This is an interview with Laura Dodsworth, author of the best-selling book A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic.
KATHY GYNGELL: A State of Fear is a truly remarkable and devastating account of the politics of fear that’s been the primary policy and media response to the Covid virus. It begins with a dramatic quotation from the Sage subcommittee primarily responsible: ‘The perceived level of threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.’ When did you get wind of this and what provoked you into this quite unique, comprehensive and very tough investigation?
LAURA DODSWORTH: The SPI-B document ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures 22nd March 2020’ answered the question, ‘What are the options for increasing adherence to the social distancing measures?’ When this was published in early May, it was extraordinary to see in black and white that SPI-B advisers felt that people were not sufficiently threatened because they were ‘reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group’, ie they understood the risk. It was clear from very early data that Covid was age-stratified, presented substantially more threat to people with certain identifiable clinical conditions (including dementia, Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes and hypertensive diseases among others) and that care homes and hospitals were main drivers of transmission. Yet the government was advised to scare everyone, regardless of risk, into submitting to the lockdown rules.
I was as shocked by the document as anyone – it’s quite a chink of insight into a technocratic behavioural science style of thinking – but it resonated because by May the government messaging had already concerned me. Patrick Vallance told the nation on March 13 2020 that ‘the vast majority of people get a mild illness’, but just ten days later, Boris Johnson warned of ‘the devastating impact of this invisible killer’. The messaging mutated faster than the virus or the scientific evidence.
It was clear the communications were designed to be alarming. I go through the tools that were used to confect fear in detail in A State of Fear, but briefly, they included: daily statistics without context, the ‘big’ numbers floated to the top, that were designed to frighten; lots of footage of dying patients but little news about recovery and discharges from hospital; scary and hyperbolic slogans such as ‘Don’t kill granny’, ‘Coronavirus. Anyone can get it. Anyone can spread it’ and ‘Don’t let a coffee cost lives’: extreme and visceral ad campaigns.
One particular ad was actually withdrawn after complaints to the Advertising Standard Authority: ‘Someone jogging, walking their dog or working out in the park is highly likely to have Covid-19. This is a national health emergency. Around one in three people have no symptoms and are spreading it without knowing. So exercise locally . . . If you bend the rules, people will die . . .’ Someone walking their dog or jogging was not ‘highly likely’ to have Covid, ‘one in three people’ was mis-represented and ‘if you bend the rules, people will die’ is intended to make people worry about their own behaviour, which you can argue a case for, but does rather deflect from policies, deficient PPE or nosocomial infection which arguably all made more difference!
The same SPI-B document recommended using social approval and disapproval. Using shame to control the ‘non-compliant’ is ethically dubious and damaging to society and individuals.
The fear seemed to be a story for me as much as the epidemic. I became more frightened of authoritarianism than the epidemic, which made me an outlier. Studies have shown that people do tend to lean into authoritarianism during epidemics and in areas which are high in infectious diseases. I decided to write a book about the fear messaging and behavioural science approach, because I think it will ultimately be one of the most important aspects of this period of history. The fear made people comply, it has extended the ‘shelf-life’ of the restrictions, it’s making recovery harder and there’s no reason to think the government wouldn’t use the same tactics for the next crisis or policy they want compliance with.
KG: There is no doubt as to your conclusion, that the Government’s exploitation of fear was not ethical – you interviewed people who were almost pathologically terrorised by it. What do you believe to have been the worst of the intended and unintended consequences of it at an individual and societal level?
LD: Some of the collateral damage is obvious. Being frightened is bad enough in itself, and there is evidence that fear and stress correlate with lowered physical health. If the behavioural scientists who weaponised these tactics had been operating in a lab they would have been constrained by ethical frameworks and would have needed our consent to participate. We have not signed consent forms.
We know that depression and anxiety increased as a direct result of the government’s pandemic advertising. Alcohol consumption increased. There was an increase in calls to the London Ambulance Service for suicide or attempted suicide from March to November 2020 compared with the same period 2019; eating disorders worsened. There are many ways to measure the mental health impacts. I list some of the terrifying impacts in my book.
But in my opinion the worst consequences are deeper for society.
Is it ethical to use fear if it is in our best interests? For the sake of our health? Some would say so. As the Behavioural Insights Team report MINDSPACE Influencing behaviour through public policy says, ‘If we can establish that the behaviours do reduce wellbeing, the case for nudges is compelling’, while acknowledging that it is ‘controversial’. https://www.bi.team/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/MINDSPACE.pdf In other words, the ends justify the means, even if the public wouldn’t like it if they understood they were being hoodwinked.
Some people will argue using fear to control people during an epidemic was acceptable. There is a debate to be had. Personally, I think the argument in favour of using fear to command and coerce people during a crisis cannot be justified when we consider the ethics, the collateral damage and the impact on recovery. Even more simply, I think it’s ‘wrong’.
I’m not alone in my thinking. Some of the worst indictments of the government’s policy come from the psychologists and government advisers who spoke to me anonymously. One memorably told me that thoughts of the potential dystopia we might be entering kept them awake at night and that ‘psychology has been used for wicked ends’. Another told me ‘People use the pandemic to grab power and drive through things that wouldn’t happen otherwise . . . We have to be very careful about the authoritarianism that is creeping in.’ A third said ‘using fear smacks of totalitarianism’ and ‘is not ethical’.
The use of behavioural psychology and specifically the weaponisation of fear were symptoms of a government that had given up on trust and transparency. I think the government has behaved like an abusive partner at times: moving goalposts, cajoling and threatening, blaming people when things go wrong. Will we trust the government in a future crisis? I don’t think I will. Trust is in tatters.
KG: As early as November 2020, a TCW-commissioned Savanta ComRes survey found the public massively overestimating the fatality threat of Covid. They judged the average age of death from Covid to be 67 when it was and still is 82. The finding was published and commented upon, I think, in just one national newspaper, despite our best endeavours, and had no impact at all public perception. Is the British public singularly unquestioning? Or are the British MSM and BBC singularly culpable, as you detail in Chapter 2?
LD: In September 2020, the British people were more concerned about the spread of the virus than people in Sweden, the US, France, Germany and Japan – 83 per cent of us thought there would be a second wave, while only 21 per cent of us thought the government was well-prepared to deal with it. An international study of public attitudes across Europe, America and Asia found that people in the UK had the highest overall levels of concern about Covid. Another study reported that Britons were the least likely to believe that the economy and businesses should open if Covid was not ‘fully contained’. We were the most frightened population in the world.
I don’t believe there is a British tendency to be more frightened or gullible. I suspect we had the hardest-hitting fear campaign. As my book has focused on the UK, an international comparison of the fear-mongering messaging and behavioural science approach would be illuminating, but wasn’t something I could do in the same time frame. Britain is generally considered a world expert at nudging, and the Behavioural Insights Team export their services around the world. However, I’m not sure it’s an industry to be too proud of at the moment.
KG: Has any national newspaper editor yet addressed the detailed charge sheet you lay out in this chapter? Have you talked to any since?
LD: The book has had tremendous coverage in some newspapers, has been ignored by others despite being a best-seller, and did receive one negative review. No journalist or editor has answered any specific points I raise in the book.
KG: You put the government’s fear propaganda into historical context in the book. Has there been anything in British history to match this level and extent of mass mind bending and breaking?
LD: I wonder if Covid will go down as one of the worst fear-mongering campaigns of all time. Surely as a nation we have never spent so much on advertising one public health campaign alone? But I think it’s too early to assess and a historian would have a more informed answer.
KG: Have you seen any let-up in the fear factor as so called Freedom Day approached? We now seem to be in the midst of a ‘third wave’ ratcheting up of fear.
LD: I have had many requests to write a sequel, because I think the fear, ‘nudge’ and other behavioural science approaches have actually been ramped up since the book was published. I also think it’s because once you understand the tactics you can spot them more easily. So people who have read my book are seeing the same tactics employed.
The nudge around the vaccine has been particularly energetic, such as using celebrities to endorse it and speak out, incentivising with football tickets, some news stories about young people in hospital begging others to get the vaccine before it’s too late, and the dangling threat of the vaccine passport to coerce people, especially the young, to get the jab to continue to access normal social, sporting and business life.
KG: The terror technique was always backed by other invidious methods manipulating the public, conditional promises and non-stop vaccine pressure – bullying everyone into compliance. Is that as bad?
LD: If you asked British citizens if they want to be subjected to furtive use of shaming, bullying and fear-mongering to make them comply with rules I expect they would say no. They are all distasteful, mentally damaging and a depressing style of government.
KG: Are you surprised by some retail and hospitality outlets (as well public sector institutions) maintaining mask and other mandates although they are no longer demanded by law? Is the fear/compliance dynamic now so embedded behaviourally that people are too fearful to dispense with it?
LD: Masks and other social distancing restrictions have become self-policing. Masks in particular have become totemic in a fierce fault line between liberty and responsibility. Some commentators have accused those who plan to unmask as selfish, stupid and dangerous. I think this self-policing was predictable and it was also planned, to a degree. The use of social conformity and peer norms to ‘control human behaviour’ was typical throughout the epidemic. The nudgers wanted us to monitor each other. David Halpern, the chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, also on Sage and SPI-B, referred to the desirability of this citizen policing when he commented that ‘Most of the heavy lifting is done by the public, frowning at people who aren’t wearing masks. The British are particularly good at doing this.’ In an astonishing public admission, when masks were first mandated Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said she hoped that people would be shamed into complying by other members of the public.
It is said it takes three days to change behaviour. We’ve been living in an unnatural way and in a state of fear and anxiety for 16 months. If all laws reverted by magic tomorrow I think it would take a few years for human behaviour to revert to normal. Fear is not a tap you can just turn off.
KG: Would a responsible government sack all those on Sage responsible for the brazen psychological fear ‘rules’ you report in frightening detail that underlie this Covid reign of terror?
LD: SPI-B are voluntary advisers. They are just one part of this. And they answer questions posed by the government, or Sage. Where they might do the most damage is when they use their media pulpits when they feel the government is not heeding their advice and they put forward more extreme proposals.
One of my most surprising and disturbing discoveries was that behavioural science is deeply embedded in government. There are a panoply of departments and units dedicated to underhand attitudinal and behaviour change and communications: the Cabinet Office, the Behavioural Insights Team, the Rapid Response Unit, the Counter Disinformation Cell, GCHQ, the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), Prevent and the 77th Brigade, which is part of the Army.
KG: Currently there seems to be no bottom to the rabbit hole this government is leading us down – a vicious spiral of destructive policies ‘justifying’ more of the same destructive policies from which only the elite are protected. Can you see any light at the end of this tunnel?
LD: Once you are aware of the tactics they simply do not work as well. So many people have told me that reading my book has educated and armed them. Also, despite the best efforts of the fear machine, I have some hope. Fear is not sustainable. And, as it wears thin, it is revealed to be in an inverse relationship with the growing awareness of how it was weaponised. As fear finally melts away we will be able to confront our frailties and strengths, as citizens, scientists, journalists and politicians. I do have some hope – at least on the good days.