Europe in the fight against coronavirus fake news and propaganda

Camilla Palla

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe, all sorts of news, through diverse means, has reached the homes of European citizens. Europe has found itself managing a crisis on several fronts, not only for health and economic issues, but also regarding communication, in what has been defined as an actual “coronavirus propaganda war“.

The news has ranged from saying that the virus was designed as a biological weapon, first by the Chinese, then the Americans and, finally, by the Russians. Or, that the virus did not originate in China but was, instead, created in the United States in a laboratory. And again, that the pandemic is the result of a plot to make mass vaccinations compulsory. Other news relates to possible treatments, from natural remedies to chlorine bleach, from the presence of existing drugs already purchasable online to a vaccine already identified but not made available to the public. All this news has since been proven to be false, but has contributed to fuelling the spread of disinformation leading to at risk behaviour and waves of alarmism.

However, the false information that has been the most widely spread in Europe, and which has had a strong impact on an already fairly deep-rooted rhetoric has regarded Europe’s failure to manage the crisis. More recently, this has included for some people the EU’s lacking ability to provide support for its Member States, especially those most affected by the crisis, Italy being the first. This is based on the accusation of the Union’s total lack of solidarity at the outbreak of the crisis, its lack of coordination and its short-sightedness in the first decisions taken.

There have been complaints of behaviour defined as selfish, even by the President of the European Parliament himself, David Sassoli. The first reaction to the outbreak of the epidemic largely involved closing national borders, even before the suspension of the Schengen Treaty was agreed at the EU level. As well as the restrictions imposed on the export of medical devices and equipment. Confronted with the health emergency that affected Italy earlier than the other Member States, a certain degree of public resentment has arisen in witnessing the initial immobility and disregard coming from Europe and the other Member States.

A negative perception of Europe that has placed other countries, China above all, as being seen as closer and offering more solidarity with aid in terms of personnel and health equipment such as masks, lung respirators and other medical devices. The images of the cargo planes landing at Pratica di Mare – a military airport close to Rome – are just one example of the power of communication and the reactions it triggers in people’s collective imagination.

In these cases, the aim is twofold. Firstly, to nurture the idea of a powerful and caring state, domestically, and, secondly, to operate in terms of soft power at international level. However, beyond the fact itself, the key point lies in the means it is communicated.

Europe’s response, although it has taken longer than one might have expected, is now emerging. In recent days, there have been plenty of examples of European solidarity in the form of aid to the countries most affected, Italy and Spain first and foremost. Germany has sent medical equipment and medical personnel, as well as France and Austria. Germany has also proposed to activate the solidarity clause provided by Article 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), an initiative with a strong symbolic value, which perfectly matches the strategy of responding to anti-EU propaganda.

Therefore, the lack of information on the coronavirus emergency requires a concerted effort by the European and national institutions. The Commission has published online a common page on Europe’s response to the coronavirus, where you can access all the initiatives put in place by the Union and consult all the information to dispel the myths linked to the epidemic. In addition, the European External Action Service (EEAS) has started publishing a weekly report in which all fake news and false information related to the global pandemic are reported and explained.

A further support to the fight against fake news has been provided by platforms and tech companies. On March 16, tech-giants such as Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube made a joint declaration about their commitment to work together to tackle the spread of false news through the elimination of false content and unofficial applications related to the Covid-19 emergency and, to give more space to health authorities on an international scale.


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