The COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to the rise in domestic and international tensions. What can be done to maintain Europe’s information sovereignty in light of the US-China dispute, Kremlin propaganda and authoritarian turns in Central Europe?
Pandemics know no borders or social class and may affect everyone. They are by definition global but responses to them are intensely national, characterised by closed borders and people seeking the shelter of their state.
At the same time, the syndrome of a besieged fortress and the populations rallying around the flag during national emergencies is often abused by the governments who manipulate the information to suit their other purposes and absolve themselves from responsibilities.
A review of information politics about COVID-19 allows distinguishing three levels of manipulation.
The first one replays the key elements of US-China rivalry, while the second is the traditional Russian anti-Western and anti-European narrative.
The third level is specific to unconsolidated democracies in which the pandemic crisis allows governments to monopolise power and limit the room for political competition.
The Virus’s origins and the US-China Rivalry
When the crisis broke out between December 2019 and January 2020 in the city of Wuhan, President Trump almost immediately began to call COVID-19 virus a “Chinese virus” and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was using the term “Wuhan virus”.
This rhetoric was accompanied by shutting down all flights from China and blaming Beijing for the poor management of the crisis. Soon after that, Trump announced that flights from Europe were also suspended because the Europeans failed to cancel communication channels with China.
China’s handling of the crisis was routinely criticised by Trump, members of his administration and conservative members of Congress. In February 2020, Republican Senator Tom Cotton publically endorsed the conspiracy theory claiming that the virus was produced by the Chinese military in a biochemical lab in Wuhan.
As of late April, the theory concerning the Chinese military is officially investigated by official US intelligence agencies.
Washington’s messaging on the pandemic has been a close fit with the general policies of Trump’s administration policy towards China, including its economic protectionism and criticism of those American corporations, which have relocated their production to China.
In March 2020, China decided to hit back and gave credence to another conspiracy theory this time about the American origins of the virus, allegedly brought to Wuhan by the US military that participated in the Military World Games held in October 2019.
There is zero evidence to substantiate this theory (including the fact that none of the members of US military who visited Wuhan actually fell sick) but this did not stop the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the head of the Information Department Zhao Lijian to spread the theory via tweeter – the platform, which is blocked in China itself.
Zhao’s tweet was then reprinted in national media and it was viewed by hundreds of millions around the globe.
Zhao never withdrew his insinuation although his comments created a major crisis in relations with the US and the Chinese Ambassador was summoned to the State Department for dressing down.
When another spokesperson from the Ministry, Gengs Shuang, was asked about Zhao’s statement at an official press conference, he did not distance himself from it but said instead argued that the origins of the crisis are a “scientific issue” that people have different opinions about.
The anti-US conspiracy theories by China are clearly politically stimulated mostly to show to the US that Beijing can also bite. Although there is a consensus amongst the experts that the virus originated from Wuhan, most probably from the city’s wet market, the Chinese government is confusing the picture just to show to the US that it can also politicise the matter.
Beijing wants to show that at least in some part of the world people would believe their version of the truth – meaning that the virus’s origins are unknown and could even be American. That way China, at minimum, absolves itself of responsibility for creating the current crisis.
As is the case with any other major crisis, Russia has reacted by engaging in the usual set of disinformation activities and criticism of the Western world.
The Russian State Television, Channel One, launched even a regular slot dedicated to propagating various conspiracy theories about the origins of the pandemic usually pointing fingers at the US intelligence agencies or western pharmaceutical companies or both of them working in collusion.
Radio Sputnik claimed the virus was created in the Latvian lab and pro-Kremlin television RT engaged in arguing that the EU is failing to protect its citizens at the time of crisis.
The anti-Western messaging of the Russian media is not new, neither are the Kremlin-sponsored conspiracy theories. However, where Russian media have effectively touched the nerve of the Europeans has been through the spread of anti-EU rhetoric and suggestion that the pandemic laid bare the lack of the EU support and the collapse of European solidarity.
Eurosceptic forces in the EU, including the leaders of Italian Lega, Spanish Vox and the French National Front, have applied similar rhetoric. The anti-European rhetoric is indeed falling on the fertile ground especially for the nations that have been worse affected by the virus, such as Italy and Spain where the expectations of the supporting role of the EU have largely been unfulfilled.
The messaging on the virus is, therefore, another case whereby Russian propaganda is in close sync with European far-right forces.
Infecting Democracy in Central Europe
In most countries, national emergencies boost the popularity of the governments as people entrust their security to the leadership and expect the opposition to support them whilst putting aside political arguments.
Some governments use this situation to expand their powers and take advantage of the situation. When this is happening in established democracies, there are sufficient checks and balances in place to stop the over-expansion of the government’s prerogatives.
However, in young democracies – such as those in Central Europe – a national emergency may facilitate an authoritarian turn. This is exactly what has been happening in Hungary and Poland.
In Hungary, the Fidesz-dominated parliament approved the state of emergency and nearly total transfer of power to Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who rules now by the power of decrees. The spread on information about the pandemic that the government considers to be false is now punishable with the prison sentence for up to five years.
Now, there are zero checks in the Hungarian system to constrain the power of the prime minister.
In Poland, the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) has used the emergency to change the electoral law and strip the non-partisan electoral commission of responsibility for organising the polling and counting votes. The role of the commission has been replaced by the state-owned and party-run post office headed by the former deputy minister of defence, a known loyalist of the ruling party.
Similar to the Hungarian case, the cited reason for this overreach of power has been the pandemic and the schedule for presidential elections. However, there are sufficient mechanisms in the Polish Constitution to allow for the postponing of the elections during the national emergency.
Since all the campaigning has been suspended whilst the current Polish President Andrzej Duda continues to enjoy exposure on state-owned media, it is almost certain that, if held, these elections will be considered unfair by the external world.
The pandemic is contributing to the rise in domestic and international tensions. It is yet another reason why US-China disputes are growing with both sides trading criticism and insults.
Whenever a crisis hits Europe, the Kremlin propaganda and European far-right populists join forces in attacking the European Union.
In Central European young democracies are becoming more vulnerable and are experiencing authoritarian turns, as the recent events in Hungary and Poland have demonstrated.
Quality and objective information is becoming a strategic commodity in this context. Below are some ideas on how to maintain Europe’s information sovereignty under the conditions of an emergency:
- European journalists have no reason to engage in the politicised US-Chinese conflict about the epidemic and the conspiracy theories that float in radical circles of both countries. However, the Europeans should be aware that the Chinese government is engaging in promoting anti-US conspiracy theories to blur the picture and distract the attention from the fact that the virus emerged from China.
- The EU needs to do better in informing about its actions in handling the crisis. Some European journalist and publicists have been repeating Kremlin lines in criticising the EU with no reservations. Whilst some criticism of EU actions is healthy and needed, the questioning of the purpose of European integration is clearly consistent with the strategic objectives of Kremlin.
- Information space within ex-communist Central European member states is deteriorating and quality journalism is declining. This makes the region more vulnerable to Russian and Chinese influences as well as facilitating the power grab of domestic autocrats. The decline in democratic information sovereignty in Central Europe should be recognised as a threat to the cohesion of the entire EU.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.