Manipulating public opinion          –  by Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD                                                               

The temptation to impose ones will on others is one that has
been there for as long as humans have had language. It as the spectacle of
fascist and totalitarian regimes in the 1930s and 1940s that led to a spate of
writings after the second world on the tools and contexts likely to favour
control of the masses. One was Theodor Adorno’s work ‘The authoritarian
personality’ (1950) in which he identified a type that favoured control from an
external authority; another was Edward Bernays, credited with extending the
work of political propaganda into the post-war civilian sphere through what he
called ‘The engineering of consent’ (1947). 
A third was of course George Orwell who explored in 1984, (published in 1949), the way that
language was used to shut down questioning and dissent.

With the British government imposing
physical restrictions on people’s freedoms using a piece of Public Health
legislation passed in 1984 of all years,  it is opportune to reflect on the extent to
which the language of Covid19 mirrors that in Orwell’s novel.  Before doing that, a word on the power of language
to influence the way that people think.

Language and thought                                                                                                                                 

There is a widely held view that language influences
perception and emotions with even Charlemagne voicing the fact that ‘To have a
second language is to have a second soul’. 
Psycholinguisticians have now shown that Russian speakers’ ability to
distinguish light and dark blue faster than other peoples may be related to the
fact that there are separate words for these colours (‘galiboy’ and ‘siniy’
respectively).  The gender of a noun has
also been shown to influence perception with the feminine bridge in the German
language (‘Die brücke) evoking descriptions from Germans that place greater
emphasis on the beauty of this object than in Spain where the noun has a
masculine gender (‘El puente’) and speakers are more likely to emphasis its
strength and length.  In a similar way,
agency is more easily expressed in English than in Spanish (the first able to
voice the belief ‘He broke the vase’ as against ‘the vase broke’ in Spanish)
and watching identical testimony, English speakers are more likely to remember
the identity of the person who caused the vase to break than the Spanish

So, in a world with around 7,000 languages, we
could expect substantial cognitive diversity where  the imposition of a single language – such as
we find in the world of corporate marketing – would shepherd people into a
single mode of response.  In the case of
business, the marketing industry has finessed its messages through punchy
brevity (Think different, Apple,
1997), alliteration (Fly the friendly
, United Airlines, 1966), and the ever popular ‘rule of three’ (Just do it, Vorsprung Durch Technik, Beanz
Meanz Heinz
; Diamonds are forever).  Of course, the selling of political ideas produces
equally well-known phrases including; ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ (Julius
Caesar); ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ (French revolution); ‘Location,
location, location’ (Harold Samuel); ‘Education, education, education’ (Tony

Given the power of language to shape thought, it is
interesting to find Orwell analysing the way that the fictional language of
Oceania, ‘Newspeak’, diminished
rather than extended the range of people’ thinking.  With a new lexicon of Covid-19 making a rapid
appearance across the globe in the last few months, how does this compare with Orwell’s

Newspeak and the lexicon of Covid19                                                                                                             

In a spine-chilling appendix to 1984 (, Orwell explains the way that ‘Newspeak’
was designed to make ‘all forms of
thought, other than that of Ingsoc impossible’, with the complete version allegedly
appearing in the 11th edition (sic!)
of the Newspeak dictionary.  Orwell
deconstructs this fictional language, revealing the three categories of
language, A.B and C underpinning it.

So-called A-type vocabulary is said to cover everyday ‘purposive thoughts’
evoked by words such as  ‘hit’, ‘run’, ‘dog’, ‘tree’, ‘sugar’, ‘house’, ‘field’ which ‘leave no room for nuance, or degrees
of meaning’.  By contrast, ‘B-type words
are those with political or ideological significance tailored to engender blind
acceptance of the Party’s doctrines.  These
are composite words that eradicate the associations that would attach to the separate presentation of the words,
with the contraction of the words ‘Communist International’ to Comintern showing how an image of universal
human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune can
give way to a tightly-knit organisation with a well-defined body of doctrine. Other examples include the
word ‘thinkpol’ in place of ‘thought police’ and Orwell shrewdly observes that
a further effect is ‘to make
speech, and especially speech…. as nearly as possible independent of

The third type of vocabulary, type C, includes words that specifically
relate to science and technical fields and disciplines but so expressed that the
would not allow an individual to ‘
gain access to too much knowledge’.   As a
consequence, scientific processes and the word ‘science’ do not feature in

Understanding these three basic elements,
how does the language of Covid-19 compare to Newspeak?  And what stylistic devices, if any, underpin
the Covid-19 lexicon?

In fact, there is no shortage of
cases of Category A- type words and phrases. 
These include:

‘Stay home, save lives,
protect the NHS’ (the UK) and its replacement on 10 May
of ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’.  Note the ‘rule of three’ here – always at the
ready – and the nominalisation of the word ‘virus’ which removes all dispute
concerning the presence of a biological form that some doctors (eg Drs Kaufman
and Cowan) dispute has been appropriately isolated and tested.  Note also the phrases ‘Feeding the
nation’; ‘Clap for carers’ (brownie points for alliteration and rule of three);
‘Wash your hands’; ‘Quarantine’; ‘Essential shopping’ and ‘Essential

In terms of category B type words, we
have the ubiquitous ‘lockdown’, a word normally reserved for prisoners confined to their cells but extended to
civilians – ominously – in a 2010 Rockefeller document
that details an imagined pandemic scenario in 2012, necessitating what the document
describes as a ‘Lock step’ policy (see 
In addition, there are words that although not physically joined, are
viewed as inseparable such as ‘New normal’, ‘Contact App’, ‘Social-distancing’
and ‘Second wave’.

Where C-type words are concerned these might
be thought to include ‘Covid-19’; ‘Test positive’; and ‘Fighting coronavirus’.  The justification for considering these to be
category C words?   According to Orwell,
such words leave the science presumed and explained where in fact, such clarity
and consensus may be absence.  In fact,
one recent commentator has summarised the scientific evidence as ‘junk’ (see
and questions could be
posed of all three of the concepts set down at the beginning of this paragraph.

What type of questions?  Well, the word ‘Covid-19’, coined by the UN’s
WHO in February 2020, implies a virus-originated illness where many scientists
dispute that this is the only or real cause of the listed symptoms.   By
analogy, the phrase ‘Test positive’ presumes the accuracy of a PCR test created
by Novel Laureate biochemist Dr Cary Mullis that was never intended for
diagnostic purposes and that is alleged by some doctors to deliver 80% false
positives. Finally, the phrases ‘Fighting coronavirus’ and ‘The invisible
enemy’ presume that there is a virus to fight, and with this as well as germ
theory now questioned by many scientists, these 
phrases become contentious. In fact, as Frank Furedi has suggested (see
link above) they may simply be part of a tendency to present politics as evidence-based
when the evidence for this belief is not presented in a form that permits public

Reason for grave concern                                                                                                                               

It would appear that elements of Newspeak are being used in the linguistic presentation of the lockdown, a disturbing finding given that this form of speech is designed to shut down thought.  Also concerning is the apparent roll-out of these concepts on a global scale.  A cursory search revealed, for example the appearance of the ‘lockdown’ concept in France as ‘le confinement’, a word suggestive of being kept somewhere by force while in Germany it features as ‘Ausgangsperre’, translating as ‘an embargo on going outside’.  Then, the notion of ‘Social distancing’ features in Germany as ‘Soziale Distanzierung’ and the ‘Stay home. Stay safe’ motto used until 10 May in the UK, is still used in Ireland. 

The snapshot of an international lexicon continues with ‘contact
tracing’ appearing in Germany as ‘Kontaktverfolgung’, ‘Quarantine’ in Iran and
daily clapping for the health services at 8.00pm in France.  Of course, the full panoply of Covid-19 words
cited in this article are likely to feature in one form or another in English-speaking
countries across the world. 

The global lingua franca that
is the Covid-19 lexicon underpins the modification of marketing straplines
globally.  So, Coca-Cola has changed the form that its advert takes in Times
Square so that, instead of showing the usual connected Coca-Cola script, it displays
the letters spread apart and a new tag line ‘Staying apart is the best way to
stay connected’.  Likewise, Nike released a new advert with
the words: ‘If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now
is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.”  These adverts have meaning for millions only
because the concepts underpinning them have a global reach.  They also show the way in which commercial
interests have joined forces with the political, a move that some might see as
nudging society closer to fascism.

Reacting to Newspeak                                                                                                                                  

With politics locking arms with Big Business in the creation of
a Newspeak lexicon, people need to ask themselves whether they want to use this
vocabulary.  The words ‘Lock step’
appeared as early as 2010 in a Rockefeller document describing a fictional
pandemic that would give rise to authoritarian leadership and would limit the
scope for citizen innovation.  If you do
not wish to see this scenario unfold, it is maybe time to consider whether to
create and use an alternative lexicon.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially ‘fascist’ because it forces us to think and say certain things and so we are faced with a choice.  Either go on using the words and phrases created by the global political classes – conveniently ready packed and ready for use in 2020 – or create our own vocabulary.  Here are some suggestions from friends and acquaintances:

Existing lexicon New lexicon (for critical thinkers)
New normal New abnormal
Lock-down Lock-up
alert, control the virus, save lives
Obey the
rules, wreck the economy, kill people
Wear the
Support the nonsense, perpetuate the fear,

be subservient
away all the good work we’ve done
our destruction

In fact, the decision not to use the language of the establishment has a precedent.  The Nigerian author Amos Tutunola wrote his first novel The Palm Wine Drunkard in 1952 while the country was still under British colonial rule and he used a pidgin to translate African cultural particularities into the English language.  So perhaps readers could suggest ways of expanding the lexicon so that the Newspeak lexicon is replaced with a language that leaves room for debate and discussion.     

Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD, formerly Professor of Management and Marketing, is the author of several books exploring diversity in management practices, thought and design.  She runs conferences on the topic of ‘Questioning History’, with the next one on 18-20 December 2020.  

Inquiries can be made to

Read More


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

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