I recall the death of Princess Diana on the 31st August 1997. I came down for breakfast the following morning, not being aware of what had happened, turned on the radio and was greeted with a constant feed of ‘drugs don’t work’ ‘You have been loved’ and ‘songbird’ It was quite unusual. Then the DJ’s voice came on and announced in sombre tones that the peoples princess had died. The music continued all day.
Later on news footage surfaced of the pile of flowers growing ever bigger outside Kensington Palace. This was my first experience what Douglas Murray has called “public emoting”. It worked incredibly well as the nation wallowed in its shared grief.
Pre-planned social media campaigns that are designed to appear to be a spontaneous public response to attacks is an effective way of turning anger into grief.
It is now called “controlled spontaneity”, politicians’ statements, vigils and inter-faith events are also planned as a way to defuse anger and turn it into the more manageable grief and sorrow. I suppose an alternative view is ‘Would you rather have people fight it out in the street and create war of cultures in the streets?’
The strategy has been deployed during many terrorist incidents in recent years including the 2017 London Bridge attack, the Finsbury Park mosque attack and the Manchester bombing of an Arianna Grande concert.
Incredibly quickly after an incident, campaigns swiftly get operational, I ‘heart’ posters distributed, people handing out flowers at the scene, a gesture of love and support.
Behaviourally this shapes public response, people focus on the victims, a sense of unity with strangers, rather than reacting differently, wanting something to be done. Tea light sellers do a roaring trade and public monuments get bathed in lights of the national colours of the violated country or are completely extinguished, as happened to the Eiffel Tower after the Bataclan atrocity.
Here is an extract from a recruitment page for the secretive 77th Brigade, a division of the UK army.’ The 77th include regulars and reservists and recruitment will begin in the spring. Soldiers with journalism skills and familiarity with social media are among those being sought.’
The Ministry of Defence statement said:
“77th Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare. It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent.”
The 2014 British Army Journal gives a detailed description on the 77th, which was was called the Security Assistance Group at the time, “the unit will be a focal point for levers of soft power or persistent engagement”.
They must mean the general public.
After Alan Henning, a British aid worker, was murdered by Islamic State in October 2014, the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) – part of the Office of Security and Counterterrorism at the Home Office – hit upon a striking image . The image was a photograph of a woman wearing a Union Jack hijab, taken in profile.
A few days after the murder The Sun, newspaper agreed to dedicate its entire front page to the Union Jack hijab photograph.
Inside a further six pages covered political leaders and members of the public who said that they were making a stand against Islamic State terror.
After a terrorist attack teams work very quickly with agencies (77th Brigade perhaps?) who send out the social media messages. People can change the photo on their Facebook page. Then they can go to work, and they’re not angry at the government.
These agencies also advise on words that political leaders can use after such an attack, they coordinate the vigils and inter-faith events.
Here one such ‘planner’ writes about her work, she has been doing it for over a decade.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/24/emergency-planner-manchester-heal-terror-hurts
Of course, the idea of spontaneous demonstrations is not new, George Orwell wrote in “1984”
All over Oceania this morning there were irrepressible spontaneous demonstrations when workers marched out of factories and offices and paraded through the streets with banners voicing their gratitude to Big Brother for the new, happy life which his wise leadership has bestowed upon us.
Worryingly the RICU is quoted as saying the unit is working “at an industrial scale and pace” to develop messages that aim to “effect attitudinal and behavioural change” All very noble and laudable I’m sure.
But the narrative that is being pushed, intentionally or otherwise, is that of surrender, of defeat. Right the London Bridge attack, members of the public were ushered to safety with their hands on their head, like prisoners of war. What message does this send out?
It seems it is more important to defuse anger and prevent civil unrest than confront the problem. We’re not going to get to solve anything with a socially engineered response. We are not having the difficult debate. And what that stops is keeping everybody safe.