In the history of psychological warfare, so called Psy-warriors have long recognised the potency of health as a subject for disinformation campaigns. It’s understandable. Most of us worry about our health. ‘Dr Google’ has become a phenomenon. 7% of all daily google searches (around 70,000 a minute) relate to health problems, and, according to a 2020 survey, 59% of Britons ‘google’ their symptoms before consulting a medical practitioner. We might imagine that this has increased significantly due to the pandemic.

Why do we do this? Possibly because we have an underlying concern or deeper anxiety about what could be wrong. We need to know – fast- if we have something to worry about. Our survival might depend on it.

Health is fertile ground, then, for the disinformation campaigner, who knows that successful propaganda is dependent on our pre-existing fears, concerns and anxieties.  As Aldous Huxley once wrote: ‘the propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain.’

The Political Warfare Executive, a secret organisation created by Britain during the Second World War with the mission of spreading propaganda to the enemy, recognised the potential power of health scares to destabilise wartime morale. Training materials for Political Warfare Operatives told recruits that: ‘we have in the subject of health a topic that goes straight to the most fundamental anxieties, passions and suggestibilities (sic.) of the listener’.

These anxieties, remarked Lt Col R. L. Sedgwick, Director of Studies at the Training School, could only have been heightened by the context of 1943-4:

The deficiencies of wartime diet, the debilitating effects of a hard and abnormal way of life, anxiety about individuals or causes, the memory of the devastating epidemics that followed the last war, the profound medical after-effects of aerial bombardment. All these things constitute a menace partly imaginary, and partly real, to the physical and moral well-being of our enemies.

PWE’s role, he continued, was ‘to play on these fears to give them a rational and convincing terminology and explanation; to inflame anxieties so that they become physiological realities’. Sedgwick was particularly interested in the corollary effects of health scares: campaigns that focused on ‘the dangers of overwork, overstrain and sustained effort’ could result in absenteeism in wartime factories; ‘excessive demand’ for medicines could put pressure on an already strained medical profession; ‘nervous people’ could be encouraged  ‘to take labour wasting and extravagant precautions’; or communicate their anxieties to loved ones on the front lines, destabilising the military effort.

On the surface, this tactic sounded encouraging from an Allied perspective: to, in Sedgwick’s word, ‘create such a spectre of post-war famine, death, mutilation, and permanent national enfeeblement as shall make speedy and unconditional surrender a smaller evil’.

But Sedgwick also recognised the inherent instability of such campaigns. No propagandist would gain much traction rejoicing in the suffering of civilian populations. This was particularly true in the Second World War where the possibility of insurrection or rebellion remained a hope, albeit a distant one. Equally, lecturing others rarely hits the mark. Rather campaigns were to assume the guide of ‘plausible altruism’. Here the best medical advice was shared which protected the population, but at the same time, held a certain promise of damaging secondary effects to the war effort.

The 1941 PWE campaign around louse typhus, for example, pointed to the spread of the disease on the Eastern Front, and the consequences of contact with those returning from infected areas. Propagandists played on the gruesome symptoms of the illness:

violent headaches are followed by the irruption of red spots, delusions follow which are of singular horror and vividness, the patient’s tongue shrivels in his mouth, his temperature soars, coma ensues and after coma death. If he recovers, the memory of the terrifying hallucinations of his precomatose period remains in his waking thoughts and nightmares to the end of his life.

How should Germans protect themselves against such a violent and distressing end?

The PWE advised cleanliness and regular handwashing (knowing that soap was in short supply) and contacting a doctor at the slightest sign of illness (knowing that doctors too were in short supply and over-worked). Finally, and perhaps most damaging of all to the German war effort, PWE pointed to the dangers of being in crowded spaces, such as ‘factories, barracks and air raid shelters’.

The campaign achieved a certain success, PWE satisfied that ‘the tale flew on bats wings through Europe’. However, while the possibility of contracting louse typhus may have prevented some foreign workers from travelling to Germany and while the prospect of contracting a deadly illness strained ‘already over-tired tempers in German trams and trains’, the course of the disease ‘never attained the proportions of an epidemic’. That the disease was under control capped the deleterious effects of the campaign.

One of the striking aspects of the training for new recruits, given that the PWE was engaged in ‘black’ psy-ops, was the insistence that, for the subject of health, ‘propaganda must be based on facts, and the facts must be properly understood and correctly stated’. To do otherwise, could ‘do more harm than good’. Whether this advice related to the fact that incorrect medical information was likely to be de-bunked quickly, thus undermining the credibility of the campaign or its agents, or whether this was out of concern for any damaging effects to public health is unclear. ‘The subject of health’, concluded, Sedgwick, ‘is one that the propagandist touches with reluctance’.

There is little evidence now of that reluctance to spread health-related mis-or disinformation, or a broader sense of general responsibility of the handling of such material. The sheer volume of subversive material of this nature now in circulation, and its particular form, would undoubtedly have surprised and baffled Sedgwick. But perhaps we might heed his call to touch any such mis- or disinformation with ‘reluctance’, despite the anxieties and fears we may have. After all, the propagandist relies on us to give into them rather than exercise caution.