Sometimes, I teach propaganda, and today, I want to teach our political leaders how to use propaganda, because, while reprehensible and usually unethical, it is a very effective communications tool, and their COVID-19 communication strategy at this moment, to use a highly technical public relations term, sucks ass.
Principle 1: Effective propaganda (like all effective opinion writing, btw), has a single, clearly articulated position.
Therefore, “COVID-19 can be effectively mitigated by washing hands, not touching your face, wearing a mask and keeping six feet apart—OMG—why aren’t you people just doing that—it’s so simple and the virus is so deadly—the numbers are spiking—you’re killing the elderly—you’re all going to die—don’t stress, just wash your hands—stay home but only if you really want to—why isn’t everyone doing their part to stop the spread?” is not effective propaganda.
Principle 2: Effective propaganda identifies a common enemy. A scape goat. This is sad but effective, because the concept of “enemy” is pretty primal. If you don’t give the people a common enemy to focus on and hate, they turn on each other. And while they might say they hate the WHO, say, or the CDC, or the Chief Medical Officer—who they actually hate is the guy next door and the woman ahead of them in the grocery store line-up.
The common enemy is COVID-19. Repeat after me: the common enemy is COVID-19. Dr. Hinshaw actually said this in today’s briefing, brilliant woman. Let’s say it again: The common enemy is the fucking virus. Not your neighbour who’s just hosted a birthday party, and not your co-worker who made you feel like shit for going on a date.
THE COMMON ENEMY IS COVID-19.
Frustrated and angry? Me too, sister, me too. The approved mantra is, “Fuck you, COVID-19.”
Not “Why are people so stupid and selfish!”
They are not the enemy. Your neighbours are not the enemy. They are doing a shitty job of following the rules because their leaders are doing a shitty job of leading them—and really failing at the effectuve propaganda thing.
Who’s the enemy?
That’s right. The virus. Not your disempowered, frustrated, frightened neighbours.
Principle 3: Effective propaganda empowers. This is key: effective propaganda tells people what they can do to win the war, preferably in slogans. Loose lips sink ships. Put that light out! Make do and mend! Do your part—stay six feet apart.
See what’s happening there? It gives people a determined, simple, non-negotiable action item. Giving them this action item—giving them instructions vests them with power. This is kinda paradoxical on the face of it, but modern psychologists can explain to you in great detail why this is true (shorthand: we’re really just very articulate monkeys; we’re not that great with freedom and choice, tbh). So—want people to feel empowered by your propaganda? Tell them what to do.
Put that light out!
Not—We encourage everyone, if they think they’re capable of it and it doesn’t conflict with their self of what they’re entitled to or comfortable with, to put out their lights. It would really help. We’re not going to infringe on this, because we really don’t want to infringe on personal liberties. But, like. Please? Because otherwise, things will get worse.
Got it? Effective propaganda empowers by being commanding. Imperative.
It does not plead: Please, please stay home—but if you do go out to frequent the businesses that we’re keeping open, because nobody wants another lockdown, make sure you’re safe and do all the things we’re asking you to do, okay? Yes? Will you?
It declares: Stay home. Save lives.
Go back to principle 1 now. Can’t remember what it is? It’s ok—all of us have impaired, shitty memories right now. Pandemic stress. I’ll repeat it: Effective propaganda has a single clearly articulated position.
It’s not journalism or a reasoned argument. THE OTHER SIDE DOES NOT EXIST.
So. You cannot simultaneously tell people, “Stay home. Save Lives!” and “Schools are safe though and please, go shopping LOTS and keep the economy going—restaurants and bars are totally okay too, if you stop drinking by 10 pm and are home and in bed—alone—by 11.”
It doesn’t actually matter if restaurants and bars are totally okay, by the way. You just can’t sell it like that. “We’re in a crisis way worse than when we implemented the lockdown back in the spring. But we’re not closing anything down. Restaurants are not the problem. Entertaining your friends at home is.”
The stressed, strained monkey brain does not compute. At all.
It needs a Single. Clearly. Articulated. Position.
An empowering, clear and direct Call to Action.
And a common enemy—that, in this case, is the virus.
Not the people next door.
So there you go. These are the three essential principles of effective propaganda, all of which are missing from Alberta’s and Canada’s COVID-19 communications strategy right now. There is a fourth one that kind of runs through all three of these: propaganda makes the complex simple. That’s what makes it intellectually suspect and also dangerous. And that’s why if you want to wield its power for the benefit of the great social good, you’ve gotta thread carefully.
Our government is refusing to wield this power, and it has delegated the responsibility for flattening the second wave of the pandemic to the people on the street. (Btw, notice how it has arrived right on schedule? I mean, in March, we could at least claim we didn’t know what was coming—Bob and Bob’s uncle, not to mention the WHO and Health Canada and the CDC were all warning of a November spike since… April.)
This quasi-libertarian delegation of responsibility and abrogation of leadership sucks. It’s very very unfair. We the people on the street cannot speak with a single voice. We do not espouse a single, clearly articulated position. We are many; we have conflicting views, beliefs, priorities. Values.
But let’s agree on this: the common enemy is COVID-19.
I think you can get behind this even if you think COVID-19 is a hoax. Your tweak on this mantra: the common enemy is the COVID-19 hoax. There. That’s the enemy. Not the bus driver. Not your neighbour. Not the retail clerk who asks you to wear a mask. Not the customer who refuses to wear a mask.
The common enemy is COVID-19.
And we’re going to kill that motherfucker’s ass by committing random acts of kindness towards our friends, neighbours and strangers.
COVID-19 sucks, people, but we don’t have to.
(That’s my propaganda mantra, btw, and I think it’s pretty effective even though it doesn’t rhyme.)
What? You’d rather just bitch about how your neighbour sucks?
Well, fuck you.
No. Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. You are not the enemy. COVID-19 is the enemy. So what you’re going to do, is you’re going to go buy your favourite chocolate bar—yes, you can just steal it from your kids’ candy stash if there’s anything left over from Halloweeen. Write a note.
“COVID-19 sucks, but we don’t have to” is my suggestion. But feel free to elaborate and be gushy. Or trashy.
Pop it in your neighbour’s mailbox instead of glaring at them for not responding to the government’s lack of response to the pandemic in the same way you do.
It’s not the vaccine (but hey, there’s good news on that front this week, right?). But random acts of kindness—I recommend gifts of chocolate, although Scotch, wine, weed and pizza will also do the trick, and flowers are nice too, although you can’t eat or drink them—will get us through this while governments fail us with mixed messages.
PS Disinfect the chocolate bar wrapper, by all means, or wear latex gloves. You know the drill. Also, if you’re engaging in personal propaganda—remember our three principles. A single, clearly articulated message. A common enemy (the virus, not the mayor, not the premier—I know we want to make it the premier, but no, it’s the virus—not the snotty senior on the C-train). An empowering, clear call to action.
“COVID-19 sucks, but we don’t have to.”
Now, go give people some weed, wine, and chocolate.
(I’m also accepting cigars, because, fuck it, I’ve given up on shepherding my lungs through this. But that’s another story.)