Ivor Cummins aka the Fat Emperor – gives James the lowdown on why you can’t trust anything our governments tell us about Covid-19. If you want the facts on Coronavirus – how deadly is it? do lockdowns and masks work? how does it compare with previous pandemics? – you’ve come to the right place
Shutting shops at the end of October was a “psychological shock” tactic to bring home the need for restrictions to arrest the spread of the virus, the country’s health minister has admitted.
Non-essential retailers were forced to close at the end of October as infection rates reached the highest level in Europe and hospital admissions threatened to overwhelm intensive care units. Shops will reopen today after a decline in infections.
Frank Vandenbroucke told the broadcaster VRT that, with masks and social distancing, “shopping does not really involve any risk”.
The army has mobilised an elite “information warfare” unit renowned for assisting operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to counter online propaganda against vaccines, as Britain prepares to deliver its first injections within days.
The defence cultural specialist unit was launched in Afghanistan in 2010 and belongs to the army’s 77th Brigade. The secretive unit has often worked side-by-side with psychological operations teams.
Leaked documents reveal that its soldiers are already monitoring cyberspace for Covid-19 content and analysing how British citizens are being targeted online.
Johnson’s speech announcing a new lockdown on Saturday reminded me of how Tony Blair deployed fear to justify drastic state action over foot and mouth disease, and – warning that Saddam Hussein’s arsenal put the UK “45 minutes from doom” – in support of the Iraq war. It is the same blind fear exploited in every debate on immigration, crime and prisons.
COVID-19 started registering with most of the British public around late February and early March. Many were concerned but not particularly afraid. Only weeks later people were terrified to leave their homes or go near other human beings. How did such a dramatic shift in public perception happen so quickly?
In early March 2020, The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) produced a document for the UK Government highlighting methods for rolling out new social distancing rules. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the public would comply with the upcoming measures so SAGE outlined a methodology based on known psychological behavioural modification techniques.
SAGE, SPI-B and applied psychology
SAGE is an advisory group to the UK government responsible for making sure decision makers have access to scientific advice. We are told that the advice provided by SAGE does not represent official government policy.
SAGE also relies on expert sub-groups for COVID-19 specific advice. These sub-groups include:
NERVTAG: New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group
SPI-M: Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling
SPI-B: Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours
The identity of individual committee members themselves were initially kept secret, purportedly due to national security. Some names were eventually released, largely due to efforts by UK businessman Simon Dolan and his legal challenge campaign. Nevertheless, two members remain anonymous.
Psychological techniques for behavioural change
The document itself, titled Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures, was drafted by SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group for SAGE.
SPI-B highlighted nine broad ways of achieving behavioural change in the public:
In the document, SPI-B focused on the methods most relevant to their stated goals and set out ten options that were evaluated on six criteria.
The six criteria, under the acronym APEASE, were:
Government persuasion through fear
A key part of SPI-B’s behavioural change strategy that seems to have been adopted was to ‘persuade through fear.’ The Persuasion section of the document states:
A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened.
Clearly, the psychologists felt that, as of late March, the public was still not afraid of COVID-19. It therefore suggested that the government increase the level of fear:
The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.
Appendix B of the document lists ten options that can be used to increase social distancing in the public. Option 2 advises:
Use media to increase sense of personal threat.
In hindsight, this explains the tone of government sponsored social media and physical billboard advertising campaigns that started appearing around April.
SPI-B recommendations to increase personal threat and use hard-hitting emotional messaging are on display with eerie imagery coupled with taglines such as:
“Anyone can get it. Anyone can spread it.“
“Don’t put your friends and family in danger.“
“Stay home for your family. Don’t put their lives in danger.“
“If you go out, you can spread it. People will die.“
The article compared hysterical BBC news headline from the first week of April 2020 with those from 2018, when mortality rates were peaking due to a bad flu season. It found no references to flu or excess mortality on the BBC home page during the 2018 peak. InProportion2 asked, “Do the headlines reflect the gravity of the situations in an equivalent way – or is additional fear being stirred up in 2020?“
Persuasion through shame and approval: Covidiots and heroes
SPI-B psychologists knew that fear on its own would not persuade everyone. Messaging needed to be tailored to take into account different ‘motivational levers.’
Some people will be more persuaded by appeals to play by the rules, some by duty to the community, and some to personal risk.
It therefore suggested using both social approval and disapproval, with compulsion (legislation) as a backup:
Option 6: Use and promote social approval for desired behaviours
Option 7: Consider enacting legislation to compel required behaviours
Option 8: Consider use of social disapproval for failure to comply
We can see the obvious approval-disapproval dialectic with the ‘Heroes and Covidiots’ narrative that soon began to surface in the news. The term ‘Covidiot’ appeared around March with The Economist’s 1843 Magazinedescribing covidiots in this way:
Even in a pandemic, many of us are prone to judge others and find them wanting: the term “covidiot” describes any and every person behaving stupidly or irresponsibly as the epidemic spreads. Sometime in early March the word was born, and, almost as fast as the virus spread, so did instances of covidiotic behaviour.
Although it’s not clear how the term came about, it was quickly adopted in UK mainstream and social media. At the same time, we began seeing praise for heroes who ‘did the right thing’ by complying with the government measures.
The METRO article below shows all three options in play:
Social approval: “These local heroes have been doing amazing things…”
Social disapproval:“Lake District closed…because covidiots won’t stay away…”
Compulsion: “Matt Hancock threatens to close beaches…”
An incentivised media
These psychological techniques would have been impossible to deploy on the public without a compliant media. How did the government convince the media to go along with the plan?
…the government is spending more than usual, judging by their bookings. The publishers also pointed out that the lack of activity from other advertisers in the current market means the government campaigns will have an outweighed share of voice compared with normal times.
During that period, the British public started seeing coverage across media outlets with the unified “In this together” messaging. O’Reilly pointed out that the campaign was worth £35 million over a three month period.
Last week, the government and newspaper industry launched a three-month advertising partnership dubbed “All in, all together.” The campaign — worth approximately £35 million ($44 million) for the full course, according to sources — kicked off on Apr. 17, with all the U.K.’s national and regional daily news brands running near-identical cover wraps and homepage takeovers, which carried the copy, “Stay at home for the NHS, your family, your neighbours, your nation the world and life itself.”
So, we ask again: how did the government convince the media to go along with the plan? The answer is simple and obvious: with lots of money.
Psychological techniques to change behaviour
We can see that the UK Government has a public document outlining psychological techniques to change the behaviour of the population. We see a unified mass-media campaign that falls in line with these techniques. We then see a dramatic shift in public perception and behaviour.
What else can we call this but ‘brainwashing’?
Despite the open nature of what has transpired, it seems to have gained little coverage in the media. This is of no surprise since it was clearly complicit in spreading fear in the public.
In early March 2020, The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) produced a document for the UK Government highlighting recommendations for increasing adherence to social distancing measures. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the public would comply with the upcoming measures so SAGE developed a methodology based on criteria called ‘APEASE’.
The document itself was drafted by SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group for SAGE. More information about SPI-B can be found in this document.
In the document, behavioural change options were set in a grid and evaluated based on the six criteria. See Appendix B in the linked document.
SPI-B’s APEASE criteria are:
Persuasion through fear
It seems that a big part of SPI-B’s behavioural change strategy was to ‘persuade through fear.’ The Persuasion section of the document states:
The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging. To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat.
Appendix B of the document lists ten options that can be used to increase social distancing in the public. Option 2 advises: “Use media to increase sense of personal threat.“
Psychological techniques to change behaviour
In this document, the UK Government has openly admitted to using psychological techniques to change the behaviour of the British population. Despite the open nature of this admission, it seems to have gained little coverage in the media.
This is of no surprise since the British media was clearly complicit in spreading fear in the public.
As Boris Johnson’s government plunges the UK further into political chaos, a ‘No 10 source’ has been very busy. Some of the UK’s most influential political journalists seem to be repeating whatever this unnamed and unverified source says. But this isn’t journalism, it’s propaganda. And both the BBC and ITV‘s political editors have turned up the megaphone as full-on government mouthpieces.
At a time when some advertisers are hitting pause on spending and others are avoiding appearing next to coronavirus articles — or even just “bad news” — the U.K. government is rapidly ascending the rankings of U.K. news publishers’ most important clients — and cheerleaders — during the crisis.
The biggest political ruse of our time has now spiralled so far out of control that it has become almost impossible to distinguish fact from deception. Every day we are besieged with such a selective and biased artillery of “scientific” assertions that it makes a mockery of expert insight.
Every day we are subjected to yet more bitesized epidemiology that gives an utterly false impression of risk. And every day we are bombarded with terrifying death figures so out of context that they are effectively meaningless.
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