Communicating Europe during and after Covid-19: politicisation, disinformation and the future of Europe

The Covid-19 health crisis has accelerated trends of transformation in the sphere of public discussion in and on Europe. On the one hand, it is contributing to the disruption of public conversations, with an increase in the circulation of disinformation and, in some countries, of political polarization. On the other hand, however, this crisis contributes to make it visible that the ability of European societies to cope with unexpected shocks – health related ones, but economic in the recent past and most likely climate in the future – is increasingly related to the ability of European states and citizens to cooperate. 

In response to these transformations the OpenEUdebate network has organised a series of debates on different issues related to these transformations, the last one as recent as a debate last week with Director General for Communication in the European Commission, Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen.

In her explanation of the Commission communication strategy DG Ahrenkilde Hansen pointed out that the crisis reveals that citizens expect European responses and coordinated action even in crises irrespective of competences distribution. This calls for more cooperation between EU institutions and states in communication. This is the spirit of the Commission’s strategy in relation to Covid19-related disinformation. As Vice-president Josep Borrell said: “Disinformation in times of the Coronavirus can kill. We have a duty to protect our citizens by making them aware of false information.” This builds on the Action Plan against Disinformation of December 2018 and the Code of Practice signed in October 2018 by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla and is another step in inter-institutional cooperation that institutions sought since March 2015.

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In addition, the Commission «calls upon Member States to intensify efforts to ensure freedom of expression and pluralist democratic debate strengthening its support to independent media and journalists and building a strong economic response focused on recovery». The response of the media sector to the pandemic is a subject that OpenEUdebate also recently discussed with academics and professionals of the media sector.

We discussed the effects of the pandemic 3 experts in disinformation (Nadia Kovalcikova, Jorge Tuñón and Emma Briant) in the eighth episode of the ‘Europe after coronavirus’ podcast series. One of the paradoxes of the current situation is that the pandemic has demonstrated that quality journalism and fact-checking are more necessary than ever but the media sector is incredible fragile. This fragility relates to, either because of or as a result thereof, the rapid growth and development of social media. 

[Escuche el ‘podcast’ de Agenda Pública: ¿Cómo saldrá Brasil de esta crisis?]

The media are not alone in the decline in trust; this is a broader phenomenon affecting other social actors. This distrust in journalists, political operators and public authorities is particularly problematic because trust in reliable sources of information and public decisions is essential in a pandemic. In the abovementioned episode of Europe after coronavirus Emma Briant pointed out that, in part, authorities themselves are to blame, as it is not infrequent that demands to use reliable sources matches attempts to weaponize these sources with partisan messages

The pandemic also demonstrates that even though crises are particularly sensitive moments for disinformation, as elections, the fight against disinformation must tackle the entire political cycle, addressing it as a systematic and structural matter. In order to achieve this, transparency and inclusion are key in promoting reliable information.

Ahrenkilde Hansen also argued that the pandemic has brought expertise back in the picture and in positive terms. In the public sphere experts play a role similar to journalists, civil society activists and political actors: connecting publics and translating knowledge to different repertoires. Bringing these mediators back in the equation can be a way to reconstruct a sphere of democratic debate after the disruption of the pandemic.

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Contra la pandemia, información y análisis de calidad
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