A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic by Laura Dodsworth

Pinter & Martin, London, 2021. Pb, 320pp, £9.99. ISBN 978 1780667201

Reviewed by Richard Brinton

Fear is a well-known tool, used by leaders down the ages. Propaganda is used to enhance the feeling of threat, distorting news to present a desired picture which is often misleading or false. An example of this was the fear raised around the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ before and during the Iraq war. The ‘threat’ turned out to be a known falsehood presented by our political leaders, but it helped shift public opinion for going to war.

I had the feeling of déjà vu when reading Laura Dodsworth’s new bestseller, A State of Fear. Here again were overwhelming descriptions and ample evidence of governments using propaganda and fear to strengthen their control for desired ends.

In January 2021, 47 psychologists wrote to the British Psychological Society saying the covert strategies being used by the Government to keep people in a heightened state of fear for effecting compliance was ‘morally questionable’, which received scant media attention. They quoted SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) minutes of 22 March, 2020: ‘The perceived level of threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting, emotional messaging.’

The Government vehemently denied such tactics at the time, but it will be hard denying the weight of evidence given in A State of Fear. In a well-written, easily-readable format, it is a page-turner, because so many things she describes have direct relevance to much that we have personally experienced over the past year.

Dodsworth describes a huge machinery within and around government, not simply for deciding policies but for what can only be described as the formulation and actioning of hard-hitting propaganda. In a letter to all broadcasters on 27th March 2020, Ofcom laid out what amounts to censorship, extremely disturbing for peacetime. Its guidance is enforceable and pertains to ‘inaccurate or materially misleading content in programmes’ (who decides this?); and ‘medical or other advice which may be harmful if followed or discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance’ (my emphasis). In other words, only official rules and guidance are allowed, which the BBC, in particular, has followed slavishly and cravenly.

Why has there not been more of an uproar over the Ofcom diktats? Most people are not aware of it and the media – unlike during the Iraq war – are not mentioning the reporting restrictions.

What is new in the Government methods being used now is the extent and sophistication with which behavioural psychology is utilised to ‘control’ public responses. Dodsworth describes the subliminal behavioural methods in detail, through interviews with behavioural scientists, psychologists and doctors, as well as some in the Government willing to talk. A primary tactic being used is what Dodsworth describes as a ‘Blitzkrieg of daily fear bombs’ in the media, on placards in the streets, in stores. Examples given include:

Daily headlines of new cases and new deaths from Covid. All are about Covid deaths. There appears almost a news blackout on deaths from other causes – around 1,600 daily is average in the UK.

Continual emotive pictures showing frightened, dying or dead people. Many of these have been shown to be manipulations.

Emotive personalised adverts – ‘don’t kill granny!’ – ‘people will die’ – ‘don’t bring Covid home this Christmas’ – ‘if you bend the rules, people will die’ – ‘don’t let a coffee cost lives’… Some were withdrawn after complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Scares about new deadly variants – the Italian, the Brazilian, the Kentish, the Indian, the Nepal variant… When each fizzles out, a new one replaces it. There will always be new variants, Dodsworth notes. Will they provide a continuing cause for legislative extensions of emergency powers? Or an excuse for continual vaccinations (which governments have already given pharmaceutical companies permission to produce without further testing – with eye-watering profits to be made)? A German Government paper was leaked describing how scientists were hired by the Government to produce a worst-case scenario in order to justify restrictions.

How is it that the methods have been so effective? The psychology works sub-consciously, with fear inducing messages bypassing the thinking part of the brain. It becomes an Orwellian 1984 scenario, where we are looked after by the state, not questioning, just following, looking to it for security in the face of nebulous threats. A ‘groupthink’ mentality is encouraged, dissenters viewed with suspicion if not condemnation.

Dodsworth lists the various groups involved:

  • The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) set up under David Cameron in 2010, unofficially called ‘the Nudge Unit’, now teaching governments around the world how to ‘nudge’ citizens.
  • SAGE, which advises on how evidence should influence policy.
  • SPI-B (the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour), entrusted with advising on how to ‘encourage’ (i.e. ‘coerce’!) the public to follow guidance.
  • The 77th Brigade and the Rapid Response Unit – both, according to Dodsworth, involved with countering any claims that are contrary to Government guidance.

The book provides details on some familiar tools used, including face masks, PCR tests and lockdowns. Controversial in themselves, it was important for the behavioural scientists to use them for subliminal ends such as, for example, encouraging the feeling of solidarity, security and for creating ‘signals’: the face mask, for instance, was a visible indicator for ‘danger present’. Lockdowns were never agreed on as being effective, both in UK pandemic planning and WHO guidance. Yet they were used repeatedly around the world for whole populations, with disastrous effects. Why? People who criticised were labelled ‘Covid deniers’. (In Appendix 2 Dodsworth describes the lockdown controversies.)

And vaccinations? Dodsworth is neither for or against, but she is very much opposed to coercive methods to pressure citizens into having the jab. One NHS message, for example, stated, ‘normality can only return for you and others with your vaccination’. A German slogan said, ‘Impfen = Freiheit’ (vaccination = freedom). Retired clinical psychologist Gary Sidley said such pressure ‘fits the definition of blackmail.’

Dodsworth says little on the significant negative effect fear has on our immune system and health, making us much more vulnerable to illness, including Covid, as detailed in a new book by Dr Thomas Hardtmuth.* It is a tragic irony that the Government should use such fear tactics during this epidemic, which will only serve to increase other illness, physical and mental.

Is this weaponisation of fear what the public should be subjected to? Is it ethical? Through its use, Dodsworth says, the current Government ‘has given up on trust and transparency’. She acknowledges that fear also has a greater context, quoting Frank Furedi, a sociologist and expert in fear, on the increase of fear in our times. Charles Eisenstein, in his essay, The Coronation, notes how fear of death has been raised several notches by the Government and media, almost as something unnatural: humanity was becoming out of touch with the greater cycles and realities of life.

Dodsworth concludes by exhorting us to stand up for the values we want to have – part of our action plan for tomorrow! To understand how to formulate it, I highly recommend this book.

Former teacher and Principal, Richard Brinton is a writer and publisher. His most recent book is on the Corona crisis: What Covid-19 Can Teach Us: Meeting the virus with fear or informed common sense? by Dr Thomas Hardtmuth, InterActions, 2021.;

This article was first published in issue 105 of Caduceus magazine