Fear is perhaps the most effective, reliable and proven weapon for tyrants to control people. The same is true in medical tyranny.
Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavior (SPI-B) expressed regret about the “unethical” and “totalitarian” tactics in a new book about the role of psychology in the UK government’s COVID-19 response.
“Clearly, using fear as a means of control is not ethical. Using fear smacks of totalitarianism. It’s not an ethical stance for any modern government,” said Gavin Morgan, a psychologist on the team. Morgan spoke to author Laura Dodsworth, who has spent a year investigating the UK government’s tactics for her book titled “A State of Fear,” which was published on May 17.
SPI-B provides behavioral science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical or epidemiological experts. It warned in March last year that ministers needed to increase “the perceived level of personal threat” from COVID-19 because “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened.”
“The government was very worried [in March last year] about compliance and they thought people wouldn’t want to be locked down. There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance, and decisions were made about how to ramp up the fear,” one SPI-B scientist told Dodsworth.
“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.”
Another SPI-B member said: “You could call psychology ‘mind control.’ That’s what we do … clearly we try and go about it in a positive way, but it has been used nefariously in the past.”
One warned that “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.” (Related: Pandemic pandemonium provides opportunity for authoritarians and sociopaths to exploit and control people.)
Another member of SPI-B said they were “stunned by the weaponization of behavioral psychology” during the pandemic, and that “psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic and became manipulative. They have too much power and it intoxicates them.”
Big Tech plays key role in spreading fear right at the beginning of pandemic
Big Tech also played a key role in spreading fear right from the start of the pandemic. A March 2020 article published by Time noted that, social media groups and comments sections are becoming ground zero for intense arguments.
“Such conversations are just one way that social media is both offering a window into our collective response to the coronavirus outbreak, as well as shaping our reaction in the first place – for good and for ill,” the article said.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter became facilitators of important conversations about the virus, while allowing sensationalism and misinformation to spread.
For every expert trying to share accurate information, there are thousands of users spreading rumors, sensationalism and other forms of disinformation.
“It pulls everyone out of the woodwork. Every scam artist, every bunk cure peddler, every conspirator, every internet troll,” said Daniel Rogers, an assistant professor at New York University and co-founder of the nonprofit Global Disinformation Index – which works to counter false information sources on the internet.
The article noted that algorithms that shape what we see on social media typically promote content that garners the most engagement. Researchers say that model is partially responsible for the spread of misinformation and sensationalism online, since shocking or emotionally-charged content is especially good at getting people’s attention.
Khudejah Ali, a fake news and disease communication researcher, has studied how public health officials can design health-risk messages during outbreaks. She found that “a moderate level of fear-arousing sensationalism” in such messages could increase user engagement.
She said that when such messages are combined with useful information that helps people protect themselves or diagnose symptoms, the combination can “become a powerful and actionable health communication message, and result in wide sharing and engagement across populations.”
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