Estimated 4 minutes read: Controlling the Narratives and the Weaponization of Language in 2020
It doesn’t take a behavioural linguistic analysis of government's narratives and the systems of control of information around Covid-19 to see what is going on.
Even using the words/labels “Covid-19” or “CoronaVirus” could, and probably will get this article flagged and suppressed when posted on social media and in search engine rankings. Such is the monitoring of information, the suppression of debate and the control of the narrative.
The language patterns of the UK government and other governments around the world around this pandemic are very telling. Telling in both what it is and is not saying.
Two statements we heard around the world at the start of this pandemic were “flu-like symptoms” and that those people who had died from it had “underlying health conditions.”
Both statements had since been proven to be only partly true at best. Now the rational mind might excuse this and say, ‘yes but that is because there was not a lot known about the disease at the start.” And yes that, to an extent is true, apart from the fact that doctors in Wuhan were describing it more like pneumonia than flu right from the start. And many people, of all ages, were dying that had no underlying health conditions, or mild conditions at best.
It is more likely that these two statements were designed to instil a level of calm in the global communities and to avoid panic. But of course, what they have added to is the public becoming warier and less trusting of official government sources and international organisations. The UK government has even slipped up on a few occasions on their daily briefing by saying when grilled by the press, that they only made those, or similar statements so as not to cause a national panic. Of course, this triggers in the back of anyone's mind, that is paying attention, ‘what else are they not telling us, or are lying to us about?’
Further to this the language being used has been combative. Describing it as “a fight”, “a war” and health workers as being “on the front line.” This is worrying for so many reasons but mainly because it weaponizes language and means that people get used to it. It is then not too far a stretch for people to start accepting troops on the streets, as we have seen in several instances around the world and forced quarantine, curfews and restrictions on civil rights. For further reading on why this may be an issue see Tim Hawkins 2016 article, which says it all about the weaponization of political language, “Our casual use of military jargon is normalizing the militarization of society.’
The weaponization of language also allows room for the erosion of civil rights in order to “protect” a countries citizens. The problem is that the laws that are changed, eroded or replaced during times of conflict have a nasty habit of staying around long after the threat is over.
These can be infringements of our civil rights, our privacy and even for some their freedom. We saw this in the US and the UK after 9/11 and we see it happening today. These erosions can affect our privacy in the name of protection by allowing intelligence services, and other parties, the right of surveillance of their own countries citizens, their movements, what groups they belong to, what they are saying and even, with bio-surveillance, of their health.
In the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen the use of this language of “fighting the invisible enemy” to justify the lockdown of free movement (showing how free we truly are as citizens of the world), the police with new enforcement laws and the introduction of apps for tracking and tracing people, without any explanation of the impact of privacy.
The new era of facial recognition and health monitoring brings with it the potential of biopsychical and even emotional surveillance. This can be done by monitoring things like body temperature and heart rate. If this is then cross-referenced with location date, which it will be, it could be determined to establish your emotional reaction to a political speech, your reactions to news and your level of agreement, and even level of taking part in, acts of civil disobedience and protest. Sound farfetched? The technology already exists and is in use in places like China and certain parts of the Middle East.
Maybe you don’t believe this could be ever used in the western world. That democracy would stop it. Well so far, as the instances of rights removed during 9/11 show, the west does not have a history of backing up the theory. Yes, there may be more control, or just more secrecy around its use (as we saw with the Snowden leaks), but even if you believe that the current democratic setups would stop this what happens when someone gets into power with the intention of using the technology to bring about a police state.
The weaponization of language to normalise military action and erosion of civil rights in or to ‘protect’ a countries citizen is nothing new. But when you add in the restrictions of movement and now the race riots and protests in the US it can start to feel like the world is on the brink of a new norm, and one that is not a positive change for the better.
Even if you dismiss the threat of surveillance technology, monitoring the language used, the repetitiveness of its nature and filtering it through our own behavioural linguistic analysis, metacognitive processes and critical thinking ability will help with both our sensemaking ability but also the level to which we ‘buy-in’ to the narrative. I am not saying we go all conspiracy theory on it, but we would be foolish if we didn’t think that there may be additional motives and agendas behind the language used.
Most countries are having daily briefing from their government. But these have become not just daily updates on the spread and suppression of the virus but also political campaign platforms. We see this in the US and the UK. In the US we see it blatantly with Trump’s usual blunt, aggressive and unapologetic style. Even to the point of him running a campaign-style video during one of his press conferences. In the UK it has been somewhat more subtle, depending on which secretary of state is taking the lead that day, but it has been a constant advertorial of boasting and self-congratulation for the Conservative party.
What could be the problem here? Well if you stay glued to the daily briefings, as many of us did at the start, you can find yourself internalising the constant repetitive narratives and starting to not only believe them but feel emotionally connected to them. This is exactly the desired effect. Why is this a problem when they are telling us to “save lives” and “protect the NHS?” Well, those two phrases and mantras may be harmless enough. But behind those statements are more subtle messages that allow and excuse the constant erosion of civil liberties and freedoms.
You can also almost feel yourself feel sorry for the Prime Minister and start having the feeling that ‘he is alright actually’ and ‘I liked him when he was on Have I Got News For You’ he can’t be all bad. You can find yourself buying into the bumbling Etonian English gent routine and forgetting all the horrible racist, misogynistic and hurtful things he has said. The lies he has told and the Conservative agenda to self-off the NHS by stealth.
The language we use is important. Words have power. The words of those in power is even more important to break down and understand. We, as humans, make sense of the world through language, we think mainly in words and those words swim around in our psyche affecting our thoughts and feelings. These feelings cause emotions and emotions cause neurological chemical reactions which affect our biological and psychological wellbeing.
By developing our metacognitive and critical thinking abilities we can protect ourselves from these influences whilst still taking in the latest data and scientific findings. Only by doing this can we make sense of what is really going on and gain a level of peace needed in these difficult times.
The following article will look at censorship of alternative narratives in times of pandemic or war.