The British government has prepared for terrorist incidents by pre-planning social media campaigns that are designed to appear to be a spontaneous public response to attacks, Middle East Eye has learned.
Hashtags are carefully tested before attacks happen, Instagram images selected, and “impromptu” street posters are printed.
In operations that contingency planners term “controlled spontaneity”, politicians’ statements, vigils and inter-faith events are also negotiated and planned in readiness for any terrorist attack.
The campaigns have been deployed during every terrorist incident in recent years including the 2017 London Bridge attack and the Finsbury Park mosque attack.
Within hours of an attack, other campaigns are swiftly organised, with I “heart” posters being designed and distributed, according to the location of the attack, and plans drawn up for people to hand out flowers at the scene of the crime, in apparently unprompted gestures of love and support.
The purpose of the operations, according to a number of people involved in their creation, is to shape public responses, encouraging individuals to focus on empathy for the victims and a sense of unity with strangers, rather than reacting with violence or anger.
Many of the operations are said to be modelled on extensive plans that were drawn up in the UK to channel public anger in the wake of any attack on the 2012 London Olympics.
Some had been devised the previous year, at a time when social media platforms were aiding communications between protesters during the Arab Spring – and when a series of riots were erupting in towns and cities across England.
One senior figure involved in that contingency planning says that the riots had “absolutely terrified” the British government, and that Theresa May, who was then home secretary and is now prime minister, had been particularly shaken.
The measures drawn up in advance of the Olympics were intended to “corral the Princess Dianaesque grief” that was expected to emerge after any mass-casualty attack, a reference to the public mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997. This person describes those measures candidly as an attempt at “mind control”.
Although there was no terrorist incident at the 2012 Olympics, variants are said to have been deployed in the wake of every attack in the UK since then.
“The point I noticed change was the Olympics,” says one veteran contingency planner in the UK.
“The management of the secret, hidden emergency planning work behind the Olympics became the social control that we would fall back on if we had any terrorist attack, or if we had any disruption. It’s ‘this is the hashtag we go to’. And we’ve never come back from those days.
“This job has changed significantly from planning for organic, people responses to tragedy, to being told: ‘We would like the people to do that, how do you get them there?’”
“A lot of the public’s responses are spontaneous, of course. But a lot are shaped. The [British] government doesn’t want spontaneity: it wants controlled spontaneity.”
‘That’s what we want’
Officials at the Home Office in particular are said to have been impressed by football fans’ demonstrations of support for a Premier League player, Fabrice Muamba, after he suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the pitch in March 2012, four months before the start of the Olympics.
At subsequent matches, fans of many different clubs held up placards and banners bearing messages of support for Muamba.
MEE understands that during subsequent contingency planning meetings, Home Officials suggested that replicating such a response could assist the recovery process after any terrorist attack, and result in the Olympic Games continuing.
“They were saying: ‘That’s what we want. If something happens at the Olympics, we want you to make people respond like that. And then the people will want the Olympics to carry on.”
A number of Western governments are understood to have exchanged information about the way in which they use social media in an attempt to shape public responses following terrorist attacks.
Examples of “controlled spontaneity” within the UK that MEE has identified include:
- a media campaign that was swiftly deployed after a number of British and American aid workers were beheaded by Islamic State militants in 2014.
- the use of hashtags, posters and vigils after the London Bridge attacks of June 2017 in which eight people were murdered and almost 50 injured.
- a Twitter, Facebook and mainstream media campaign that was employed later that month, shortly after a man drove his van into a group of people outside a mosque in north London, killing one person and injuring 10 others.