Building transnational immunity to the COVID-19 infodemic

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A view of EU flags reflected on the closed doors of the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 26 March 2020. EU leaders will debate the coordination of EU efforts to tackle the Covid-19 epidemic, as well as other issues, including foreign affairs, digital policy and enlargement. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The European Union is a major target of disinformation campaigns about COVID-19, both by Russia and domestic nationalist actors. What the bloc needs is a cross-national media engagement, a truly transnational European public sphere to build resilience against disinformation on EU affairs, writes Nad’a Kovalcikova.

Nad’a Kovalcikova is a program manager at the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) in GMF’s Brussels office.

The COVID-19 health crisis has shed light on systemic challenges in the information ecosystem.

While the number of novel coronavirus victims increases rapidly and across the globe, various actors, including foreign governments, are succeeding at multiplying and amplifying conflicting narratives to undermine democratic systems and weaken the health of the European information space.

Could a more cohesive European public sphere build immunity to the COVID-19 infodemic?

As of April 16, the EU is among the top five recent targets of  Russian state-sponsored disinformation about COVID-19. Some domestic nationalist actors are also using the opportunity to mobilize Eurosceptic discourse.

The aim is to pit member states against one another and create openings for others to pierce diverse national information bubbles with divisive narratives. For example, RT France spread stories that, “The EU is dead, it abandoned Italy, only Russia, China and Cuba gave a helping hand.”

Russia’s Sputnik Czech claimed that the border-free Schengen area is disintegrating as a result of the crisis. While the EU has mobilized its common efforts after initially hesitating, over 400 cases of the Kremlin’s corona-related disinformation articles were registered in the European External Action Service (EEAS) database.

These articles have aimed to actively disrupt trust in European countries, and the EU as a whole, by spreading false narratives about their handling of the crisis. The Chinese Communist Party has also started borrowing Russian tactics of spreading chaos and confusion.

These malign actors have been “rewriting the present” and entering the EU’s national public spheres to shape public opinion — and not for the best. While the EU and its member states are catching up with practical solutions to tackle the pandemic, there needs to be a sustainable transnational approach to address the infodemic as well.

Disinformation manipulates citizens’ minds, sows discord and undermines the democratic system. Helping citizens gain key media skills to identify disinformation will require systemic change in education and social institutions.

Cross-national media engagement from political and intellectual authorities is one promising way forward to address disinformation about the EU at the national level more effectively. The EU needs a truly transnational European public sphere to build resilience against disinformation on EU affairs in a way that matters to and resonates with national audiences.

Recent events point in a positive direction: transnational cross-media engagement is emerging. In the last few weeks, we have witnessed intensified European messaging across national mainstream TV and radio outlets in Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, which too rarely bring these voices to their national audiences.

The National Spanish public TV channel, La 1, broadcast a live interview with the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen on prime time, as did French radio Europe 1 a few days later. This was followed by von der Leyen’s written piece in Le Monde on Europe’s growing unity and renewed solidarity.

On April 4, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez published a piece entitled ‘Europe’s future is at stake in this war against coronavirus’ simultaneously in The Guardian, EL PAÍS, Le Monde and FAZ.

Similarly, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was interviewed live on Spanish TV channel La Sexta to discuss an “emergency that affects everyone” and the EU’s protective role in it. He also did an interview with the major German public broadcaster ARD and the largest Dutch daily morning newspaper De Telegraaf.

Most recently, Mário Centeno, Eurogroup’s president and the Portuguese finance minister, delivered an interview to the Dutch NRC in the midst of a row between Southern European countries and the Netherlands over Eurobonds. Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild, called for solidarity with Italy through powerful images and text in both German and Italian.

Moreover, all these efforts were further amplified over social media platforms. This is a fresh, dynamic approach that should be maintained in order to build the EU’s resilience to divisive narratives.

However, the cross-media engagement needs to be more geographically equitable to be truly transnational and sustainable.

The views of the EU representatives and national authorities should be delivered beyond Western European member states’ media. Besides wider readership and transnational views, such practices help European messages resonate and fill a void which otherwise remains vulnerable to malign actors who aim to spread disinformation and divide the member states.

A sustained transnational, interoperable European public sphere would also help counter growing undemocratic practices in the media world.

There are rising concerns that increased Chinese investments in the Czech Republic’s largest media agency, Empresa Media, or Hungary’s new “fake news” coronavirus emergency law, which lacks a set time limit, may lead to the silencing of critical voices and the creation of space for manipulated narratives.

Disinformation works when there is an information vacuum. If we learned something from past pandemics, it is that the dearth of critically assessed and open information leads to devastating results on human lives, minds and the credibility of authorities, which play a critical role to inform and guide the wider public.

Insufficient transnational coverage, with a predominant focus on other countries’ uncoordinated reactions and missteps, misses a valuable opportunity for a sustainable and cohesive European public sphere, and it creates a vulnerability for others to exploit. Increased international collaboration is needed, especially between EU member states that share a polity but not necessarily an information space.

As malign actors are adapting their tactics to share more aggressive propaganda and spread disinformation to rewrite the present, the rise of cross-national media engagement in Europe is striking, as pointed out by scholar Catherine de Vries.

If transnational media practices get normalized and credible European voices obtain more frequent access to national audiences, this process may prevent the geopolitical and ideational influence of authoritarian actors on European democracies’ discourse, and it might help build societal immunity against any future infodemic.

While cross-national media engagement on its own will not replace the EU’s economic, political and other societal responses to multiple real-world challenges, it represents a necessary complement to sustainable policy efforts.

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