The Queen’s address to the nation yesterday should be applauded for its simple encouragement. Its calm and dignified delivery offering encouragement to the people of the nation was in marked contrast to the constant war analogies used by world leaders elsewhere. The absence of the Blitz Spirit so often invoked in British crises was refreshing and inspiring.
The press has an alarming tendency to draw wartime analogies when dealing with disease. Celebrities are described as bravely battling cancer or having a lifetime battle against depression. It’s a lazy and utterly inappropriate comparison however convenient the style seems. Disease is not an enemy with an agenda, it is part of us.
The wartime analogies will continue of course, it is now part of our psyche to define every conflict as one involving strike and counter strike where drugs are described as weapons and disease pathogens as malevolent. The language of disease is the language of war.
Because we see human interaction with bacteria and viruses as warfare, we introduce other features of human conflict into the story. War is not just a battle between soldiers and weapons, it is just as much a battle of ideas and a conflict of words. No war would be fought in the absence of propaganda, or what today we have come to call ‘fake news’.
Her Majesty The Queen addresses the UK and the Commonwealth in a special broadcast recorded at Windsor Castle. pic.twitter.com/HjO1uiV1Tm
— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) April 5, 2020
The current crisis which defies all media attempts at hyperbole has provided a platform for propaganda and a fertile ground for conspiracy theories and fake news. In spite of the enormous gravity of the global pandemic, we are now experiencing the news still sits comfortably within its usual frames and the fake news gets every more fake. Conspiracies on a scale of the fake moon landings are everywhere.
In the last three weeks we have been subjected to lockdown. Governments both authoritarian and liberal have taken the only real step to attenuate the spread of COVID-19 available, and we are all making huge sacrifices giving up our rights that we have taken for granted for generations. Who would have thought before last Christmas that within months we would have given up our basic rights to associate, even with members of our families, and entered a world that will most likely be changed for good for very many people — if not all of us.
The calm dignity of the Queen’s address to the nation stands in sharp contrast to the hysteria of the fake news and the conspiracies. The Queen’s speech may not have brought the end of the crisis nearer, but the fake news is making it worse, the conspiracies are corrosive and insidious. We may soon have to give up another one of our taken for granted rights before it causes us damage too.
The right to free expression is the oxygen that fake news and conspiracies breathe. Just like our right to free association and the right to a private family life, it is a fundamental human right but all of these rights are not inalienable. There are many circumstances where free expression is bridled in the public good. Just as it is now in the public good that we do not mingle in pubs, cafés, cinemas or even at family parties. Just as we give up our work and our leisure, is it time that free expression where abused by the fakers and the conspiracists was curtailed.
Returning to the war theme and the use of military metaphors to describe a natural event, perhaps there is some value in describing the crisis as a battle or a war. In war we uses censorship widely. During the Blitz, so often described as ‘our finest hour’ we did not allow our enemies to have their say. We did not publish the news from Hitler’s point of view or invite spokespersons from the Nazis to put their interpretation of the war.
In the internet age we cannot shut down all of the poisonous propaganda spread by half crazed conspiracists and those who seek to profit from disaster, but we can reasonably require our mainstream press to stop parroting it. If free expression itself becomes a threat, then it is time that it was less free. No one expects the lockdown to last forever, no one expects that the emergency measures taken will now become the norm. The fake news is a threat to us, another viral infection whose curve needs to be flattened and it needs to be supressed to proven further harm.