#CORONASPEAK 3 – the mixed messages

A role for linguists in coronamessaging?

Jon Birch, channelling Turing and repurposing the Enigma machine

The UK government’s handling of the information transfer required in a national emergency has differed significantly from the strategies employed in other states. While Donald Trump has used the White House ‘pressers’ to expound a bewildering sequence of personal claims, accusations and commentaries, and Angela Merkel has favoured occasional official announcements via mainstream and social media, the government at Westminster has relied on daily televised briefings to keep the public informed of progress in combatting the pandemic and to advise on regulations and desirable behaviour.

After more than two months there has been a chance to reflect on the official recommendations and diktats and to assess their consistence and credibility. It is not clear exactly who is responsible for the drafting of messages or the invention of rallying cries and slogans. The ‘comms’ (communications, including information dissemination and public relations) team probably consists of activists involved in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign, ‘spads’ (unelected special advisors to ministers and the cabinet), spin-doctors and civil service speechwriters from relevant departments, (oversight by the GCS  – Government Communication Service – is unconfirmed) *. With an admixture of improvisations by the prime minister and cabinet members, the UK comms have been, in the view of many, a disaster.**

The details, including key statistics, have changed and mutated (at the end of June the two-metre social distancing rule was replaced by Boris Johnson’s advice to switch to ‘one metre plus’), the tactical positions adopted have pivoted and stalled, the advice has often  been bewildering or contradictory. Underlying themes may have shown more consistency, but consistency can describe a dependency on metaphors which may be unhelpful or confusing – above all the reframing of attempts to contain and overcome the virus as a ‘war’, with ‘heroes’, ‘non-combatants’ and hapless, tragic victims*** – the virus itself personified as an ‘invisible mugger’ who can be ‘wrestled to the floor’ by ‘have a go’ heroism.

With no other way of influencing events experts and non-specialists have taken to social media to critique and mock the successive claims. Professor Elena Semino declared herself ‘puzzled that the UK Prime Minister keeps referring to his government’s covid-related policies as ‘putting our arms around the public’, adding ‘Embodied simulation would be uncomfortable at the best of times, but now?!?’ Manchester Professor of Government Colin Talbot countered a succession of official claims on Twitter:

We need more testing. We’ll do 100,000 tests a day. ◼️You’re failing to do that. We’ll do 200,000 tests a day. ◼️We need to track and trace. We’ll have an app to do that. ◼️It not working We’ll set up a service to do that ◼️You haven’t

We’ll set up a world beating…

It is not only the verbal cues and rhetorical devices that have been deployed to manipulate, to confuse and to evade, but the visual signals, displays and symbology used, consciously or not, to influence and convince.****

 – Alex Andreou, on the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan

In a short interview last week I offered my own take on the evolution of covid-related language (as detailed in my two previous posts on this site) and a duty for linguists to become involved in scrutinising, clarifying and where necessary criticising the content of the present infodemic…

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/spotlight/spotlight-on-covid-pandemic-language-and-the-role-of-linguists

As was the case in the national conversation on Brexit the transmission and reception of official messages has been complicated by the role of some MSM (mainstream media) representatives, derided by their critics as ‘client journalists’, ‘courtier journalists’ and ‘stenographers’, in uncritically passing on information, seeming actively to endorse or promote the government line and failing to hold obfuscators or outright liars to account. This will be the subject of an upcoming article on this site.

* More on this, from a partisan viewpoint, here…

https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnsons-coronavirus-fudge/

** Doubts were being expressed from the outset…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/16/johnson-daily-briefings-matt-hancock-herd-immunity

*** linguists, among them my colleagues at King’s College London, have now begun to analyse the deeper implications of the figurative language employed in official discourse. I will be posting their findings once they become available. Here is one such report, from an Australian perspective…

Metaphorical militarisation: Covid-19 and the language of war

**** a commentary here on semiology, slogans and signage…

Order out of chaos: Covid-19 threat levels and the manufacture of competence

In June The Conversation published an interesting comparison of the effects of fake news and mixed messages…

https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-fake-news-less-of-a-problem-than-confusing-government-messages-new-study-140383

And it is not only in the UK that members of the public feel confused by official messages and advice, as this article from Vice confirms…

https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/3azdqv/coronavirus-safety-guidelines-changing-confusing-united-states?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

A  perhaps minor example of injudicious choice of words, and conflicting nuances of meaning and connotation, in July 2020. The bilateral travel agreements between states opening borders after lockdown were described by the UK government as air bridges. This term had until now more usually referred to a covered passage by which travellers can pass from an airport building to an aircraft.  In more difficult times it had denoted a connection by air between locations divided by sea or by foreign occupation. It is just possible, too, that the phrase might prompt memories of the very expensive, ultimately abandoned ‘garden bridge’ proposed by PM Boris Johnson for the Thames in London, or even the fantasies alluded to by ‘castles in the air’. In the event two different lists of permitted connections were published by the government leading to angry confusion on the part of travellers, airlines and the tourist industry. Led I think by the Foreign Office, from July 3rd official messaging quietly began to substitute the more literal designation international travel corridors.

On July 13 the government launched a new publicity campaign designed to inform businesses and the public on how travel will change after Brexit. Their latest gnomic slogan ‘Check, Change, Go’ and jargon formulations such as ‘field force team’ (for one-to-one telephone consultations) provoked widespread disbelief and mockery on social media, and puzzled consternation from exporters, importers and others. The spoof newspaper the Daily Mash commented (rudely and irreverently)…

https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/politics/politics-headlines/check-change-go-six-things-the-governments-new-slogan-could-mean-if-you-havent-got-a-fking-clue-20200713198455?fbclid=IwAR0r9Qx7yIN2rl8nU05Est6CqQ38V1naIfOtsbaQx8DlSjoFk0JvOMUqyeE

Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mail journalist Dan Hodges tweeted: ‘Got to be honest, I’ve no idea what Government guidance is on anything any more. Masks. Distancing. Numbers of friends you can meet. When and where you can meet them. Going back to work. None of it. Clear Ministers have basically given up on trying to agree a coherent line.’

Philip Seargeant of the Open University, with whom I have collaborated, has written here on the contradiction between populist narratives and the kind of communications required to manage a crisis such as the pandemic…

https://www.afr.com/politics/how-the-pandemic-exposed-the-shortcomings-of-populist-leaders-20200722-p55ef5

At the end of July the Daily Mail ran another uncharacteristically critical piece on the latest slogans…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8580437/Boris-Johnson-reveals-new-slogan-hands-face-space-test.html

…in September I was going to update this page with comments on the latest government initiatives, but Imogen West-Knights beat me to it with this Guardian piece (which mentions the ludicrously named ‘Op Moonshot’ project)…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/16/coronavirus-messaging-britain-operation-moonshot

…PUNCTUATED BY RUDENESS

Image result for messaging punctuation

 

Articles published earlier this week reignited debate about punctuation – one of the favourite subjects for online peevers and pedantic Twitterati. The articles seemed to be suggesting that traditional punctuation, or some of its components, could now be misinterpreted or convey quite different meanings to those originally intended.

The articles in fact were focusing on the full-stop or period as used in messaging apps, in particular on WhatsApp. Younger users of the platform reported that a full-stop at the end of a message indicated aggression, grumpiness or passive-aggression, as opposed to the neutral finality signalled in more traditional contexts.

And this  – context – is the key. The young devotees of messaging apps are unconcerned with the formal written English demanded in the case of essays, business letters, reports, even mainstream journalism. Their interactions are happening somewhere else and intended to achieve something else, too. My 20 year-old son tells me that his messaging environments simply make traditional usages redundant – and worse, if applied they cause misunderstandings in tone and affect.

Mentioning this on Twitter provoked this response: ‘I’m Gen X — part of the generation that invented the internet. As the late Rutger Hauer said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” My cohort literally invented all internet and messaging and texting traditions. Some spotty oik’s opinion is non-salient.’

Some other older internet and phone users were equally indignant, fearing they were being required to adopt the sloppy or unconventional habits of callow youth, but if we’re having to message across generations (which probably happens rarely anyway) we/they won’t make the same assumptions/impose our conventions on one another, surely?

Like all instances of language in use the language of messaging is context-sensitive and depends on interlocutors’ intentions, assumptions and reception of the ‘utterances’ in question. We adjust our conventions to accommodate – if we can, so we should indeed worry about full-stops, but only on WhatsApp, Facebook Messaging or Instagram.

The crucial point is that the electronic communications we are considering, although they have to be typed, are not examples of writing as we know it, but of something else. Messaging is effectively a verbal imitation of the very rapid to-and-fro of informal speech and that’s what it tries to render with its novel disregard of commas, colons and semi-colons, ellipses (the … that I am addicted to) and its innovative play with capitals, full-stops and exclamation marks. The notorious initials and acronyms – LOL, SMH, POS and the like –  were invented in order to cope with accelerated exchanges, although my children tell me that this abbreviation style is ‘very 2012’ and ‘so over’. Like many grownups I came to it much too late and was humiliated on national radio for thinking SMH meant ‘same here’, as mischievous young informants had told me (for the uninitiated it means ‘shaking my head’ in disbelief or exasperation). I do still use IMHO (in my humble opinion) when pontificating on Twitter. If feeling particularly passive-aggressive, IMVHO.

Image result for punctuation in messaging

Because neither conventional writing nor sparse message-speak can convey the tone and import of this kind of conversation,  emoji are required to compensate for body language, tone of voice, etc. Emoji can to some extent contribute the missing tonal and affective dimension to digital text but there is still no easy way to flag sarcasm, for example (I never ever come across ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ punctuation, or the 2011 attempt at a sarcasm font using back-sloping italics).

The two recent articles that triggered the latest debates were from the BBC website:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49182824

…and the Telegraph:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/full-stop-onwhatsapp-cutting-weapon-choice-use-wisely/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw

…but the first article based on actual research to raise this issue actually dates back to 2015:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2015/dec/09/science-has-spoken-ending-a-text-with-a-full-stop-makes-you-a-monster?CMP=share_btn_tw

…and Binghampton University usefully summarised the topic in 2017:

https://phys.org/news/2017-11-punctuation-text-messages-cues-face-to-face.html

 

 

I talked on BBC Radio about the full-stop and the punctuation age-gap and a vox-pop carried out by the BBC in Derry confirmed that, at least in that city, younger messagers and texters were all familiar with the new conventions and with the misunderstandings that could arise.

Finally, there was a chance for me to pontificate again in an illuminating discussion last week, one of many on Twitter, on older people’s preferences for punctuation:

…a subject nicely spoofed by the Daily Mash a year ago:

Man throwing semicolons around like confetti

One year later the punctuation issues were still being debated on Twitter, and summaries posted to help teachers and students. One such is here, from Rhona Graham at Queen Mary:

http://linguistics-research-digest.blogspot.com/2020/07/ok-ok-and-ok-how-we-use-punctuation-to.html