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The Peripheral Path: How the Conservative Party Use Psychological Persuasion to Break Their Own Lockdown

The Tories Have Deliberately Used Behavioural Science to Restart Their Herd Immunity Plan

Three months ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation to inform a concerned public that the COVID-19 coronavirus was “the biggest threat this country has faced for decades”. By the end of the speech, Johnson had placed the UK into a state of lockdown. It was a lockdown that the Tories didn’t want and one they were already working to undermine.

It was in April that The Times exposed the government’s early actions during the coronavirus crisis, revealing the true thoughts and opinions of ministers and how they were determined to ensure Britain never entered lockdown. Instead, they intended to expose as many members of the public as possible to the virus to protect the economy with so-called “herd immunity”. 

“The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of COVID-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity, but at a much-delayed speed so that those who suffer the most acute symptoms are able to receive the medical support they need, and such that the health service is not overwhelmed and crushed by the sheer number of cases it has to treat at any one time.”

Robert Peston, ITV

Finally, faced with mounting public pressure and criticism, the Tories acquiesced and entered lockdown. However, as The Times reported, they were determined to leave as quickly as they possibly could with Tim Shipman reporting that Michael Gove is the prime mover behind the effort. Sources for the newspaper stated that there was “not a huge amount” going on in cabinet meetings at this point in April, with those present “waiting for the public to change their minds” on the lockdown. The same sources adding that the Conservatives “didn’t want to go down this route in the first place” and that “the lockdown will only start coming loose when the public wants it to”.

It was back in the 1980s that Richard E. Petty, a much-respected professor of psychology at Ohio State University, developed the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion (ELM). According to the model, those seeking to “persuade” another individual, group or population of their desired goal have two ways of doing so: the “central path” and the “peripheral path”.

The central path involves extensive audience engagement and requires the persuader to logically convince that their argument is correct. However, the peripheral path seeks what is known as “cognitive shortcuts” to ensure that the receiving audience is convinced of the merits of the persuaders’ argument, if only for the short term. Under a constraint of time, such as during an election, referendum or national emergency, the peripheral path is useful to ensure that an audience becomes convinced that action is correct just long enough to act in the way the persuader desires.

Dominic Cummings is known to be a firm believer in these shortcuts and nudges as a method of political persuasion, utilising many of the ideas behind the theory during his time as director of Vote Leave, in particular, the campaign’s tendencies to appeal to base nationalism and emotion outside of logic.

The Brexit campaign undertook a data-driven approach to marketing their argument, including the hiring of a team of physicists who looked at political campaigns from around the world that had successfully used varying persuasion tactics. Based on the research they undertook, they subsequently built a scientific model which was designed to exploit different themes and tactics that had been identified. The campaign identified five major themes that should be the focus of their campaign around and engaged in split test messaging for each theme. They focused on those individuals that their model believed they had the best chance of influencing.

A similar theory, the heuristic-systematic model of information processing (HSM) was developed by social psychologist Shelly Chaiken and states that an audience will receive information one of two ways, systematically or heuristically. Those processing information heuristically rely on cognitive shortcuts or “heuristics” to process the information. The most prevalent of these shortcuts is political partisanship, whereby a partisan voter is more likely to support a policy that comes from their own side of political allegiance than they are to support policies from their opponents, no matter how beneficial that policy may be to themselves individually.

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Reports into the 2016 American Presidential election showed that in the social media age, all that was required for nudges to be seeded throughout the population was that stories be made to go viral. When individuals saw these stories on their newsfeeds and timelines, no matter the source, the reader felt it could be trusted as they had been shared by “friends” and “liked” pages. When these stories are coupled with emotional response triggers and lack of critical analysis, it creates a tidal wave.

It was no coincidence that the far-right, who have an enormous social media spread and proven willingness to spread fake news stories en masse without critical thinking and analysis, were so anti-lockdown. The individuals who were ultimately behind their well-organised protests in the United States are still unknown.

An anti-lockdown protest at Queen’s Park April 25 attracted about 200 who claimed measures to control the spread of COVID-19 are an infringement of freedom. | Michael Swan

“Emotion as an argument” is common to the peripheral path with studies proving that anger makes a population more positive about change, as seen with Brexit, while fear makes a population more hesitant toward change as seen with COVID-19. These fears that have been spread by the government, government actors and sympathetic voices have raised “fears” that a lengthy lockdown will hurt the economy, bring personal hardships, ensure children stagnate outside of school and that citizens will suffer losses of social interaction, influence and identity. These “legitimate” fears (which all have simple political solutions) are coupled with fearmongering conspiracy theories surrounding governmental overreach, New World Order dictatorships, Chinese sinophobia and anti-5G wingnuttery.

This culture of fear has been deliberately and insidiously fed through the population through statements by MPs addressing “public concerns” and by an ever-willing British media. Deliberate miscommunication and the creation of confusion was passed off by opponents as mere “incompetence”, the changing of logos from the danger colour red to the safe green was passed off as a triviality, news of “miraculous recoveries” of octogenarians and babies passed off as the media merely giving “good news” as the papers filled with images of “illegal” lockdown gatherings. But these stories and incidents are exactly what those “nudges” are, a drip-feed of information to slowly persuade the public of the argument, even if you are publicly saying something very different.

Where were the prophecies of doom that greeted lower death tolls in Italy? Where were the photos of bodybags the media gleefully posted from Iran? Indeed, with death tolls often buried down newsfeeds and a resounding lack of anger and alarm from most media outlets, primarily the BBC, the argument that the crisis has been downplayed is inescapable.

The turning point of the public’s perception of the lockdown came when Dominic Cummings made his now infamous trip to Durham, driving 260 miles while apparently infected with the virus. Even the hard-right newspapers such as The Daily Mail were apparently incensed. “One rule for them and one for us”, cried commentators. The public agreed and the final nail was placed into the lockdown coffin. Members of Spi-B, the behavioural science advisory group, stated they were concerned about what message Cummings remaining in government sent.

Perhaps it was exactly the one the government wished to send.

Members of Spi-B say that the entire crisis has been marked by the government ignoring their advice, repeatedly ignoring suggestions as to what messages need to be relayed to the public to keep the lockdown in place.

“Those of us on Spi-B have been increasingly concerned about the extent to which the government’s approach to behavioural science and messaging, in particular, has been 180 degrees like this… The feeling is that there is another parallel group of people who are actually calling the shots here and who have their own opinion on how things should go”

Robert West, professor of health psychology at the Institute of Epidemiology and Health at University College London.

Spi-B is far from the only behavioural science orientated organisation that has been utilised by the government during the crisis, with the government disturbingly deploying the army’s 77th Brigade to work in the UK during the crisis. The brigade was formed to undertake psychological and propaganda operations against whatever enemy Britain has this week.

In April, the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Nicholas Carter stated that the brigade was “helping to quash rumours from misinformation, but also to counter disinformation” with Bristol academic David Miller revealing that the 77th Brigade’s tactics include the use of fake social media profiles.

For all their public comments about public health and ensuring that the public keep the lockdown, the government’s plan for the UK was always herd immunity and continues to be herd immunity. With a vaccine at least a year away, the actions that would be required by the government for the survival of their citizens are unpalatable. Rather than undertake “socialist” policies such as universal basic income, the Tories would still rather tens or even hundreds of thousands die for the needs of The City.

The Conservative Party have been working a deeply insidious campaign of behavioural science since day one, seeking to continue their original plan while avoiding the ramifications that hundreds of thousands of deaths would bring any political party of power. Once Britain is hit by the inevitable second wave of the virus, Boris Johnson will eagerly let the public know that they are not responsible and that ending the lockdown was “the current science” and “the will of the people”, yet this is a “will” that has been deeply influenced by both the corridors of power and the machinery of capital.



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