'Mind control': The secret UK government blueprints shaping post-terror planning
After the 2017 London Bridge attack, local officials were told: 'We're sending you a hundred imams.' How hashtags, vigils and flowers are used to steer the public towards grief instead of anger
By Ian Cobain
Published date: 22 May 2019 06:34 UTC
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.
A riot police officer stands guard in front of a burning building during riots in Croydon, south London, in 2011 (AFP)
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.
Arsenal fans display an image of Fabrice Muamba in March 2012 after the footballer suffered a caridac arrest while playing for Bolton (AFP)
"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.
Union Jack hijab
After Alan Henning, a British aid worker, was murdered by Islamic State in October 2014, the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) a controversial propaganda unit that is part of the Office of Security and Counterterrorism at the UK Home Office turned to a striking image that had already been developed by one of its private sector contractors.
The image created by Breakthrough Media, a London-based communications company, was a photograph of a woman wearing a Union Jack hijab, taken in profile.
The image of a woman in a Union Jack hijab was used on the front page of The Sun (Twitter)
It had been developed, according to an internal Breakthrough document seen by MEE, because "the UK authorities wanted to challenge ultraconservative and misogynistic interpretations of Islam particularly those around women in order to promote the true face of Islam among vulnerable UK communities".
The document explains that RICU's objective was to "establish a platform for British Muslim women to set out an alternative interpretation of Islam and to take a lead in countering extremism in their communities".
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The outcome, it goes on, was Making A Stand, "a new British Muslim women's campaigning organisation and network active within British Muslim communities and with an increasingly high-profile in the national media".
A few days after the murder of Henning, the campaign described as Making A Stand approached The Sun, a tabloid newspaper, which agreed to dedicate its entire front page to the Union Jack hijab photograph.
Inside, the newspaper devoted a further six pages to coverage of political leaders and members of the public who said that they were making a stand against Islamic State terror.
Emails disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act show that RICU monitored online reaction to the Sun's front page, which its staff acknowledged as "our product".
Staff at Breakthrough were delighted with the way their work had been passed on to the Sun: a framed copy of the front page was hung in the company's central London offices.
The Union Jack hijab is one one of hundreds of media projects that Breakthrough had designed on behalf of RICU as part of the UK's controversial counter-radicalisation programme known as Prevent.
Recently rebranded as Zinc Network, the company continues to bid for, and win, RICU contracts. Zinc Network had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.
Internal RICU documents seen by MEE say the unit is working "at an industrial scale and pace" to develop messages that aim to "effect attitudinal and behavioural change" particularly among Muslims. The involvement of the UK government is rarely acknowledged.
'We're sending you a hundred imams'
While covert messaging developed as part of the Prevent programme is aimed at Muslims, particularly young men, attempts to plan for "controlled spontaneity" in the wake of a terrorist attack are aimed at the general population.
The day after the London Bridge attacks, a team of men arrived at the scene of the murders in an unmarked van.
They could be seen being admitted behind the police cordon, where they plastered walls with a number of posters bearing images of London, and number of hashtags that were already circulating on Twitter: #TurnToLove, #For London and #LoveWillWin.
This practice, known in the UK as fly-posting, is a minor criminal offence, but police admitted the members of the fly-posting team behind their cordon and took no action. The men doing this work declined to tell journalists who they were, or where they were from.
When the cordon was eventually lifted and members of the public were able to return to the scene of the attacks, they found themselves surrounded by apparently impromptu signs of the public's defiance and unity.
Religious leaders gather near London Bridge on 7 June, 2017 (AFP)
The day after that, a government official telephoned Southwark Council, the local authority for the area where the murders happened.
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