Photo: The masks come off: from July 19, there will be no legal requirement in England to wear a face covering.Neil Hall/EPA-EFE
19 July 2021 | James Porteous | Clipper Media
Oh dear. This could be problematic. The words ‘covid’ and ‘propaganda’ in the same headline?
The original author is probably safe from viral contusions but what if I repost this article on Facebook? And will Twitter decide to ‘downplay’ it, ensuring that maybe 20 people at the most will read this? Yes and yes.
But still, to those 20 people, here is an interesting assessment of the use of ‘words’ and phrases to control the message. Any message.
In truth, we have seen this throughout the pandemic. In the beginning, it was clear that almost all communications were delivered, and then repeated verbatim, around the world.
As were the ensuing pronouncements, suggesting for example that when there were few vaccines on hand that ‘a study’ had ‘suggested’ that it was best to wait three months before receiving the second jab, and then, when supplies improved, suggesting that a ‘study’ had ‘suggested’ that people should pursue their second jab after ‘four weeks.’
So fine. This is not to suggest a conspiracy but it does point quite clearly to many of the reasons people have so little trust in their governments’ reaction to this situation. These governments, all of them, seem to have forgotten that most of us have access to this internet thing and we might have noticed all at once that the same phrases had been repeated ad nauseam around the world.
In the end, does it matter whether ‘freedom day’ is just a phrase used by the media? Not really. People should be aware that this might be the case but we have always been on our own, deciding en mass, for better or worse, how best to protect ourselves and our families from both the virus and the official reaction to it.
On the other hand, if the number of cases spiral after people throw out their masks following ‘freedom day,’ will that offer proof that the various slogans were both accurate and necessary?
Maybe. Maybe not. We won’t know for sure until the powers that be have had time to compose their next slogan.
James Porteous/ ClipperMedia
Why ‘freedom day’ is the latest example of COVID propaganda
The lifting of most COVID legal restrictions on July 19 has been dubbed “freedom day” by some politicians and journalists. Though not an official designation, this popularisation of this moment with such a saying closely follows two of my 10 “golden rules” of propaganda that I’ve developed in my years studying the practice. First, appeal to the instincts rather than the reason of the audience, and second, build around a slogan. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.
To this end, the media’s regular use of the phrase reflects its compliance with – and encouragement of – the government’s pandemic communications strategy. It is one of these phrases that you cannot quite place where it first emerged but which quickly seeps into public discussion to the point that we all know what it means.
Throughout the pandemic, the British government has utilised a wartime propaganda playbook to deliver public communications about COVID and the purported solutions to it. In these terms, we are now heading for the end of the “combat” phase of the government’s propaganda delivery and the beginning of the post-pandemic – or post-war – phase.
In this sense, “freedom day” could be compared to VE Day (Victory in Europe Day, May 8 1945) and ought to be regarded as the latest in a long line of rhetorical associations with the second world war that have been encouraged over the last 16 months.
References to blitz spirit, the militarisation of language around and heroisation of the NHS and the attention on second world war veteran Tom Moore as the flagship of British determination and sacrifice are just a few of the ways this history has manifested in COVID Britain.
Concepts like “freedom” and “liberty” have been invoked by propagandists since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment period. They emerged as influential writers – Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin, to name a few – began to philosophise about the rights of the individual.
To this end, the popular use of “freedom” to describe the end of pandemic restrictions forms part of a populist audience seduction strategy, using emotional rather than rational rhetoric. The media’s purpose in using the phrase then is to be appear to be on the side of the public. As Harold Lasswell, one of the founding fathers of communications studies, wrote in 1927: the best propaganda is that which is the “champion of our dreams”.
The philosopher Patrick Nowell-Smith discussed the seductiveness of the propaganda of “freedom” in his 1954 work Ethics, noting its association with hedonism and its “deliciousness” within the human mind. He caveats that hedonism is not always about “gluttony and self-centredness” and is not always “carnal”.
From the propagandist’s point of view though, “freedom” is an effective rhetorical tool because it means whatever the target audience want it to mean. Its utility is that the term is vague but that it resonates with ease when uttered.
One of the most common misconceptions around propaganda is that it always involves the communication of falsehoods to a mass audience and attempts to “brainwash” – evoking shades of North Korea or the Nazis. In the common mind, propaganda is synonymous with the use of dark arts to encourage a target audience to engage in behaviours or to think in ways that they would otherwise not. Undoubtedly, some propaganda does do this.
Propaganda is more complex than this and can also involve truth-telling, however selective or self-interested.
Today, propaganda is all around us. It is undertaken by governments, state institutions, corporations trying to sell us things, media organisations, charities and powerful individuals in advance of their own interests – just look at any billionaire philanthropist “doing good” while paying next to zero tax.
Individual citizens have obtained the means to broadcast for ourselves, particularly via social media platforms, and we too have become propagandists. “Influencer” is just a more acceptable way of saying “propagandist.”
“Freedom day” is not a lie, because restrictions will be lifted. However, the popularisation of it as such (rather than “most restrictions lifted day,” for example), is part of a strategy (endorsed by government and mainstream media alike) that has wanted the British public to think, act, associate and feel in certain ways since the pandemic began.
Indeed, the best, or most effective, propaganda is that which creates emotional bonds between the target audience and certain people, products, events or concepts. “Freedom day” has been so-called because the powerful want us to think in certain ways about this day, and to exclude or overlook other aspects of the pandemic that it deems undesirable.
To overwhelm the public’s conscience (or to subtly railroad it while making it seem like choices are available) is one of the highest art forms in propaganda. We see this perhaps most clearly within public discussion of the vaccine programme wherein government and media have sought to marginalise more critical views of it.
Calling it “freedom day” attempts to nullify the public by encouraging us not to scrutinise government and media performance as we should. It reflects an attempt to move the discussion from science, sociology and public health to patriotism and emancipation.