Why I Wrote This
Why can’t we just “agree to disagree” over all things Covid?
If you have lost friends or become estranged from family members over the last year, you’re not alone. More and more of us are finding it increasingly difficult to build a bridge across our differing worldviews as the choices we make reveal fundamental differences in morals, values, and philosophies.
And maybe our relationships weren’t as great as we thought they were.
But how did we actually get here? Why have people turned on each other? Why have people lost the ability to see and relate to the suffering of others?
Frustratingly, the alternative research community isn’t without fault – we all know in our hearts that labelling people as “normies” or “sheep”, and bitterly blaming them for dragging us into their dystopian new normal is unlikely to win them over, however good it makes us feel at the time.
Many blame the media – their constant bitching about “anti-vaxxers”, “Covid deniers” and “conspiracy theorists” has promoted an uncompromising, unquestioning, binary view of the world. They have made any objective debate of covid measures impossible on the heavily censored mainstream social platforms, primarily by ensuring consumers of mainstream news sites are hostile and unreceptive to different interpretations of official data.
However, they didn’t achieve this ruination of our relationships all by themselves, even though there’s no doubt they have played their part as diligent amplifiers of the Government narrative, broadcasting fear-mongering propaganda all day, every day.
When you have so much information coming in, it’s easy to get consumed by the issues of that particular moment. One minute it’s masks, the next it’s vaccines, then vaccine adverse reactions, and on it goes.
The downside of this is that, in our quest to keep up with the latest information, we forget to step back and look at the bigger picture – the way all the pieces fit together. We experience the results and feel the hurt as we sense our connection to loved ones slipping away, but we miss some of the steps that got us here.
We get the dopamine hit from each new crazy clickbait headline, but we forget that behind those headlines there are countless people, teams, and organisations working diligently and relentlessly to make the world appear a certain way, and to stop too many people peeking behind the curtain and working out it’s all an illusion.
Just as our brains find it difficult to comprehend numbers above a certain size, it’s hard to process the sheer scale of the manipulation.
I was keen to understand more about how this was orchestrated, and I had some specific questions in mind:
- Why has this situation provoked such extreme polarisation?
- Can we say with certainty that this divide has been deliberately engineered, and with malicious intent? If so, how?
- Why are people so resistant to the idea of doing their own research? Why does alternative information feel so threatening to them?
- Why are people so willing to trust proven liars in Parliament and profit-driven criminal corporations above their friends and family?
I wanted to look deeper into the role behavioural scientists have played in creating these societal divisions.
I also wanted to understand how and why the public has accepted them so easily.
A Short History of Nudge
Nudge theory has been around since the early 2000s and has been adopted by governments as a method of subtly influencing people and groups without having to resort to legislation and direct enforcement.
Some nudge-type interventions sound fairly innocuous on the surface. They work by presenting choices differently and tapping into our emotional triggers. They draw from behavioural psychology and behavioural economics, employing techniques such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – tactics that marketers and retailers have used for many years to part us from our cash. Nudges change the informational context and make it easier for the recipients to choose the preferred option or behaviour.
There has been much criticism of Nudge as being non-transparent and not based on public consent. The fear is that it is capable of enabling biased or corrupt policy-makers to manipulate public perceptions based on untruths, leading people to act against their own best interests.
The World Bank, UN, WHO, and EU all have their own behavioural insights teams dedicated to shaping the way we think and act.
In March 2020, WHO set up its Technical and Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health with Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein as Chair.
He was head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration and has now joined Homeland Security as Senior Counsellor under Biden.
He was dubbed “the most dangerous man in America” by American media personality Glenn Beck due to his high level of influence, and his views on subjects such as the rights of animals and same-sex marriage.
In 2008 he co-wrote a book with economist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler called “Nudge – Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” which is one of the most famous, influential, and frequently quoted publications on the subject.
The same year he wrote a paper claiming that conspiracy theories are the product of a “crippled epistemology” and recommended that the Government should cognitively infiltrate conspiracy groups online in order to “weaken or even break up the ideologies”.
In 2014 he wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg about a study into the indoctrination of Chinese high school students in order to change their political views, which was jaw-dropping in its implications for education and academia.
What the researchers found was that the students displayed a higher level of trust in public officials, were more likely to describe the Chinese political system as democratic, and were more sceptical of free markets.
At the end of the article he asks if this would only be possible in authoritarian nations, and then concludes:
“In a democratic country with a flourishing civil society, a high degree of pluralism, and ample room for disagreement and dissent — like the U.S. — it may well be harder to use the curriculum to change the political views of young people. But even in such societies, high schools probably have a significant ability to move students toward what they consider “a correct worldview, a correct view on life, and a correct value system.””
The Behavioural Insights Team – Just a BIT Unethical?
It was Cameron’s Government that first began to integrate the “Nudge” concept into UK policy. A Cabinet Office document called “Mindspace”, published in 2010, laid out the benefits and applications of behavioural science within the design and execution of public policy.
The Behavioural Insights Team was established in the UK in 2011. It started out as a team of 6-7 people headed by Dr David Halpern (currently the Chief Executive of BIT as well as the What Works National Advisor to the Government, a position he has held since 2013), and is now a profitable company jointly owned by the UK Cabinet Office, the charity Nesta, and its own employees. It has offices in London, Manchester, Paris, New York, Sydney, Singapore, Toronto, Wellington, and Washington DC.
BIT has close relationships with universities such as UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, Pennsylvania, and Harvard – Professor Cass Sunstein actually serves as an advisor.
In 2018, Professor Liam Delaney, head of Psychology and Behavioural Science at London School of Economics expressed concerns about the ethics of the BIT and the wider field, mentioning scaling and credibility of results, as well as the need for defining qualifications, roles, and boundaries for the profession.
He refers to “the growing enthusiasm for this field by governments” and the importance of questioning the extent to which any interventions involve manipulation and deception, and the potential for harm to unsuspecting citizens.
He notes that much of the work of the BIT is “in the spirit of Nudge” – dubbed by Thaler and Sunstein as the “Libertarian Paternalistic Tradition” – in that the interventions do allow the public to avoid the influence and maintain freedom of choice, but “it is also clear the BIT are not wedded to this framework”.
In January 2020, he co-wrote an ethics framework with Leonhard K Lades designed for use in public policy settings, based on the acronym: FORGOOD – Fairness, Openness, Respect, Goals, Opinions, Options and Delegation.
Today, it seems his caution was not unfounded. It is clear that many of the behavioural insights policies rolled out for Covid do not meet this ethical code.
It’s one thing to persuade an entire population that they are in mortal danger from a virus with a 99.7% survival rate. It’s something else to study how humans react to threat, and then leverage this covertly to elicit specific behaviours proven to be detrimental to health and wellbeing.
But the escalating division we’ve seen between people is unprecedented and increasingly hard to dismiss as accidental fallout.
Unleashing torrents of abuse and ridicule on anyone who decides that they trust their own immune system above a medical intervention that’s riddled with conflicts of interest, political agendas, and borrows heavily from totalitarian regimes of the past, is a different level altogether.
Professor Susan Michie and UCL
The UCL Centre for Behaviour Change is an important hub for the research which drives developments in behavioural science. It is directed by Professor Susan Michie who is widely known to be a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and also sits on the WHO Behavioural Insights Group under Cass Sunstein, along with Dr Tim Chadbourne from Public Health England.
She has also written a textbook for health psychologists in training, and designed the Behaviour Change Wheel, a systematic method of designing behaviour change interventions, with an accompanying e-book.
She is a member of the SAGE sub-group known as SPI-B (Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours) which has been advising the Government on coronavirus policy, and how to best gain compliance from the UK population.
Her husband Professor Robert West is also a member, as well as a fellow grant holder on the Human Behaviour Change Project, a collaboration between behaviour change scientists, computer scientists, and systems architects to create an online knowledge base which uses AI and machine learning.
She is internationally influential in this field and recently won the Sabanka Sankip Research Award with this year’s theme being “Post-Corona World and Turkey: Social, Psychological and Political Impacts of the Pandemics”.
She played an instrumental role advising the Government during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. In 2010 she co-authored a study – “Demographic and attitudinal determinants of protective behaviours during a pandemic: A review” – with Dr Alison Bish which was updated and then summarised in a Scientific Evidence Review for the Department of Health.
The goal of the study was to collate evidence of the demographics and attitudes associated with protective health behaviours and assemble them within a conceptual framework to enable easier application to policy. Their conclusions were as follows:
“The findings suggest that intervention studies should focus on particular demographic groups and on raising levels of perceived threat of the pandemic disease and belief in the effectiveness of measures designed to protect against it.”
She describes how she laid the foundations for her current advisory role in an interview with Brooke Struck on the Decision Lab podcast:
“In terms of my role within this latest COVID-19 pandemic, it really stems from my role in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, where I was the only social and behavioral scientist that was part of our cross government scientific advisory group in emergencies, also known as SAGE. And I convinced them that they actually needed the whole behavioral and communications subgroup to advise them. So they agreed to this, and I set up and chaired the behavioral and communications subgroup of SAGE.”
In the same interview she described her ultimate vision for the ideal pandemic response:
“But unless you do border controls well, unless you drive down towards zero COVID, i.e. elimination in particular regions, and have a very good test, trace, and isolate system developed alongside it, as the countries that have managed this very well protects their economies as well as people’s lives.”
You’re Not Scared Enough For SAGE
SPI-B have been steering the public messaging for the Government and their recommendations can be seen in a number of documents already in the public domain, outlining their strategies for gaining compliance with draconian and controversial measures such as lockdowns, social distancing, masking, and more.
The now infamous SAGE document from March 2020, “Options For Increasing Adherence to Social Distancing Measures” shocked many due to its suggestion that the public simply wasn’t scared enough and the sense of personal threat needed to be increased in order to increase compliance.
The report brazenly listed coercion as one of the nine methods of achieving behaviour change, along with social disapproval. They note that this could result in negative effects such as victimisation.
In May 2020, Susan Michie and her husband and SPI-B colleague, Robert West, published a paper in Nature journal which outlined methods of behaviour change. A slogan was suggested to discourage people from touching their T-Zone, using the acronym “DEADS”: Delay, Escape, Avoid, Distract, Substitute.
Imagine if instead of “Hands, Face, Space”, people were making sure to recall and repeat “DEADS” to themselves every time they felt like scratching their nose or picking a spot.
This strategy never made it into the public arena so presumably it must have been dumped. Maybe this was because the average person would never remember what the letters stood for. Behavioural scientists love acronyms and slogans, and use them all the time so it’s hard to understand why they chose this one.
Although it does suggest that those responsible wanted us to have death at the forefront of our minds at all times.
Leveraging Our Fear of Death
To fully understand the impact of such a strategy, we need to look back at the work of a psychologist called Ernest Becker who believed that fear of death was the mainspring of all human activity, and that culture was how we buffered this existential anxiety.
“The real world is simply too terrible to admit.
It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die.
Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe.
Immortal in some ways”
― Ernest Becker
His work describes how awareness of our own mortality – death salience – changes our behaviour.
These death reminders can be at the forefront of our awareness – like the Covid numbers being flashed on TV screens night after night, along with harrowing hospital scenes. Or the constant “Stay home, save lives” mantra.
Or they can be more subconscious – like a hearse driving past in our peripheral vision.
The net result is the same. When death is brought into our awareness, the effect is profound:
We cleave to the social norms of our chosen in-group
Negative feelings towards the perceived out-group intensify
We strive to bolster our self-esteem
In 1985 Jeff Greenberg, Tom Prszczynski and Sheldon Solomon decided to find a way to empirically prove Becker’s ideas. They conducted experiments to find out exactly what the effects of this mortality salience were on situations in the real world, in all walks of life.
Terror Management Theory explains how we manage this fear of death through actions and worldviews which enable us to give life significance and meaning.
It’s a Battle for Self-Esteem, Don’t You Know?
We are ALL suffering from existential threat – those who believe the virus is deadly, and those who believe the bigger death toll is due to specific Covid policies including the vaccines, and the current global political trajectory.
This existential threat – and the threat which ensues from losing jobs and livelihoods which is heavily linked to an individual’s sense of identity – means, according to TMT, that maintaining self-esteem will be a huge challenge.
Terror Management Theory (TMT) also draws heavily from the work of Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst who explored the struggles people face in maintaining self-esteem, noting that difficulties with this may be key factors in a variety of mental health problems.
In order to simplify the many ways we counter our anxiety and neurosis, Horney divided people into three broad categories:
- Compliant – those who seek approval by conformity and self-effacement.
- Aggressive – those who seek to exploit, dominate, or control others in order to feel better.
- Detached – those who protect themselves by avoiding others and move towards self-sufficiency.
The SAGE documents were clear that people needed to “feel empowered” by knowing which actions would “slow the spread”. In other words, people should feel good about sacrificing other aspects of their own health, their quality of life, and destroying their future prospects because it was the “right” and “noble” thing to do.
Many derive a large portion of their self-esteem from their jobs, income bracket, businesses, and social status, which also give them a sense of meaning and purpose. It is important to not underestimate the cultural shift required in being asked to derive our self-esteem from the collective as opposed to our individual identities, activities, and achievements.
It is also important not to underestimate the psychological “cost” of this by recognising how adept our brains are at avoiding the prospect of facing and dealing with reality, and preparing for the inevitable mental health epidemic to follow in months and years to come.
Self-esteem maintenance is complex and ongoing, even under normal circumstances. It is subject to frequent setbacks throughout our daily lives, every time we fail to live up to our ideal selves, and every time we compare ourselves unfavourably to others – particularly on social media.
Those with low self-esteem, or who derive their self-esteem predominantly from external sources, are therefore much easier to manipulate.
How we are perceived by our peers directly affects self-esteem, and so many will go to great lengths to make sure they are seen to be doing the right thing. This extreme virtue-signalling – masked selfies, broadcasting of vaccination appointments, adding vaccination status to profile pictures – may look like pointless and annoying acts of conformity, but are actually attempts to bolster self-esteem and get validation for their actions.
This explains the need for the frequent reminders on TV, social media, newspapers and advertising billboards, making sure everyone remembers how they are “saving lives” by staying home and following the rules.
It also explains why some people were so aggressive when debating on social media, needing to win the argument at all costs in order to feel superior.
Why go looking elsewhere for answers when you have an instant self-esteem fix right there, with no effort required?
Exploiting Our Need for Cultural Drama
Terror Management Theory posits that we buffer our death anxiety with cultural drama. This includes our political views, group affiliations, and also our worldviews.
Our cultures provide meaning, and context for our existence. Religions give us the stories of where we came from and where we are going, as well as a way of symbolically overcoming death and attaining immortality.
Our social fabric is built on our real-life interactions – at work, during sports and recreational activities, and when people come together in worship and celebration.
Pub culture and hospitality are a key part of life in the UK, as well as providing a large slice of the job market, yet few protested when the entire sector was closed.
As the Government recommendations outlawed almost all participation in our previous “cultural drama” of choice outside of our own households, such as worship, celebration, sports, music, exercising in groups, and socialising in pubs, it is not surprising that many of us were struggling to find purpose and meaning.
Deprived of our usual social outlets and our workplaces, and the opportunity for evaluating social norms and sense-making in informal settings, we were effectively corralled on our social media platforms.
When we did talk to friends online and over the phone, as no one had been doing anything much of interest apart from work, there was very little to talk about bar Covid.
Luckily, we were provided with a new ready-made cultural drama to fill the gap. The celebration of essential workers and the cultish, creepy rainbows appearing everywhere to honour the NHS is a prime example. The rainbow as a symbol has many meanings – it symbolises a bridge between worlds in some pagan traditions but also represents the Noahide movement and laws which, if broken, incur serious consequences.
Dancing nurses managed to snatch a few minutes from their shifts to choreograph and perform routines to an extraordinarily high standard, even though hospitals were claimed to be overwhelmed and bursting at the seams.
New words and phrases entered the lexicon such as “self-isolation”, “social-distancing”, “Covid-secure”, along with the official mantras emanating from Downing Street: “Stay Alert, Control The Virus, Save Lives”. Arrows and dots erupted and spread throughout shops and high streets along with plexiglass screens.
Government Medical and Science advisors became larger than life celebrities overnight, the all-seeing oracles with their graphs and doom-mongering predictions.
Captain Tom Moore captured the imagination of the British public through his money-raising efforts for the NHS. After his official knighthood, he attained saintly status almost bordering on martyrdom when he died of pneumonia at the grand old age of 100. A conveniently positive Covid test result enabled his death to be added to the official toll.
Masks were made mandatory first on public transport and then in shops, which represented one of the first major forks in the road where people drew a line in the sand and “took a side”.
Those who questioned the efficacy and safety of masks were told to shut up and wear one because “it’s not about you”, “it’s about protecting others”.
Those who had lost jobs and financial security were told not to be so selfish when they dared to point out the real, ongoing cost of lockdowns.
The creators of Terror Management Theory wrote a special issue article looking at the role that fear of death plays in relation to the virus, and the tension between what they call proximal and distal defences – the former which buffer immediate, conscious death anxiety, and distal, which buffer unconscious, peripheral death anxiety through the pursuit of self-esteem and meaning.
“The fundamental dilemma is that measures that keep us safe in the moment often interfere with our ability to find meaning and significance in our lives.”
It was this dilemma that sparked an abundance of heated arguments – the false binary choice of “saving lives or saving the economy”.
The Terror Management Theory Health Model
The Terror Management Health Model applies TMT to decision-making in health contexts where death thoughts are likely to be activated.
It attempts to predict the motivations likely to arise, and the types of behaviours adopted as a consequence of death salience.
A special section paper was published in the British Journal of Psychology by Emily Courtney et al, entitled “The contagion of mortality: a terror management health model for pandemics”. These authors also looked at the alleged pandemic through the lens of TMT.
They note that individualistic worldviews are antithetical to curbing a pandemic and such cultures should adopt a more collectivist agenda.
They conclude that health behaviours should be imbued with ideological significance and “wearing a facemask in public becomes in and of itself a worldview-bolstering action which encourages self-worth”. They comment on the trend for designer brands jumping on the idea of masks as a fashion statement, and how celebrities with social power, and leaders seen as charismatic, adopting such behaviours will be likely to shift social norms and worldviews.
“The more these behaviours are imbued with cultural significance, the more they will become effective distal, longitudinal defences”.
It seems that many people took this ideological significance to heart, and there were many accounts on social media of people without masks being attacked in public places, and being targeted at work – even in the case of obvious medical exemption.
It is the ideological threat which has been used to propel masses into battle.
It certainly propelled millions of people into open warfare on social media comment threads, all from the safety of their sofas, and even in the supermarket aisle under the banner of “saving lives and protecting the NHS”.
We Can Be Heroes (From Our Sofas)
People also seek the experience of overcoming an adversary as it strengthens the feeling of being heroic in their own lives. With few heroic archetypes and role models in popular culture, what better way than firing off satirical memes, insults, and torrents of abuse on social media platforms, flanked by the sock puppet accounts, bots and trolls of 77th Brigade
Powerless to affect any real change in the wider world, the public picked up on the war metaphors employed by politicians and echoed in the press – “invisible enemy”, “frontline” and “NHS heroes” – and went into battle with anyone who questioned the official data and unbalanced journalism.
Armed with the ultimate insult, “tin foil hat wearer”, this battle was extended to include anyone who questioned the official data or one-sided media reporting. The need to win arguments and shut others down was intensely strong in some people.
TMT suggests that negative reactions are increasingly likely the more compelling the alternative conception of reality appears to be, and the more committed the outgroupers are to their views.
Any hint that other versions of reality are equally valid threatens self-esteem and therefore increases anxiety. By eliminating the threat, self-esteem remains intact. In history, this has resulted in segregation and annihilation.
The 2020 study by Jasper Van Assche which considered divergent reactions to ingroup and outgroup members disobeying social distancing, stated:
“News about fellow nationals and other national groups breaking the ‘corona laws’ has the potential to elicit very strong negative emotions towards these norm‐violating (sub)groups. When it comes to other national groups, such emotions can further translate into a stronger endorsement of punishment‐based governmental decisions to contain the virus”.
They believe they are the heroes in the fight against Covid, as do the scientists – erasing our natural behaviours and grooming us to accept a “new normal” based on practices with little scientific evidence to support them, such as lockdowns and social distancing.
Terror Management Theory has been used to explain almost everything – our choice of takeaway food to jury decision making, to porn consumption and even the panic buying of toilet paper during Covid-19, and many are drawing on it to inform Government policy decisions, including those related to our health.
The new generation of psychologists and behavioural scientists deem it important enough to continue researching.
Personally, I think the quality of much of this research is questionable – maybe a subject for another article. But the volume of studies, articles, and meta-analyses of previous literature provides a stack of “evidence” which will be convincing enough to support a narrative for those too scared or too lazy to look beyond, and who fail to question many of the assumptions that some of this research is built on – such as the existence of the pandemic in the first place, or the most effective measures to deal with one.
TMT is only part of the story. It has received criticism and is by no means a consensus.
Basic neuroscience tells us that when we are under stress or threatened, our cognitive abilities decrease as energy is diverted away from the brain and into the large muscle groups to fuel our escape.
Then there are those who have reached an acceptance of death either through age, near-death experiences, or gained greater self-awareness through introspection. These people are much less likely to be reactive when confronted with legitimate threat or fear-based messaging.
There are other behaviour change models, and other psychological and neuroscientific explanations, for the extreme reactions we have seen.
The validity of TMT is not the subject of this article, however.
Terror Management Theory and the Terror Management Health Model were both included in the recently completed UCL Database of Behaviour Change Theories which was tweeted out by Susan Michie’s UCL colleague, Jo Hale.
This is a searchable database of over 75 behaviour change theories which have been formalised according to an ontology modelling system.
In other words it’s a computer modelling system.
And we all know where that’s likely to lead.
From TMT to Two Minutes Hate
“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in.” – George Orwell, 1984.
Many of us have seen different sides to those we thought we knew well.
Somewhere a line was crossed which moved people from merely believing the other party was misinformed or wrong, to believing them deplorable and worthy of punishment.
We all remember the reports of “illegal raves” and media photos of supposedly crowded beaches last year, some taking advantage of camera lens trickery in order to make it appear that social distancing rules were being ignored, stirring up outrage towards the alleged “covidiots” – just normal people doing what would be expected on the hottest day of the year under normal circumstances.
It has been shocking to witness some of the comments – the calls for those who oppose masks and lockdowns to be denied NHS treatment, to be locked up, or even to die a slow and painful death.
Cressida Dick encouraged people to snitch on their neighbours for flouting lockdown rules, and the heavy-handed policing of lockdown protests didn’t help matters, even though there was little evidence of anyone contracting anything from any outdoor event anywhere.
We have seen similar reactions to anyone questioning the scientific basis for Covid policies – even highly qualified and credible scientists have attracted hundreds of paid trolls from 77th Brigade and those who engage for reasons I’ve already mentioned, as well as vicious smear campaigns and hit pieces, notably on the scientists who fronted the Great Barrington Declaration.
But there are differences of opinion even within SAGE, where the scientists come from a wide range of disciplines, so the idea that the science is “settled” or infallible is ridiculous.
By not allowing full and open debate of the science, and suppression of more traditional, holistic, and proactive health strategies such as taking personal responsibility for good nutrition, and supporting one’s own immune system with essential vitamins, these outgroups were created and immediately forced into an opposing and combative stance.
Teaching people that it’s not necessary to do research, cultivating an infantile dependence on Government, and promoting unquestioning trust in the officially appointed experts has created a perfect breeding ground for science based on lies and vested interests.
There’s a strange idea that real “research” can only be found in scientific journals, which is ludicrous. Not all studies are created equal, and many great ideas for studies never see light of day because they don’t get funded.
When eminent scientists are forced to make YouTube videos and do interviews with independent media because they are so heavily censored and can’t get their message out any other way, we are in a dangerous place. People have been trained to believe that YouTube videos are only made by violent extremists or spotty, nerdy, teenagers in basements and therefore won’t even click on the link, let alone watch.
When one side of the scientific debate is continually suppressed, eventually it will be impossible to contain. After this point it will take a mammoth, never-ending tsunami of counter information and continuous aggressive censorship to keep it down.
The building blocks for this were put in place years ago.
Managing Media Narratives For Political Agendas
The Behavioural Insights Team partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation- and CDC-funded Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project to study how their Covid messaging could be enhanced using nuanced media narratives targeted at specific segments of the population.
On their blog post of 16th March 2021, titled “Narratives as a Tool: Shifting Mindsets at Scale”, they describe how presenting narratives as stories within entertainment media can actually make us “less likely to push back against the assumptions within a narrative” and change health behaviours.
The resulting research “Understanding and Shifting Culture of Health Mindsets” was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – a philanthropic organisation founded by the son of the original president of the Johnson & Johnson company which, as we know, manufactures one of the Covid vaccines.
The study evaluates how certain groups of people respond to specific Covid messaging embedded within a story. The group were segmented based on their answers to three sets of survey questions as follows:
- How serious are structural factors?
- What should the role of Government be?
- Generally speaking, do people deserve the rewards and punishments they get in the world?
These obviously have the potential to be divisive subjects, and enabled the following three groups to be created:
- Rugged individualists
- Optimistic moderates
- Witnesses to injustice
We already know how these three groups are likely to react to fear and threat as they loosely reflect the three groups defined in Karen Horney’s work – the detached, the approval seekers, and the aggressive dominators.
The researchers examined the television preferences of each group, and their entertainment consumption during the alleged pandemic.
The main experiment with BIT used a story about a man called Nathan who went to a barbecue and caught Covid. There were variations of the story which emphasised personal choice, or the role of the establishment in keeping people safe and making it easier to follow the rules.
This is what they found:
“Those who read the hybrid story with a social solution were more likely to believe that our country should do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy, and for the OM group the hybrid stories translated into even greater shifts in mindset regarding health equity.”
They also found stories that balance personal choices with systemic factors can influence perception of blame, policy support, and broader culture of health mindsets.
This study demonstrated by tweaking these narratives how easy it is to influence perceptions regarding who to blame, and what type of solutions are required.
Based on who is funding this research, it’s probably safe to assume that this is exactly the type of data which is being fed into Government policy via BIT and SPI-B, and used to shape public communications.
We already know from the Michie/Bish review cited earlier that one recommendation was to “focus on a specific demographic”.
Another Media Impact Project publication, a Media Tip Sheet, was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “help media makers optimize stories for impact with the help of social science”.
This tip sheet lists nine strategies drawn from their “forty years of research in the social and behavioral sciences” which point to a wide array of strategies or “nudges” which can be leveraged for optimum impact.
Their goal was to “inspire, educate, and empower media makers to integrate science into the art of storytelling for social change”
Again they emphasised the use of narratives, the importance of language, and the power of social norms in persuasion.
Interestingly, in 2016 the MIP had already uploaded an analysis on the film “Contagion” (a film which many saw as having uncanny similarities to the current coronavirus situation), researching how watching the film had changed people’s understanding of virus transmission and how to behave in a pandemic.
The introduction asks the question, “Can movies really change people?”
What they found was that after watching the film people were, in their words:
- More knowledgeable about viruses and more likely to know viruses mutate.
- More engaged in actions that could help them prepare for a viral pandemic, like preparing an emergency kit and talking to friends and family.
- More committed to washing their hands more frequently.
So films apparently can change people, even if they believe they are watching fiction.
They also found that 62% of people admitted that the film had affected them emotionally.
“Contagion” was also discussed on the Science-ish podcast – a Radio Wolfgang production hosted by TV presenter and journalist Rick Edwards, with science writer Dr Michael Brooks who also co-founded the Science Party, a UK political party launched in 2010 which believed that politics needed more scientific input.
Science-ish takes sci-fi themes from movies and TV programmes and invites guests on to talk about the real science behind them.
In this particular episode, uploaded on 10th May 2018, they discussed the likelihood of another pandemic. Featured expert was ex-WHO Director of Essential Medicines and Rockefeller Foundation MD of Pandemic Response, Dr Jonathan Quick.
The second episode, “Brave New World”, inspired by Aldous Huxley’s book, featured Carmen Lefevre, another collaborator on the UCL Behaviour Change Ontology based modelling system, talking about cloning, Dolly the Sheep, human hatcheries, the general idea of scientists playing god, and the ethics of creating a slave underclass to do manual labour.
Only a few weeks ago, the mainstream press were excitedly telling us that scientists had successfully created a human-monkey embryo in a lab for the first time.
It is amazing how harmless entertainment always seems to give us a sneak preview of tomorrow’s reality.
The BBC, First Draft and Facebook – The New Ministry of Truth
The BBC have recently been running a series of eight podcasts called the “Anti-Vax Files” which have been aired on BBC World Service, and episode five is a stellar example of how these narratives are used.
It’s an interesting format as it’s not an interview in the typical sense. Instead, our “reformed” anti-vax conspiracy theorist, Catherine, narrates how she fell down the rabbit hole because of her upbringing in a household where natural and holistic health were the norm. Every so often, her monologue is paused for presenter Mike Wendling and Marianna Spring, the BBC’s disinformation specialist, to interject and educate us in what the real science is, and how to counter those “dangerous conspiracy theories”.
Marianna tells us how Catherine, after seeing the error of her ways and the limitations of her knowledge, teamed up with a group of like-minded people who go into Facebook groups and argue with members, attempting to debunk their information with what they deem to be scientific facts.
Marianna Spring has recently been reporting on a new and somewhat underhand ploy to counter “anti-vax” information online – the use of “honeypot” decoy groups on social media to attract unsuspecting vaccine and lockdown sceptics who would then be fact-checked and re-educated by the sanctimonious group admins – builder and trainee psychologist Richard, and his friend Dave.
Oh wait… doesn’t that sound a bit like Dr Cass Sunstein’s idea?
The BBC already had many angles covered anyway. Their Media Action charity which operates internationally, receives Gates’ funding, and trains journalists to be agents of change in their own countries.
They produced a Covid-19 Handbook for Media, designed for use in all the countries they operate in, covering all aspects of reporting on the crisis, including a further information section which lists resources that “are reliable and can be taken as the final word on the subject”.
These include all the relevant health bodies such as the WHO, but also included First Draft, an organisation with offices in London, New York, and Sydney, devoted to “protecting communities from the spread of misinformation, collaborating on global projects”.
Funded by Google News Initiative, Open Society Foundations, Wellcome Trust, Facebook Journalism Project, and Twitter amongst others, they “recognize the value in sharing our expertise and knowledge with policymakers, particularly at a critical time when our information ecosystem is saturated with health and science misinformation”.
First Draft not only provides training for journalists, but invites governments to use its publicly available resources, such as daily briefings and guides to the information landscape – the one they want you to see.
Some may say that it’s great we have so many powerful organisations collaborating in a crisis.
Others will warn of the dangers in having such an interconnected network of scientists, psychologists, academic institutions, media platforms, powerful corporations, and philanthropic organisations with unlimited funds creating a dense, impenetrable web of information that is increasingly difficult to challenge, and is being presented to governments and the public as fact.
It’s important to understand how these corporate behemoths work together to stamp out alternative information and suppress open debate. Facebook fact-checking outfits have also been working overtime to label anything they don’t approve of as “false information”, as well as penalising users with bans and account deletion, even when the information is provably true, and drawn from official sources.
Far from being independent, Facebook’s fact-checkers are partly funded by Facebook.
While we’re on the subject, Facebook itself employs behavioural scientists. They have studied how what we see in our newsfeed affects our emotions. We know the algorithm is set up to give us more of what we react to.
In 2018 Facebook changed its algorithm to promote more engagement – what it terms “meaningful interaction”. This pushed up articles on divisive topics including politics.
Laura Hazard Owen’s 2019 article in Niemen Lab describes it as follows:
“…what’s clear is that Mark Zuckerberg’s January 2018 exhortation that users’ activity on Facebook be “time well spent” has not come to pass: Instead, it’s often an angry, reactive place where people go to get worked up and to get scared.”
A recent episode of EastEnders which portrayed a character called Karen visiting the local shop to buy milk and cigarettes, expressing her concerns about the Covid vaccine. She is then lectured and shut down by two other characters, with one remarking, “Some of the best scientists have worked on this, but you reckon you know better? How’s that PhD going for you, Karen?”
This was a particularly abominable example of propaganda disguised as entertainment, and was designed to make people believe that those who had legitimate concerns about the vaccines were unintelligent, made poor health choices, and had no real substance behind their argument.
This is one example of how these narratives are woven into popular culture.
Unfortunately, people are naive to the real intent of these narratives, as they are to the grossly unfair and one-sided interview techniques, used by the majority of radio and TV presenters. The miniscule number of experts and members of the public who manage to get onto mainstream TV or radio to challenge the official narrative are talked over, cut off mid-sentence, and made to look incompetent and ill-informed.
The Government was reported by the BBC to have paid huge sums of money to not only celebrities, but to social media influencers.
“According to social insights firm Captiv8, influencers with over a million followers on Instagram can earn up to $20,000 (£14,980) per post they make on behalf of advertisers.”
These enormous sums reflect the Government’s investment in keeping the Covid narrative going, taking advantage of the more intimate relationships influencers typically have with their fans by way of social media interaction on their posts, compared to celebrities.
Seeding Ideas with Junk Science and Pseudo-Psychology
On 30th July last year, the BBC published a propaganda piece “Coronavirus: Lockdown Solidarity Starting to Fray”. Describing how a poll from the “Together” campaign (who were responsible for the NHS Birthday clap for carers) suggested that the community spirit apparent during lockdown was starting to wane as restrictions were lifted.
This was subtly promoting a collectivist ideology, suggesting that we were all united under the spirit of Covid lockdown, that the reopening of society was also reopening the political divides which resulted from Brexit, and that people had “lost the ability to discuss politics without getting angry and abusive”.
Also quoted in the article, Professor Robert West – mentioned earlier in this report – seeded the idea that the solution was a clearer direction, such as a move towards a “zero Covid” policy, echoing his wife Susan Michie’s viewpoint.
Although these articles appear brief and simple, almost throwaway, they are actually carefully contrived propaganda tools, posing a social problem that a large proportion of the public could identify with, and then proposing a scientifically-backed “solution”, often presented by a SAGE scientist.
There was also a glut of pseudo-psychology articles based on research papers that linked undesirable traits such as narcissism, attention-seeking, selfishness, low intellect, low education and even psychopathy, racism, and extremist ideas to belief in conspiracy theories and Covid “denial” – these are nothing new and hark back to some of the writings of Dr Nudge himself, Cass Sunstein.
Believe in conspiracy theories? You’re probably a narcissist: People who doubt the moon landings are more likely to be selfish and attention-seeking
People Who Social Distance May Be More Intelligent, Study Says
“The Characteristics of the Conspiracist – Why Conspiracy Theorists Need to Feel Unique”
I could go on, but you probably get the idea.
A Government briefing document from the Commission for Countering Extremism: “How Hateful Extremism is Exploiting the Pandemic” linked “Hateful Extremism” to “Belief in Conspiracy Theories”.
We now have a big pot with all these terms floating around together in a kind of word stew. If you believe that the pandemic was over-hyped, question the safety and necessity of Covid vaccines, or the integrity of Government and corporations, you are a far-right conspiracy theorist, have low intelligence, are a narcissistic psychopath, are selfish and attention-seeking, feel powerless, probably mentally ill and likely to turn into a violent extremist.
The public was easily persuaded by this. Reassured that they held the moral and factual high ground, there was no need to do their own research as all that was needed was to “trust the science”, even though the experimental vaccines were still in stage 3 of clinical trials, and racking up additional severe adverse reactions daily.
With families and social groups already embroiled in bitter disagreements over personal vaccine decisions, the possibility of vaccine certification is likely to make these breakdowns impossible to heal. Those who decline the vaccine face being physically and digitally shut out of society, as well as the homes of their friends and families if vaccine passports become a reality.
As fears grow amongst the unvaccinated that recipients of the experimental shot may pose more of a threat to them through the risk of pathogenic priming and “shedding”, and many anecdotal reports of strange symptoms amongst unvaccinated friends and family of those who have taken the vaccine, we need to beware that the biological fear does not become too deeply embedded.
This behaviour also modelled and encouraged by celebrities such as Edwina Currie, who recently ranted about going back to the theatre and not wanting to mix with the unvaccinated, even though both Government and vaccine companies have emphasised that the jabs do not prevent transmission, so ultimately make no difference to the alleged risk in public spaces.
It is clear that the public is being conditioned to regard the unvaccinated as “unclean” and intellectually inferior members of society. The next step is a social underclass representing a real threat to the socially responsible vaccinated class, and therefore too dangerous to be allowed in public places.
This is especially worrying as vaccinations are soon to be targeted at the young, already portrayed as “vectors of infection” by the media.
Many adults do not have the emotional resilience to deal with the incoming social shame and alienation which is increasingly being directed towards those who decline the offer of a vaccine. How are children supposed to cope when their friends start treating them like lepers?
The Ongoing Experiment You Never Signed Up For
UCL have been running an ongoing study on the social and psychological effects of the lockdown, and releasing results on a weekly basis which can be downloaded from their website. This study has been running for a year now and is part of the Covid-Minds Network – an international community of researchers who, in their own words, are “generously” funded by the Wellcome Trust.
A study in The Lancet from February 2020 noted that quarantine should be kept as short as possible in order to mitigate the poorer psychological outcomes associated with longer duration measures, and concluded that the psychological impact from quarantine is wide-ranging, substantial and can be long-lasting.
Based on the abundance of data being gathered in the field, it seems implausible that policy influencers and social engineers could be ignorant to the negative results of their interventions. Yet there was no attempt to mitigate these. In fact, they wanted harsher measures from the beginning.
As early as March 2020, an open letter signed by 600 behavioural scientists demanded to know why the Government was delaying the implementation of social distancing measures. I find it curious that this was coming from behavioural psychologists and not 600 medical professionals or virologists.
Why do behavioural psychologists have such an investment in prolonging our physical, mental, and emotional trauma through lockdowns? Do they actually care about people? If they did, surely by now they would be begging the Government to drop all restrictions.
In January 2021, Dr Gary Sidley wrote a letter to the British Psychological Society, co-signed by 46 colleagues, asking for their ethical position regarding the covert tactics used by SPI-B. He received what he described as a somewhat “evasive and disingenuous reply”. It would seem that this organisation is not alarmed at the coercive strategies employed by the Government, or worried about the psychological health of the nation.
The Society hit the headlines recently after it argued for the rights of psychologists to prescribe certain drugs, including puberty blockers.
A blog, BPS Watch, was set up by a small group of clinical psychologists who have had a long association with the BPS in a variety of roles, to share concerns about the transparency of the organisation and its handling of important issues.
On their homepage they explain the reason for their action:
“…the British Psychological Society had been subject to institutional capture by psychologists who are activists within frameworks of identity politics and by the cronyism of an in-group of psychologists”.
“Psychologists with recognised professional and academic standing who have attempted to debate controversial areas of applied psychological practice have been censored and there has been interference with editorial decisions”.
Yes, behavioural scientists are everywhere. No matter how well-evidenced and rational your behaviour is in your own eyes, they are determined to change it, to pressure you to conform to their “norms”. And they have huge budgets, immense corporate and governmental license to do so, along with fanatical support from the corporate-funded media.
The UCL are holding their 7th International Centre For Behaviour Change Conference on 1st-3rd November 2021, entitled “Enabling Behaviour Change to Build Back Better”.
It’s an online event, although their pre-Covid conferences were live in-person events. Do you think it’s possible the organisers know something we don’t?
As we move towards the midsummer date by which we have been promised that restrictions will be lifted, it would be natural to assume that we might start to see media coverage of Covid start to wane.
On 31st March 2021, a new £320,000,000 contract was awarded to OMD by the Cabinet Office for media buying services specifically for Covid-19 campaigns.
Paul Knight is in charge of OmniGov – a specially created team of 100 people within this global marketing and media agency – who have been handling the Government’s media buying since 2018.
In an interview with specialist marketing publication “Campaign” back in May 2020, he describes his trips to Whitehall during lockdown, and how the insights and data are fed into media planning during meetings with the Cabinet Office.
“An inspirational example of collaboration in this time was the coming together of the UK publishing industry across hundreds of titles. This “virtual” agency, across media, PR, creative, partnerships and insight, has been regularly brought together within the Cabinet Office to help navigate the pace and agility of the activity over the past two months.”
This is one of the clearest indications that we do not have a free media, and that media content is steered by behavioural insights data gathered by the kind of research mentioned earlier in this report.
On 8th April 2021, a job ad was posted by the Government and Public Health England for two Behavioural Scientists on a 10-month contract to lead a response unit initially working from home, but also providing on the ground support to local and national stakeholders – presumably, like a Covid “SWAT” team, responding to local areas of interest – “such as local lockdowns”.
This seems to suggest that Covid restrictions will not cease completely, and the behavioural scientists are revelling in this unique and unprecedented opportunity to test their theories and gather data at the expense of the mental, physical, and emotional health of the nation.
Could this be one reason they would like to see it continue as long as possible?
Your Mind In Their Hands
The vaccine is not the only ongoing experiment we should be wary of, as this assault on our minds is one we can’t actually decline. We are living it and experiencing the fruits of it every day, and we were never asked for our consent.
It is tempting to dismiss those embroiled in the Covid drama and media narrative as weak-minded, stupid, or gullible, but it really isn’t that simple.
The biggest problem is that the norms within society have been designed to leave people time-poor and stressed. People are too busy to look deeply into the information they consume.
For those who doubt the power of priming and predictive programming in popular culture, the cited studies prove this kind of messaging through narratives and story is incredibly effective on certain demographics which are being actively targeted.
Because they rely so much on external validation, many egos are too fragile to put long-held beliefs under the microscope. These are explanations, not excuses; however, it may serve us to examine our approach.
If we want people to look at alternative information and go on a genuine journey of exploration as opposed to a token debunking mission via Wikipedia and Google, then we have to get better at understanding the psychology of the situation ourselves, as well as gaining a better understanding of what we are up against.
We are ALL victims of a complex and calculated psychological attack that is operating in every part of our lives. Our closest relationships and social groups are a target, as without our support networks and personal relationships we are most vulnerable, and the conduit for truth runs dry.
But the biggest target?
It’s our individuality, sacrificed in favour of a collectivist hive mind and the Communitarian “greater good”.
Our saving grace is that these behavioural “experts” deal in theory, many of which aren’t particularly good theories and don’t work on everyone.
They work least well on those with a curious mind who keep asking why, and won’t take no for an answer. Even less on those who have spent time researching, developing nuanced opinions from a wide spectrum of material, and have invested time to understand how the system really works, and what it was really designed to achieve.
Remember that these scientists pushing the collectivist agenda aren’t only doing the research to promote it. They are writing blogs, speaking at conferences, doing media interviews, and guesting on podcasts with huge audiences. They are training and mentoring the new generation in their disciplines, and writing the books their students will be reading in years to come.
The only way to even come close to creating the volume of content required to provide a counter narrative is for us all to be our own media. To keep challenging and asking awkward questions. Our biggest powers are our creativity, our resourcefulness, and our growing numbers.
We need to not give up completely on friends and family, however difficult that may be under present circumstances. More people are seeing through the fake narrative every day.
Information is not dangerous in itself… even unhelpful information that doesn’t resonate or ring true can sometimes serve as a signpost towards something that does. The key is that we have the freedom to choose the path that is the best fit for us as individuals to preserve our health and retain our humanity.
Image by Tamara Gak / Unsplash