Stay alert: orchestrations of deceit

Cite this article as: Martin Thomas, "Stay alert: orchestrations of deceit," in PanMeMic, 26/05/2020, https://panmemic.hypotheses.org/191.

I was chatting with a friend last night who is much more numerate than me. He mentioned casually that ‘they’ always use big numbers for the ‘good’ things (commitments to government spending in crisis) and small numbers for the ‘bad’ (reproduction number of the virus, fetishized as ‘R’). Since then, he has put this idea in writing.

Anyway, the conversation got me thinking. And, today, I finally braced myself to watch the UK Prime Minister’s address of 10/05/2020, in which he at once conclusively privatized the country’s response to the pandemic – moving from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’, thus offloading responsibility from the state to the individual – and at the same time asserted an idealized national ‘us’ in the face of the crisis as ‘exogenous event, rather than a result of an ideology that enables the state to scramble unprecedented resources to save banks but not lives’. And this coming just days after the UK Health Secretary was talking about ‘weaning people off’ the furlough scheme, as if individual workers were somehow responsible for their dependency on it.

Absolute numbers are largely absent from Johnson’s address. The ‘death rate is coming down’, R (at the time of broadcast) was, he said, ‘below 1, between 0.5 and 0.9, but potentially only just below 1’. We can only assume that someone knows the figures on which this imprecise calculation has been based. The numbers of dead people feature only as counter-factual: we are told this ‘could have been a catastrophe in which the reasonable worst-case scenario was half a million fatalities’.

On the other hand, graphics are plentiful. They are constitutive of the message Johnson wants to project, a ‘way to defeat’ ‘this devilish illness’ in a sequence of inevitable steps, albeit one conditional on our passing the ‘five tests’.

These graphics draw on a quite a retinue of generic antecedents, none of them inviting of questions. The pictographs, enumerated lists and bullet points of the user guide. The mathematical formulae and line graphs redolent of hard science. The recovery of a society reduced to the unidimensional scale of a temperature gauge. Each slide featuring the semiotic appropriation of the UK’s National Health Service, systematically de-funded through a decade of Tory rule in the real world and now simultaneously diminished to a brand and elevated to myth.

Of course, these graphics have attracted a good deal of ridicule and critique. And there are clear internal tensions and contradictions within the narrative Johnson presents; in particular, between the spoken and the graphic. The graph shows R = 1 at the peak of the curve, which we assume to represent infections, yet Johnson’s speech tells us that a few weeks ago we were facing ‘exponential growth’. And, despite the conditionality emphasized in his speech, the curve in the graph descends into reassuring linearity. And this before we begin to interpret possible cultural references — was it just me who picked up echoes of Norman Tebbit’s father getting ‘on his bike’?

But what struck me particularly is the work that genre is doing here. And this is perhaps even more significant than the obvious omission of information about the scales (or, indeed, the supposed variables) depicted in, say, the axis of the graph. The question, perhaps obvious, but also worth asking out loud is, if we as readers readily import reading strategies from genres with which we are familiar to navigate new texts, do we also bring to them our assumptions of trust? This seems to be the founding principle of the deceit in play here.

In order to rule out the ‘cock-up’ hypothesis, in favour of ‘conspiracy’, I had a look at the Office for National Statistics website — and have reproduced a number of examples from it below. Please be assured that Her Majesty’s Government is not graphically illiterate. Nor is it unaware of the manifest patterns of social disparity which characterize both death and everyday life in times of pandemic. As the crisis cliché goes: same storm, but very different boats.

Published 11/05/2020; downloaded 18/05/2020 from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/causesofdeath/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19relateddeathsbyoccupationenglandandwales/deathsregistereduptoandincluding20april2020
Published 11/05/2020; downloaded 18/05/2020 from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/causesofdeath/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19relateddeathsbyoccupationenglandandwales/deathsregistereduptoandincluding20april2020
Published 14/05/2020; downloaded 18/05/2020 from https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2020-05-14

Finally, of course, manipulative message are themselves subject to manipulation — the official-looking certificate that appeared on the first graph above (under Step 1) to coincide with Johnson’s spoken message about ensuring safety and making work places ‘Covid-secure’ (08:05-08:18 in the address) and the entry ticket (under Step 3 of the graph) have both disappeared from subsequent briefings, such as this one posted 11/05/2020, most recently updated 26/05/2020.

Stay alert, indeed!

(Note: I drafted this post 18/05/2020 — but for various reasons have only posted it today 26/05/2020 — tweaks have been made along the way.)


6 Responses

  1. Maria Grazia Sindoni says:

    This is food for thought, thank you! I noticed a general increase of use of infographics over the past few months to talk about the pandemic in my own country (Italy) and in American and English media outlet as well. I have concerns about how governments are using these visual strategies to manipulate our perception of data, but also about what we genuinely think we understand what we see when in fact data in infographics may be visually deceptive. I watched a video (like a couple of months ago) published by one US major media outlet (can’t remember which one, unfortunately) and it showed how the same kind of progression can appear as completely different if presented, for example, linearly or exponentially, or, using linear or algorithmic progression. There were dramatic changes in data presentation and my visual perception got lost. But there are gains and losses in every data presentation. For ex. our NHS publishes every day a(I published in my Facebook comment) table that gives raw numbers subdivided into regions – but not considering that the most populated region in Italy is Lombardy (c. 10 million people) and the less populated in Val d’Aosta (c. 120,000) cannot be realistically compared if not normalized.

  2. Janina Wildfeuer says:

    Thank you, Martin, for sharing this, really interesting to see the existing and non-existing details!
    There is a similar discussion by colleagues from the research group ‘Health Care Communication Design’ on their blog ‘Living with Corona’: https://hccd.hypotheses.org/651 for German news and their use of infographics. One of their initial results from an interview with someone from the Tagesspiegel: “Readers are now more practiced in reading data visualizations than before – and more critical.”
    Definitely a lot of material to work with!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search