A State of Fear:
How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic
by laura dodsworth
pinter & martin, 320 pages, $5.50 (kindle)
Between March and June last year, as the pandemic put the U.K. advertising market into steep decline, there was one exception: Public Health England, a government agency that became the country’s largest spender on ads. “Stay at home,” PHE told the public on television, radio, and the internet. “If you go out, you can spread it.” Those who ventured outdoors confronted further ominous warnings on street signage, in public transportation announcements, almost everywhere the foot could step. “Control the virus.” “Protect the NHS.” “Maintain social distancing.” A particularly harrowing campaign drew the eye in to a close-up of a patient struggling to breathe through an oxygen mask. “Look him in the eye. And tell him you always keep a safe distance.”
Whatever one thinks about the threat posed by the coronavirus or counter-measures taken, a question arises: Are such campaigns ethical, and what do they tell us about how the modern state operates? Those questions run through a new book by the journalist and filmmaker Laura Dodsworth, which examines how the U.K. government and media organizations consciously aimed to induce fear in the population: fear of dying, fear of spreading the virus to others, and fear of the virus itself. Similar campaigns ran in Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, and elsewhere. The most dedicated effort, says Dodsworth, was in Germany, where documents leaked from the Ministry of the Interior referred to the need to produce a “shock effect.” The word “weaponised” in her title captures the intentionality behind such messaging but is imprecise. Dodsworth does not claim that the government targeted the people of the U.K., aiming to instill fear for its own sake. Instead she argues that using fear to influence behavior and generate compliance with rules is a generally illegitimate means of exercising authority, however legitimate the ends might be.
This is not a book about lockdown policy per se. Dodsworth opposes lockdowns, giving arguments against their efficacy in an appendix and citing evidence regarding their costs. But her main concern to map a largely unknown area of the state: the agencies concerned with public information, communications, and messaging, and the influence of this on personal behavior.
One such agency is the Scientific Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B), which reports to SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies)—which in turn reports to the prime minister and other leading government figures. SPI-B, whose members include psychologists, has an official remit of giving “behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical or epidemiological experts.”
“Helping people adhere” suggests cooperation with those subject to public messaging. But a report on March 22, 2020, titled “Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures” indicates that officials understood their roles as agents of psychological coercion. The report states: “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently threatened [emphasis added]: it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group, although levels of concern may be rising.” Therefore: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” This call for more “threat” was duly put into action, with public health announcements, carefully chosen slogans, and stark imagery and colors in posters used at press briefings and many other places. The posters’ chevron-shaped yellow and black borders—which Dodsworth notes suggest disaster areas or wasp stings—and splashes of red raised the level of psychological alert.
At the outset, in February and early March 2020, U.K. public health officials had tried to calm fears. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on March 5 that, although people should stay at home if possible, wash their hands and so on, “the great majority of people will recover from this virus, even if they are in their eighties.” The messaging changed rapidly starting in mid-March, as the government embraced a lockdown strategy after Imperial College modelling predicted an overwhelmed NHS and up to 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. Soon, the Public Health England adverts turned dire, and frightful themes were amplified in the press and broadcast media. In one chapter, Dodsworth collects headlines. From the Daily Express on March 18, 2020, five days before lockdown: “Coronavirus horror: London mortuaries expand to prepare for massive surge in deaths.” The BBC chimed in: “UK on ‘war footing’”; “Three numbers that tell a terrifying story.”
Dodsworth not only gives a substantial account of the means and methods of fear-inducing communication, but also discusses the political theory that grounds the behavioralist approach. She connects the harsh messaging to the “nudge” methods popularized by Cass Sunstein, which recommend using the soft techniques of persuasion and light-touch incentives rather than the heavy-handed approach of coercive law to modify behavior. The U.K. is seen as a world leader in these techniques, thanks to the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)—known as the “nudge unit”—which was established by David Cameron’s government in 2010 not long after President Obama had appointed Sunstein as “regulatory czar.” A friend and mentor to Obama, Sunstein was sought as a White House adviser in part to advance the nudge approach in administrative agencies.
The “nudge” can be gentle, but it can also devolve into more manipulative approaches, especially if bureaucrats are told that the situation requires decisive action. There are legitimate worries that this approach to governing, whether moderate or extreme, can involve dishonesty and exaggeration of threats. Dodsworth quotes the commentator Claire (now Baroness) Fox, speaking in 2015: “It is used to avoid having arguments and instead to manipulate people without them realising. It is a real assault on people’s capacity to make up their own minds.”
On this point, however, Dodsworth’s claims are too sweeping. She comes across as generally hostile to nudging. But in many contexts there is a case to be made for appropriate use. Government advertising and educational campaigns can be effective in reducing dangerous behavior, such as smoking and drunk driving, and can be used to encourage caution in risky situations, such as starting campfires in woods. In one recent success story, the U.K. government has significantly reduced plastic waste by requiring stores to charge customers a small amount for environmentally-unfriendly carrier bags, a small financial nudge. The point should not be to avoid nudges generally, but to ensure that messaging is accurate and tailored to the actual risk.
This brings us back to 2020. Dodsworth’s thorough journalism raises troubling questions about whether civil authorities adopted a rhetoric proportionate to the risks posed by the pandemic. While most of the SPI-B members refused her interview requests, a few agreed to speak, some only on condition of anonymity. The interviews give reason to think that the government should re-evaluate its public health messaging. One anonymous source confesses: “The way we have used fear is dystopian.…The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared.”
The judgment that the government over-stimulated fearful responses is supported by a series of personal vignettes—Dodsworth attaches one to each chapter—based on interviews she conducted with people from various walks of life. Several describe living through the pandemic with debilitating fear. One man needed a new washing machine but refused delivery because he thought the surfaces might be contaminated with the virus. Some would later come to blame the government for exaggeration and misinformation.
While her arguments about the efficacy and harmful side effects of lockdowns cite numerous studies, Dodsworth is too quick to dismiss all concerns about asymptomatic transmission. She cites one study from Wuhan concluding that it was a rare phenomenon. But the evidence is more complex; and given that the issue is central to this debate—governments felt the need to break through people’s sense that only the obviously ill could transmit a disease—a more robust discussion on this issue would have been helpful. Nevertheless, Dodsworth provides the fullest account yet of a crucial episode in recent British history. Her book offers a welcome example of a skilled journalist questioning and investigating government policy. It exposes an issue that deserves extensive public and parliamentary scrutiny. Behavioral science and nudge policy have been employed to influence people who are mostly unaware that they are being subjected to this technique of governance. Not only the U.K. but other countries, too, would do well to listen to Dodsworth’s warnings about the harm—often unanticipated—that fear-based communications can inflict, and to heed her calls to open this subject to democratic debate.
Paul Yowell is an associate professor of law at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College.
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