The Disinformation War in Times of Coronavirus (op-ed)

Since the Spanish Government decreed the State of Alarm to stop the spreading of COVID-19 and the whole country was confined at home, social media has been an escape route that allows being closer to our friends and family. Along with these messages from our loved ones, I’m sure that all of you receive the daily bombing of news, videos and memes. They can either explain to you the last “magic solution” against coronavirus or the “goodness” of a certain remote country (generally, not particularly democratic) in the fight against the pandemic. Or even not speaking about the typical conspiracy theories, this time related to coronavirus. Yes, you are also a potential victim of the fake news epidemic.

While our healthcare workers (to whose we would never thank enough) give their best to protect us against coronavirus, others are taking advantage of the pandemic to spread its fake news. Even though the West is facing its worst crisis since World War II, the geopolitical battle does not stop. This time, instead of shooting bombs like in past times, they use a more powerful weapon: disinformation. It targets the core of the Western liberal democracies: the freedom of speech.

The pandemic and the political turmoil that our societies are living means the perfect trigger for information warfare. And the target of these attacks always tends to be the organisation that, even though its shortcomings, has made the most for the peace and prosperity of our continent: the European Union. This offensive is not something new: it has been repeating during the last years. We could see evidence of it during the Brexit referendum in 2016 as well as during the pos-modern coup d’etat that the Catalan nationalism committed in Catalonia in October 2017.

The Western democracies must, undoubtedly, defend themselves against these attacks, which have the goal of undermining our democratic system of freedoms and rights. The European Union and NATO are fighting against those attacks since a long time ago. Experts from both organisations are working to identify and counterbalance these interferences that aim to undermine the image of the EU throughout the continent. And now, according to Pedro Sánchez’s speech in the Parliament on the 8th April 2020, it is the time for the Government of Spain.

I should admit, that firstly I felt hopeful with the words of the Prime Minister. It was good news that the Government were going to fight against disinformation. But the joy turned into concern at the very moment than Sánchez started to blame the parliamentary opposition to be the advocates of those fake news. Huge mistake. The fight against disinformation shall be a State’s policy to defend our democracy, not a partisan weapon directed towards the opposition.

The worst was what was implicit in Sánchez’s discourse: that the only possible truth is the official version of the Government. In this case, disagreeing with the governmental position automatically turns you into a fake news propagandist, as the Prime Minister accused the opposition in the Congress. The remedy turns out to be worst than the disease. The plurality and freedom of speech are the core features of our democracy. Pretending that the only reliable information is the official version does not defend us from the attack of undemocratic countries, but bring us dangerously to them.

The only way to fight against fake news is not by censorship, but by empowering the citizens. “Empowering”: a word widely repeated by the leftist coalition Government (PSOE + Podemos) but that, in reality, they never put into practice. The best way to defend ourselves against the fake news is by not trusting automatically to everything we are told. This applies both for “WhatsApp” and for official versions. Only with a critical view, checking and contrasting the information (for example, with a quick search in Google) and not forwarding those messages whose reliability has not been confirmed, we will not get immunity against them. And we will leave with no reason for those who want to take profit from the disinformation war to set a “Ministry of Truth”. It depends on all of us.

Op-ed published originally in Spanish in e-notícies.cat on the 13th April 2020 and translated in English.

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