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Navigating the COVIDSafe app rhetoric

  • 21 May 2020
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen the government pull out all the stops in an attempt to convince the Australian public to download the COVIDSafe App. There are plenty of issues with the app itself, including its technical flaws, and valid concerns around data privacy, security and the normalisation of surveillance. But the other fascinating aspect of COVIDSafe has been the commentary surrounding the app. 

While it may be easy to laugh off some of the more ridiculous things spouted by our oft-out-of-touch politicians, it would be unwise to underestimate the power, impact and potential harm of their messaging. 

Early on in the pandemic, the first striking persuasive technique was the war-time rhetoric. War-time language is a powerful way to communicate that this is a ‘state of emergency.’ Similar to the War on Terror, it primes us to accept ‘what needs to be done.’ We’ve heard this narrative before, so we know how it goes. Times of crisis are primetime to increase powers in policing, surveillance and intelligence — many of which encroach on Australia’s (already meager) human rights protections. The issue is, once the battle is over, these powers are rarely rolled back. 

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison compares the app to buying war bonds and asks to ‘get behind the national effort’, it makes us feel things. Australians, by and large, are a war-respecting people, which makes it a particularly salient persuasive device. It brings us together in an ‘us against the virus’ mentality, because after all, what bonds people more than a mutual enemy? 

The Australian Government Department of Health website tells us that downloading the app will 'save the lives of other Australians'.  The undertones of that kind of moralising messaging forces us to grapple with questions of right and wrong. The terrible brilliance in framing the app as a question of morality is we are positioned to believe that those who do not download the app are failing their civic duty and doing the wrong thing. And in some more aggressive debates, insinuating that you mustn’t care about people’s lives. 

Moralising war-time rhetoric is closely related to another political favourite: a call to patriotism. Rallying together under the mainstream idea of what it means to be an Australian. Teamwork. A fair go. If downloading the app is the Aussie thing to do, then it’s un-Australian to decide not to. Anyone who’s ever sat through an English class in Year 10 will remember that a call