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 bannersbearing 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.
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.
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”.
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.
The day after that, a government official telephoned Southwark Council, the local authority for the area where the murders happened.
“He said: ‘We’re sending you a hundred imams,’” a council official recalls. Two days after that, about 100 imams and Muslim community leaders from across the UK duly appeared on the bridge, and one read a statement condemning the attack.
The following weekend, a group of Muslims arrived at the bridge and handed out thousands of red roses. One of the organisers described it as “a symbolic gesture of love” for people affected by the attack.
What the event’s organiser did not say is that she worked at the Home Office, in law enforcement.
She told MEE that it was entirely a "grassroots" initiative with no government assistance: "I was acting as a member of the community and sought assistance from my personal networks."
The 'hero' of Finsbury Park
A week later, in the early hours of Monday morning, an Islamophobic lone attacker, Darren Osborne, drove his van into a group of men near a mosque at Finsbury Park, north London.
A number of young men restrained Osborne, and protected him from attack by others. A little while later they were joined by Mohammed Mahmoud, the mosque’s imam.
By the following morning, the hashtag #WeStandTogether was running across Twitter, after initially being promoted by police and police commanders.
As journalists gathered at the police cordon, a number were approached by a woman who called herself Gabbie, and explained that she worked for a company called Horizon PR.
What “Gabbie” did not say is that “Horizon PR” had been created by Breakthrough Media and another communications company, M&C Saatchi PR UK, and that Breakthrough has used it to promote the messaging it creates – and disseminates through co-operating civil society groups – under the terms of its contract with RICU.
A number of journalists have told MEE that “Gabbie” offered to introduce them to a man standing nearby. This man explained that his name was Shaukat Warraich and that he was from an organisation called Faith Associates.
Warraich stressed to the journalists the role that the mosque’s imam had played in protecting Osborne until he could be handed over to police. This came to dominate news reports in the days after the attack.
Warraich did not say anything about his organisation’s relationships with both Breakthrough and with the British government’s propaganda unit, RICU.
Faith Associates, a limited company, has for several years been funded in part by government contracts, and internal Breakthrough and RICU documents seen by MEE show that it works to disseminate government messages.
MEE understands that subsequent media reports have caused some ill-feeling in the area: the young men who restrained and protected the killer before the imam arrived at the scene believe their role had been overlooked.
“They were proud that they had done the right thing, but believe that they were then portrayed as a lynch mob,” said one person who prays regularly at the mosque. The young men are now rarely seen at the mosque, he added.
Asked about the role that he and "Horizon PR" had played in amplifying Mahmoud's role in conversations with journalists, Warraich replied that he had been working to promote mosque security for some years.
Mohammed Mahmoud declined to comment.
‘Flowers, not riots’
The blending of traditional emergency planning – the police, paramedical and hospital responses - with the use of post-attack propaganda appears to have gathered pace in the UK in recent years.
This has been a time when covert government messaging has been developed as part of the Prevent programme, and during a period when the growing use of social media has offered new opportunities for the creation of “controlled spontaneity”.
By 2016, Facebook was recognising that its reach would be extended still further if it operated as an emergency response institution following disasters.
Some governments have become increasingly nervous about the power of social media, however, and will attempt to shut it down rather than make use of it – as happened in Sri Lanka after more than 250 people were killed in suicide bombings in April.
In the UK, central and local governments are obliged to prepare for the aftermath of any disaster under the terms of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, a piece of legislation that arose out of the vulnerability that Tony Blair’s government is said to have felt during a series of crises early in his premiership.
In late 2000, countrywide protests over fuel prices led to petrol shortages, panic buying and the prospect of economic collapse. The following year an outbreak of foot and mouth disease cost the country an estimated £8 billion ($10.25bn) as livestock was slaughtered and many rural areas sealed off.
Once the Act was passed, a National Recovery Working Group was established within the Cabinet Office, the UK government’s central department.
This body established protocols and guidance documents that would be used to aid “recovery”, which was defined as a distinct phase after a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
The Cabinet Office offered the following definition: “Recovery is the process of rebuilding, restoring and rehabilitating the community following an emergency.”
Dr Lucy Easthope, a leading figure at the Cabinet Office emergency planning college, has written that “recovery” has since come to be seen as “a specific phase of the disaster that emergency planners attempt to order and something that can be planned for in advance before the specificities of the emergency are known. (The implication being that that these details are a minor issue, capable of being filled in later.)”
In order to keep the recovery process under control, hashtags and Facebook posts are said to be examined exhaustively in advance of their use, to establish that they can be used without provoking an unintended reaction.
After a terrorist attack – or any other disaster – Cabinet Office teams will work very quickly with the Red Cross and with local contingency planners, who usually send out the first social media messages, MEE has been told.
Emergency planners will also advise on the form of words that political leaders should use after such an attack, and enact the pre-planned vigils and inter-faith events.
“What is wanted is flowers being handed out outside mosques,” one emergency planner emphasises, “and not riots”.
'Get the Novichok cleared up'
One place where the local team was said to have rejected some central government planners’ suggestions was Salisbury, the town in central England where Russian agents used a nerve agent known as Novichok to poison a double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia in March 2018.
“In Salisbury, people were telling us: ‘We’re not going to wear T-shirts saying I heart Salisbury – we just want you to get the Novichok cleared up.’
“We can play the hashtag game in Manchester, where there’s a lot of young people, and they like it. In Salisbury there’s a lot of ex-military, and people just seemed to have good sense. So we didn’t use the usual recovery stuff there.”
A number of the people involved in the advance planning of “controlled spontaneity” clearly have some misgivings about the way in which emergency planning for the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks is being combined with propaganda techniques that are intended to influence the responses of the public.
Easthope – who wrote British government recovery management plans for more than a decade – has disclosed her concern that the multi-faith displays of solidarity that are negotiated in advance of terrorist attacks, and the pre-planned messages of resilience on social media, may not always be the best way to respond.
Perhaps, she has written, “the fight rhetoric has gone too far” and it is a mistake “to insist that the first message should be ‘we shall overcome’ as if the enemy was on the beaches.”
‘Anaesthetic for the community’
Some emergency planners are also concerned that the needs of bereaved families are rarely paramount when plans to create “controlled spontaneity” are being developed.
“The hashtag can start to feel very empty very early on, and I don’t think this ever really puts bereaved families at the heart of what you’re doing,” says one. “It’s an anaesthetic for the wider community, but it’s no replacement for really good humanitarian care for the people most badly affected.”
Nor, some say, is the public being encouraged to engage in debate about the causes of the hatred that underpin terrorist attacks.
“The government wants the Twitter storm or the Facebook storm to be in its gift, and of course it can’t be: but you can distract people by putting up a photograph of a French flag or whatever.
“We are not having these debates because we are saying ‘I heart so-and-so’, and ‘I’m going to change my profile picture to a New Zealand flag’, and ‘I’m going to do the haka in the school assembly’.
“When there’s nothing people can actually do, they can change the photo on their Facebook page. Then they can feel they’ve done something about it, they can go to work, and they’re not agitating the government.
“But we’re not going to get to the bottom of terrorism by socially engineering a response. We’re not doing the difficult debate. And what that stops, is true learning.”
The Cabinet Office said some information about its emergency planning was publicly available, but some remained for internal use only. It did not comment on criticisms of its current operations.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.