Who Are The Behavioural Insights "Nudge Unit" And 77th Brigade?
Does a government have any kind of authority to use psychological theory or military resources against its own citizens? Is it lawful to privatise a "social purpose" company of civil servants which can evade accountability to the public or its elected representatives? Since when did Western governments decide Soviet-style experimentation on the public mind was acceptable?
Conditioning: What You Try When They Refuse
The psychological practice of "conditioning" people has a long and nasty history. It's hard to find anything in the social "sciences" which isn't abusable as a weapon.
Conditioning is the idea you can cause someone or something's behaviour to become involuntary, through neurological repetition or association. "Classical" conditioning associates a stimulus with something bland. "Operant" ("instrumental") conditioning uses rewards and punishments. A combination of the two is powerful: human primates are mammals who learn and adapt quickly.
The traditional beginning of this nasty research started with Ivan Pavlov winning the Nobel prize for it in 1904, after publishing The Work of the Digestive Glands in 1897. When his laboratory flooded, he noticed the trauma of it "wiped" his dogs' minds of their conditioning.
Although he hated Lenin and Bolshevism, in A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes writes about Lenin's desire to "educate" the Russian people as an animal trainer would, and how the roots of this ambition lie in Darwinism:
In October 1919, according to legend, Lenin paid a secret visit to the laboratory of the great physiologist I. P. Pavlov to find out if his work on the conditional reflexes of the brain might help the Bolsheviks control human behaviour. 'I want the masses of Russia to follow a Communistic pattern of thinking and reacting,' Lenin explained… Pavlov was astounded. It seemed that Lenin wanted him to do for humans what he had already done for dogs. 'Do you mean that you would like to standardize the population of Russia? Make them all behave in the same way?' he asked. 'Exactly' replied Lenin. 'Man can be corrected. Man can be made what we want him to be."
Lenin spoke of Pavlov's work as 'hugely significant' for the revolution. Bukharin called it 'a weapon from the iron arsenal of materialism.'
Freud, who continued on this tradition of influencing "involuntary" behaviour, had a nephew named Edward Bernays, aka the "Father of Public Relations" and author of "Propaganda" (1928). His work was adopted by advertising agencies and corporations to sell products. Bernays' great nephew is Marc Randolph, co-founder of Netflix.
In The Search for the "Manchurian candidate" : the CIA and Mind Control, the earliest known English-language usage of the word "brainwashing" was made in a 1950 article by a journalist Edward Hunter in the Miami News. It was derived from the Taoist custom of "cleansing / washing the heart / mind" before conducting ceremonies or entering holy places, and referred to "coercive persuasion used under the Maoist government in China, which aimed to transform "reactionary" people into "right-thinking" members of the new Chinese social system."
In Silicon Valley, students of B. J. Fogg's Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab used B. F Skinner's 1930s research on variable rewards to drive compulsive use of technology, as well as casinos. Sean Parker said of his project with Harvard psychology student Mark Zuckerberg:
"It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."
The inventors, creators — it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway."
This weaponisation of psychology has never stopped. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any aspect of psychology which has not been misused or abused by partisan political lunatics, dictators, or other Engineers of the Human Soul.
A Curious "Fact Check"
After Robert Malone's interview with Joe Rogan where he described the phenomenon of mass psychosis (aka mass hysteria), the Associated Press felt compelled to do everything it could to discredit him, and what he said.
Mass hysteria has been documented for centuries, and is almost exclusively a female social behaviour, although it is also found among children. In recent times, it was infamously witnessed during "Beatlemania". Today we see it in "stan" ("stalker fan") social media culture.
"The girls were beginning to overwhelm us," remembers Lothian, now 73 and a business consultant. "I saw one of them almost getting to Ringo's drumkit and then I saw 40 drunk bouncers tearing down the aisles. It was like the Relief of Mafeking! It was absolute pandemonium. Girls fainting, screaming, wet seats. The whole hall went into some kind of state, almost like collective hypnotism. I'd never seen anything like it."
Mass psychogenic illness is a real thing. And psychologists have studied it for a long time.
Not according to AP and it's cherry-picked panel of social science "experts".
Psychology experts say there is no support for the “psychosis” theory described by Malone. “To my knowledge, there’s no evidence whatsoever for this concept,” said Jay Van Bavel, an assistant professor of psychology and neural science at New York University who recently co-authored a book on group identities. Van Bavel said he had never encountered the phrase “mass formation psychosis” in his years of research, nor could he find it in any peer-reviewed literature.
“The concept has no academic credibility,” Stephen Reicher, a social psychology professor at the University of St Andrews in the U.K., wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
The term also does not appear in the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology.
Another day, another lie. Another story unflattering story, another defamation attempt by the apparatchiks of Soviet/CCP-inspired Western media. Left-leaning media lines up a series of friends to explain why their pre-existing view is correct.
But... wait. Who are these "experts" exactly?
- Reicher is a rabid Guardian-quoting authoritarian socialist whose Twitter bio is about "going hard" and "mostly using psychology to fight COVID";
- McNally is frequent contributor to hard-left media outlets like Salon;
- Drury is another Guardian-quoting academic from the same university which hounded out Kathleen Stockton;
- Lynn is a "hypnosis expert" and founder one of the (highly political) APA's journals.
And they all seem very buddy-buddy and circulate each others' groupthink. Reicher, particularly, seems extremely political. None of them are psychiatrists or possess any medical training.
One name is rather interesting.
Jay Van Bavel.
Who is Mr Van Bavel? Well, he's the real deal. A serious, pathological ideologue. A true believer. He deleted a rather interesting quote he liked so much he decided to share it publicly:
"Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will." - Joseph Goebbels—
Jay Van Bavel (@jayvanbavel) September 30, 2021
As the Post Millennial details, noting his contempt for "conspiracy theorists":
New York University assistant professor of psychology and neural science Jay Van Bavel, who "co-authored a book on group identities," has made claims that the only way to fight COVID-19 is for everyone to change their behavior until such time as a vaccine came along. And how to get everyone to change? "We have to think through the lens of behavioral science," Van Bavel wrote. "What can we do to nudge and encourage and cajole and motivate people to do the right thing?"
Van Bavel is the director of NYU's "Social Identity and Morality Lab," which "examine[s] how collective concerns—group identities, moral values, and political beliefs—shape the mind, brain, and behavior."
Van Bavel's job is working with governments to change people's behaviour during the Covid pandemic. Behaviour which is disturbing and been labelled "mass formation psychosis".
These social behaviour responses have another name: mass formation.
From his paper:
Another way to leverage the impact of norms falls under the general category of ‘nudges’, which influence behaviour through modification of choice architecture (i.e., the contexts in which people make decisions). Because people are highly reactive to the choices made by others, especially trusted others, an understanding of social norms that are seen as new or emerging can have a positive impact on behavior. For instance, a message with compelling social norms might say, ‘the overwhelming majority of people in your community believe that everyone should stay home’. Nudges and normative information can be an alternative to more coercive means of behaviour change or used to complement regulatory, legal and other imposed policies when widespread changes must occur rapidly.
Friends of logic know this as the "Appeal to Majority" fallacy, aka Argumentum ad populum. A fallacy is broken thinking.
Malone suggested the results of experiments favoured by Van Bavelare are actually producing enormous harm. Van Bavel's friends in the media helped him discredit the person who said it and to repudiate any challenge to his toys.
Van Bavel and his friends advocate manipulating people en masse and want to start with "Nudge Theory".
A few months before in August 2020, Harvard Law School (home of "critical legal studies") published an article which went quietly unnoticed for some time about the WHO:
Cass Sunstein ’78, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, has been tapped by the World Health Organization to chair its Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health. Sunstein, who is the founder and director of HLS’ Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy, will work with experts from 16 countries to examine the links between health and behavior.
Another interesting name.
Who is Mr Sunstein and where did he come from? According to Leftipedia:
BIT has expanded to the United States, setting up an office in New York City as well as in Washington, DC. The New York office works both in the United States and internationally, whereas the DC office was established in early 2020 to focus on the United States itself, with partnerships at all levels of government.
During his terms, U.S. President Barack Obama sought to employ nudge theory to advance American domestic policy goals. In 2008, the federal government appointed Cass Sunstein, who helped develop the theory, as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
The federal Office of Science and Technology Policy also has a "Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative," whose goal is "to translate academic research findings into improvements in federal program performance and efficiency using rigorous evaluation methods." On 15 September 2015, Obama issued an Executive Order that formally established the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and directed government agencies to use insights from the social and behavioral sciences to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their work.
"Domestic policy goals" refers to the ideas of one political party.
In 2016, the CDC was getting interested in all of this for "public health":
Governments worldwide are increasingly incorporating the behavioral economics approach into policymaking. In 2010, the U.K. Cabinet Office created the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) dedicated explicitly to such work. In 2014, the U.S. government created the White House Social and Behavioral Science Team. Both of these organizations have been referred to as “nudge” units; nudge was defined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book of the same name as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” The use of behavioral economics is spreading beyond these individual units and influencing policy throughout government. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget has directed agencies to experiment with interventions that have low cost but the potential to increase efficacy and efficiency of federal policy and programs8; interventions derived from behavioral economics are often prime candidates. Furthermore, the Obama Administration recently issued an Executive Order encouraging federal agencies to incorporate insights from the behavioral and social sciences in order to better serve the American people. Other nudge units have been created in Australia, Denmark, and by the World Bank.
Both authors are, of course, on the board of the BIT, along with a large list of others.
Governments are employing social scientists to experiment with fringe abstract theories on their electorates to "influence decision-making".
- From where do they derive this authority?
- Who elected these advisors?
- To whom are they accountable?
- What safeguards are in place apart from trust in their "good intentions"?
Why are the World Bank and World Health Organisation forming "nudge units"?
This all seems to be reminiscent of two countries in particular. One of which collapsed 30 years ago, and another which has been reported as covering up a pandemic outbreak and compromising the WHO.
What is So-Called "Nudge Theory"?
One telltale giveaway of social "science" hubris is the way almost all these "scholars" disregard scientific discipline and adopt a certainty of their reified ideas by describing them as a "theory" before they have earned that title.
A theory has a specific definition. It starts with a hypothesis, and is tested for falsification, reproduction, and supporting evidence. There is never any certainty of anything. Darwin's theory of evolution was a hypothesis until it was supported by data and informed critique.
Almost every single idea in the social "sciences" is a hypothesis, not a "theory". And always a bad one which is unfalsifiable by nature, i.e. it cannot be proved true or false definitively.
In 2008, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness".
According to their definition:
A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
This gobbledygook essentially means manipulating people psychologically to do what you want them to by nagging them, and jointly offering them a treat if they comply by making the offending attention-suck go away.
The banal examples include:
- Pictures of houseflies in urinals to improve "aim"
- Text message reminders to pay taxes and fines
- "Suggestions" for auto-play on YouTube & Netflix
If you wanted to put it simply, you'd describe it as the "red dot" from Facebook applied to government ideas. What could go wrong?
The decision-making ‘flaw’ that is relied upon most frequently by Thaler and Sunstein is the so-called “framing effect”, which describes the way in which presenting the same option in different formats can alter people's decisions. Hence, if asked to choose between treatment options in which is Option A is presented as having a 70% chance of success, and Option B which is presented as having a 25% failure rate, a significant number of individual will select Option A, even though Option B has a higher probability of success (75%).
Sunstein is keenly away of the ethical problems here, as eight years later he published "The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science" as a follow-up "making the case in favor of nudging, against charges that nudges diminish autonomy, threaten dignity, violate liberties, or reduce welfare." (More: http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/olin_center/papers/pdf/Sunstein_809.pdf and https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225864958_The_Ethics_of_Nudge)
The serious problems with these ideas are a waterfall of horror: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13164-015-0268-x
The evidence is quite clear already: partisan "nudges" for favoured ideas are, of course, perceived as better or necessary by one group over another.
While further research is needed, behavioural interventions may be uniquely susceptible to partisan bias because of how they influence citizens’ behaviour. Behavioural interventions (for example, changing a default option) often operate covertly (that is, people are not aware of a nudge’s influence on their decisions), whereas conventional policy interventions (for example, offering a tax credit or penalty) are typically more amenable to conscious deliberation and, therefore, volition. As such, behavioural interventions may be more open to charges of manipulation and coercion by those who are skeptical of the policymakers’ aims or of the policy agenda to which the nudge is applied.
Our findings underscore the difficulty policymakers will likely face when employing behavioural policy tools in a politically polarized environment. Citizens and policymakers may prematurely reject or accept powerful new strategies for achieving policy objectives merely because they dislike or like the policies with which these strategies happen to be associated. Considering the acceptability of policy nudges independent of potentially partisan ends, or at least illustrated by noncontroversial policy goals, should lead to more thoughtful debate about when such tools are ethically appropriate.
"On the misplaced politics of behavioural policy interventions"
On top of that minor dilemma, it turns the "science" of this absurd "theorising" isn't exactly solid. Karen Yeung's fantastic takedown of this inane meddling puts it beautifully:
"Doubts about the effectiveness of nudge techniques can be linked to deeper objections to employing the laboratory findings of cognitive psychologists as the basis for broad-based social and legal policy formation. For example, several scholars point out that it is not yet established that empirical findings from carefully controlled laboratory experiments concerning human decision making provide an accurate portrayal of the decision-making behaviours of individuals in real-life situations. Cognitive paternalists can point to experiments where our hunches seem to misfire. But, as Buckley points out, they lack a grand theory that tells us what hunch will be employed and when."
Over time, the criticism of this neo-con chewtoy has been gaining.
empirical literature reported by Sunstein himself revealed that “nudgees”, those targeted by a given nudge, tend to be significantly affected only by the nudges they agree with, and in a related vein, “if people are told that they are being nudged, they will react adversely and resist”. These aspects might affect the extent to which individual behaviour can be significantly steered away from its own path through nudging.
Moreover, the mere notion of “nudge” remained unclear over time, and ended up incorporating almost all forms of suggestion or assistance to individual decisions, including GPS navigation systems or speed humps, which seem to hardly fit the idea of choice architecture. And while significant results were shown by Sunstein and Thaler, and later by behavioural insights teams in various countries for several experiments, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these interventions in the longer term. For example, while in the short term modifying the order in which food is presented in a canteen might lead to increased consumption of healthy food over junk food, it is unclear whether individuals end up maintaining these new consumption choices over time, or simply learn where to find the food they wanted in the first place, thus neutralising the nudge.
The use of automated decision processes and algorithms that provide suggestions to end users has proven to be extremely effective in nudging individuals in fields other than public policy (e.g. Netflix’ own recommendation engine explains as much as 60% of the company’s revenues). Applied in public policy, nudging can go “on steroids” in cyberspace, very often leading to uncontrolled policy outcomes and an excessive degree of end-user manipulation. Recently Karen Yeung, a Professor at King’s College London, used the expression “hyper-nudges” to describe this phenomenon.
Oh, and it doesn't work.
Tammy Boyce, from the King's Fund, said: "The obesity epidemic is bad; harmful drinking is getting worse; smoking is still the biggest cause of premature death in the UK: we need effective solutions now. We do need more research, but there is already a lot of great practice going on out there which is not being shared. It makes me want to pull my hair out.
"We need to move away from short-term, politically motivated initiatives such as the 'nudging people' idea, which are not based on any good evidence and don't help people make long-term behaviour changes. There needs to be a huge culture overhaul at every level of the NHS so public health becomes everyone's priority."
And let's not mention that small spat between the big beasts of social science who can't agree whether the entire subject is worth the paper it's printed on:
Though nudge-economics remains seductive, what once seemed like a panacea has come to look a bit more like a series of sticking plasters. Earlier this year the nudge unit was removed from direct government control, partly sold to the Nesta innovation charity run by New Labour guru Geoff Mulgan, a move which seemed to suggest the prime minister no longer viewed it as quite so central to his philosophy. That move has coincided with a backlash, or at least a critical analysis, of some of the tenets on which its brand of behavioural economics is based.
Cameron would not have seen it in these terms but in his freakonomics moment over the NHS he was also confronting an extremely crude version of one of the most heated academic debates of the last two decades: the question of whether purely rational decision-making is feasible in the real world. That has been part of an ongoing argument between the “godfather” of behavioural economics, [Daniel] Kahneman, and his most serious opponent, a psychologist named Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Centre for Cognition and Adaptive Behaviour at the Max Planck institute in Berlin. The substance of this argument concerns the best way for human beings to make decisions.
However, the one thing that strikes you in all this messy jargon about "behavioural economics" is not the talk of "how" it can be exploited, but the absolute absence of anyone asking...
Should anyone undertake this?
Birth of the Governmental "Nudge Unit"
The two leading fanboys of this quackery were David Cameron and Barack Obama. Cameron set up the "Behaviour Insights Team" in Whitehall during 2010, two years after the book came out. Obama had already hired the book's author in 2009.
It was like a Stanford tech startup in SW1. Let's use the dodgy psychology Big Tech does in social media, for government, to change the world. What could go wrong?
Originally set up in 2010 within the UK Cabinet Office to apply nudge theory within British government, BIT expanded into a limited company in 2014 and is now partly owned by the Cabinet Office, BIT employees, and British charity Nesta. Today, its work spans across several regions, having run more than 750 projects including 400 randomised controlled trial (RCTs) in various countries. With its headquarters in London and another UK location in Manchester, BIT also has offices in the United States (New York and Washington, DC); Singapore; Australia (Sydney); New Zealand (Wellington); France (Paris); and Canada (Toronto).
The OECD notes that 202 institutions globally have applied behavioural insights to public policy. Many of these firms have established their own behavioural insight teams to research the field of behavioural economics. Such teams may take on various names—such as a Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU)—and are often informally referred to as "Nudge Units" as well. The official "Nudge Unit" of the Australian Government, for instance, is called the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA); meanwhile, Harvard University and the Government of British Columbia individually have a Behavioral Insights Group (BIG and BC BIG, respectively).
Unsurprisingly, The Guardian, famed for its collectivism, poor spelling, and desire to see the whole population socially engineered for transfer for rule by any other country, has always been fawning in its coverage:
The idea behind the unit is simpler than you might believe. People don't always act in their own interests – by filing their taxes late, for instance, overeating, or not paying fines until the bailiffs call. As a result, they don't just harm themselves, they cost the state a lot of money. By looking closely at how they make their choices and then testing small changes in the way the choices are presented, the unit tries to nudge people into leading better lives, and save the rest of us a fortune.
It's the Soviet dream. Changing the world without having to kill so many of those awful people who couldn't be re-educated in those Siberian camps.
Who has signed up an extra 100,000 organ donors a year, persuaded 20% more people to consider switching energy provider, doubled the number of army applicants – and will certainly be consulted on the spending review that calls for £20bn cuts to Whitehall budgets? Step forward David Halpern, chief executive of the behavioural insights team, which has quadrupled in size since it was spun out of government in February 2014. Now a private company jointly owned by the Cabinet Office, Nesta and its employees, the “nudge unit” (nicknamed after the best-selling book by economist Richard H Thaler) permeates almost every area of government policy.
In three years, things had changed, radically. It was making big cash.
In April 2013, it was announced that BIT would be partially privatised as a mutual joint venture. On 5 February 2014, BIT's ownership was split equally between the government, the charity Nesta, and the team's employees, with Nesta providing £1.9 million in financing and services. Reported [sic], this was "the first time the [UK] government has privatised civil servants responsible for policy decisions."
Under Maude's plans the controversial Behavioural Insights Team will become a mutual. A private investor, the government and the ten-strong team of civil servants will each own one-third of the company.
Err, so who are they accountable to, exactly?
By 2017, the World Bank was issuing helpful instructions on setting up your own.
Most units start with two to four full-time staff. Profiles include policy advisors, social psychologists, experimental economists, and behavioral scientists. Experience in the public sector is essential to navigate the government and build support. It is also important to have staff familiar with designing and running experiments. Other important skills include psychology, social psychology, anthropology, design thinking, and marketing.
... but not applicable law or democratic consent. Those shouldn't be a concern when doing large-scale experiments on the electorate.
Things went well. Idea-less politicians love magical voodoo. As the Tribune observed in hindsight:
As with any business, the nudge unit needed to keep expanding to survive. The company moved from nudging taxpayers to complete their income forms more quickly to working with the World Bank on Colombia’s peace process. As its scope grew, so did its policy-arsenal. It went from outlining behavioural cues to designing complex algorithms that informed organisational policy-making. One way was through machine learning, the study of algorithms and statistical models.
This innovation led to inevitable obfuscation, which Michael Sanders, former head of research at the nudge unit, said was “sort of the point.” Clients don’t know how they reach answers, and sometimes neither does the team. This abstract way of working is completely unsuited to a pandemic, where government decisions must be clearly communicated and based on available evidence. As we have now discovered to our cost, following black box algorithms instead is a surefire way of running up the death toll.
The nudge unit’s unique selling point was quirky approaches to incorrigible policy problems. It came as no surprise to most civil servants to see them quickly pounce on the coronavirus crisis. But the nudge unit is full of self-professed ‘radical incrementalists’. For them, public policy is about changing public behaviour without the public even realising you are there. This seemed a clever approach to their devotees in the early days, before the government wised up to the scale of the threat.
What If People Need To Do Something They Don't Want To Do?
Then, Covid. It was the pandemic where it all went slightly wrong. In a surprise to no-one, governments everywhere slid down the slippery slope in an emergency and got curious about whether these techniques could be broken out of the boundaries of their original usage for abuse elsewhere.
We all know what happened. The Country Club didn't know what to do, so they copied China.
A year after it started, UK scientists made an astonishing admission of what we all knew.
Another member of SPI-B said they were "stunned by the weaponisation of behavioural psychology" during the pandemic, and that “psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic and became manipulative. They have too much power and it intoxicates them”.
"Use of fear to control behaviour in Covid crisis was ‘totalitarian’, admit scientists"
They were quoted in filmmaker Laura Dodsworth's book, A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, which details the tactics of the government's attempts to enforce compliance in the electorate.
It's extraordinary to read. As Think Scotland put it:
In a book about fear, perhaps the most frightening point of all is just how easy it now is to control a democratic society through the levers of behavioural science. Without debate or public consent, the Government has built capabilities in department after department to control how we think, feel, and act subliminally using cutting-edge psychology, research and communication. The advent of Covid-19 turbocharged these teams, which were headed by the SPI-B behavioural science committee and handed almost unlimited power and money. As the discipline with the greatest representation on SAGE, behavioural scientists carried more weight in the pandemic even than virologists and medical experts.
Stunned? Really? It's what the Soviets did a century ago, how advertising agencies work, and how Big Tech addicted children to social media.
Even the "Nudge Unit" scientists were concerned. Two years later, what was coming out of Downing Street was verging on dystopian. Lord Frost had resigned because of coercive tactics.
Scare tactics have been misused during the pandemic to get the public to follow coronavirus lockdown rules, the co-founder of Downing Street’s “Nudge Unit” has suggested. Simon Ruda, a behavioural scientist, said he feared the “most egregious and far-reaching mistake” made during the Covid-19 crisis was the “level of fear willingly conveyed on the public”. While defending behavioural science for driving improvements in public policy, Mr Ruda said he now appreciated the “vulnerabilities of well-intentioned, democratic regimes” and the ability for the field to be “used inappropriately”.
"Downing Street’s controversial ‘Nudge Unit’ accused of exploiting scare tactics during Covid crisis"
Oh, but he didn't. He went much further. One couldn't call it a mea culpa. It was a full-on confession and plea for mercy.
it may be worth reflecting on where we need to draw the line between the choice-maximising nudges of libertarian paternalism, and the creeping acceptance among policy makers that the state should use its heft to influence our lives without the accountability of legislative and parliamentary scrutiny. Nudging made subtle state influence palatable, but mixed with a state of emergency, have we inadvertently sanctioned state propaganda?
This all went downhill very, very fast. The "good intentions"morphed into abuse, as everyone said would happen. It's a far cry from "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness".
But that wasn't all. Something much worse had been put into motion.
Who Are the 77th Brigade?
You've never heard of them, have you? Well, they've heard of you. And they are funded by you. In any crisis, you have things you want to make people do. But crucially, there are people who are doing the opposite of what you want and interfering with your plans.
Those damn Russians? Nope.
The people who oppose government policy.
In August 2019, Scottish MP made a startling accusation on Twitter, which he later deleted due to "vile abuse":
There’s 77th Brigade and @InitIntegrity operatives for starters. In Scotland they are already highly organised and attacking and undermining our democratic choices. All paid for by the British State and the UK tax-payer.
— Douglas Chapman MP (@DougChapmanSNP) August 22, 2019
In April 2020, Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, confirmed a secretive British Army unit, the 77th Brigade, were being employed to fight "misinformation":
“And of course we’ve provided an Aviation Task Force that’s been able to support the communities from Scotland down to the Channel Islands, in Northern Ireland, and from Wales to the east coast of England. We’ve been involved in helping the Foreign Office with repatriations and supporting our overseas territories, where we have security advisory teams deployed now in several of them, and of course we’ve deployed ships, HMS Argus, to do just that. And we’ve been involved with the Cabinet Office Rapid Response Unit, with our 77 Brigade helping to quash rumors from misinformation, but also to counter disinformation.”
77th Brigade specialise in “non-lethal” forms of psychological warfare, using social media including Facebook and Twitter to fight with information in response to external factors, like Russian misinformation.
The Guardian described them in 2014 as "Facebook Warriors":
The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.
Both the Israeli and US army already engage heavily in psychological operations. Against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the force will attempt to control the narrative.
But hang on, are they really taking on Russia?
The Sunday Times seems to have had a different take a while later:
The army has mobilised an elite “information warfare” unit renowned for assisting operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to counter online propaganda against vaccines, as Britain prepares to deliver its first injections within days. The defence cultural specialist unit was launched in Afghanistan in 2010 and belongs to the army’s 77th Brigade. The secretive unit has often worked side-by-side with psychological operations teams. Leaked documents reveal that its soldiers are already monitoring cyberspace for Covid-19 content and analysing how British citizens are being targeted online.
"Army spies to take on antivax militants"
Who are the military accountable to? Answer: no-one. Because they're the military.
The entire saga has been catalogued extensively by South Africa's Daily Maverick, and is a frightening read which tentatively connects the SAGE scientists with the unit itself - suggesting it target its own citizens.
It may also be significant that in February this year, Whitehall convened a behavioural scientist collective, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviour (SPI-B), to advise its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on how to, among other things, increase public adherence to social distancing measures. One solution offered by the group was to increase the “perceived level of personal threat” among British citizens. One document states: “A substantial number of people still don’t feel sufficiently personally threatened… The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” It went on to recommend that such messaging be circulated via “targeted media campaigns, social media, apps and websites”.
So what do we know of 77th Brigade?
It was created in 2015 and is based at Denison Barracks in Hermitage/Newbury, Berkshire. As of May 2018 a FoIA request declared it was "comprised of approximately 200 Regular and 270 Reserve Service Personnel". Under the Future Soldier programme, the brigade will move to Pirbright Camp in Surrey in 2026.
Apart from its not. On the date of Carter's admission, it was supposedly 10 times larger. At least 2000.
Leftipedia claims it "uses social media such as Twitter and Facebook as well as psyop techniques to influence populations and behaviour. [snip] and is "involved in manipulation of the media including using fake online profiles."
Apparent reservist members of this sinister bunch include:
- Gordon MacMillan, Head of Editorial (EMEA) for Twitter
- Mark Lancaster, former Conservative MP and armed forces minister
- Tobias Ellwood, current Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons defence committee
- Kate Watson, Labour candidate for Glasgow East and operations director of "Better Together"
It has a nice little web page on the MoD site: https://www.army.mod.uk/who-we-are/formations-divisions-brigades/6th-united-kingdom-division/77-brigade/
The problem here should be obvious, but if you're slow....
This is what China does. It started with "defensive" operations against "defamation" and "interference", then simply turned the institutions and mechanisms of the State on its own people, at home and abroad.
We all know this as the Confucius Institutes, the Fifty-Cent Army, the Thousand Talents program, the Great Propaganda Plan, and all the other "ideas" of Soviet-style social engineering.
The "anti-vaxxers" they are targeting are, more often than not, their own countrymen. What is the definition of "anti-vaxxer" mutated to now?
a person who opposes the use of vaccines or regulations mandating vaccination
So what, you might say. Well, so what about Nudge theory? This time it's people you don't agree with, and next time it's going to be you.
This month, the Financial Times did what all establishment good-boys do and took one for the team, Vox-style. Yes, it's all about "psy-ops", and for the first time in Western history, why that's a good thing:
But as with Covid, the most important task in psychological defence is to inoculate the population against believing false information — a job that Sweden’s new agency will also handle. This involves teaching the public how to verify information. A citizenry able to distinguish truth from falsehoods is vital, not just from a national security perspective but for protection from more everyday threats such as quack cures peddled on the internet.
"Psy-ops are a crucial weapon in the war against disinformation"
The Mind: Government Trespass On Sacred Ground
Since when did it become the government's duty to monitor your private beliefs?
The trouble is we no longer trust our institutions anymore because of their bad-faith behaviour. "Disinformation" and "misinformation" mean whatever someone wants them to mean. They are nebulous, subjective weasel words used cynically by partisan actors.
The government has no place, role, or jurisdiction regarding our beliefs about anything at all. This isn't even about speech, it is about our opinion.
Haven't we all had enough of these groups' and organisations' "belief" they have a right to intimately invade the electorate's personal space?
How did we get to the point of any of this being acceptable in a liberal democracy?
Moreover, how are any of our politicians allowed to stay in office when their source of ideas is a genocidal, authoritarian communist regime?