Since the first reports of an outbreak emerged from Wuhan, China, the world has fixed its gaze on the coronavirus. The virus has spread with unprecedented speed and global reach, and authorities have mobilized resources in an effort to contain it. But hidden within the pandemic is another struggle—one arguably as dangerous as the virus itself: a struggle for the hearts and minds of people who will shape the future health of European democracy.
During the pandemic, various political forces have sustained communications assaults on the public. As the security and intelligence services of some EU member states have reported, individuals and groups at the extreme ends of the political spectrum have used the pandemic to spread what the World Health Organization has called an “infodemic.” This includes misinformation, divisive and hateful speech, and attacks on information systems, and its effect is to weaken the foundations of European democracy.
Drawing from European Movement International surveys, it is possible to distinguish four trends that underpin this phenomenon. First, actors have been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic to undermine scientific advice and cause confusion. Second, some actors have been attacking the information systems of institutions such as the EU and the World Trade Organization, national governments, and even schools and medical systems. The intention of this type of attack is to undermine established institutions and sow mistrust and resentment toward them.
Third, some actors have been seeking to divide societies and pit people against one another by using race and class as instruments of polarization and blaming the spread of the virus on specific ethnic or social groups. And fourth, some actors have been creating a sense of fear and hopelessness, focusing on negative messaging about the pandemic and framing it in ways that make citizens doubt they can protect themselves within European democratic systems.
As European governments struggle to respond to the health emergency and the recession brought on by the coronavirus, these actors have taken the crisis as an opportunity to misuse information and exploit vulnerabilities to further their own objectives. The resulting combination of disinformation, mistrust, division, and disempowerment enables those driving the infodemic to weaken the individuals and institutions that underpin democracy in Europe.
Governments have begun to respond to these worrying trends, but only to a modest degree. Their communications about the pandemic must be more tightly calibrated to address the dangers of the infodemic and protect European democratic actors, organizations, and procedures. Governments, institutions, academics, civil society, the media, and citizens—in short, all who make up Europe’s democratic ecosystem—have a role to play in this.
Politicians and policymakers must focus on sharing accurate and accessible information consistently. Open and transparent communication of reliable information about the virus, containment measures, and strategies to reopen society will help governments and institutions rebuild the trust of their citizens. Communications about the pandemic should aim to showcase the important roles played not only by those who provide frontline public services, such as emergency and health workers, teachers, chefs, cleaners, and garbage collectors, but also public officials and civil servants tasked with designing and coordinating the responses to the crisis.
Governments and other actors need to put their emphasis on unity, harmony, and the importance of political inclusion. Governmental and institutional messaging about the pandemic has so far neglected the vital importance of other pillars of European democracy, such as a strong civil society and independent media. Governments and EU institutions will need to do a lot more to highlight the crucial roles that civil society and the media have taken on to fill information gaps, serve parts of society unreached by governments, and find innovative solutions to help European communities through the pandemic.
As the EU continues to fight the coronavirus and takes cautious steps to reopen, the union must also protect itself and its democracies against the dangers of false, hateful, and divisive information.
Petros Fassoulas is the secretary general of European Movement International.