as news started to spread about failures to provide NHS staff with PPE while permitting a flight from reality into the mysticism of patriotism. It is a superstitious behaviour, thus providing illusory feelings of control over a situation. It makes the population feel cohesive, increasing compliance and encouraging self-policing (important to prevent awareness of a weak police force). It also serves the benefit of improving morale, important considering SPI-B’s public disorder warning. A propaganda miracle occurred when Boris contracted COVID-19, which dominated headlines over rising death tolls while leveraging public empathy to increase Government support. Leave.eu attempted to instigate a national ‘Clap for Boris’ on twitter. Leave.eu was part of the Vote Leave campaign, directed by Cummings and criticised for ties with Cambridge Analytica. On April 10, as UK daily deaths became higher than any recorded in Italy or Spain, media coverage led with Boris’ recovery from ICU, while BBC News’ main headline was about the “herculean effort” of the Government to provide NHS with PPE. Subsequent headlines featured nurses describing treating Johnson as “surreal”, something they’d “never forget” and that he was “like everybody else”; orchestrated artificial grassroots support to boost public opinion about Boris and his government seem likely. The notions of supporting the country and supporting its leader are being conflated.

The COVID-19 crisis in the UK is an important case study of how propaganda is used by Governments with varying degrees of effectiveness. There is substantial evidence that Downing Street gave inappropriate priority to the economy while communicating inappropriate calmness. This was an ineffective strategy that led to many deaths. The hangover of those communications is continuing to kill due to its erosion on later requests for complicity. Substantial insight into the use of propaganda can be gleaned from the crisis. Postmodern propaganda techniques such as those pioneered by Surkov and Trump sometimes involves creating a sense of Brechtian alienation, where the population is aware that they cannot trust what they are hearing, and leveraging that to create vulnerability via atomisation and dissonance while controlling discourse on all sides. It is impossible to separate postmodern ‘post-truth’ propaganda from any contemporary approach, and it’s possibly relevant when examining Cabinet’s contradictory narratives. However, modern propaganda as outlined by AMC Lee’s guide appears more relevant in this crisis, though it is probable that there are undetectable postmodern strategies at work. It is somewhat reassuring to see the ineffectiveness of some elements of Britain’s propaganda campaigns, but its scope, reality and consequences are disturbing. Propaganda is coercion, but coercion is sometimes justified; as it would have been if efforts were focused on psychological preparations for severe protective measures. This was not the case. Activists should take time to study propaganda techniques in order to identify and counter them in a systematic, academic fashion. Justifiable propaganda should not be necessary if the population agrees with the strategy. It is a democratic necessity for activism to involve dispassionate analysis of propaganda to propagate awareness of techniques and open discussions of government strategy. During COVID-19, widespread propaganda analysis may have pressured the Government into changing its course, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Awareness of pro-NHS propaganda has great potential in activists leveraging its momentum to fight NHS privatisation after the crisis. In battling environmental destruction, mass consciousness and discussion of propaganda may be one of the few tools activists can use to save humanity. 

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