Infodemic 101: Fear not what the future may bring, but what inaction will

In a continued great power competition world amid COVID-19, some Eastern sharp powers have been visibly attacking our values, rights, global architecture and worldview, as well as our hope for the future. Because, by attacking trust and economic and security means, one attacks both present and future. In a Joint Communication released at the end of last week, the European Commission and the High Representative explicitly state that “Russia and China have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU”. The gloves are off, and the EU seems to grasp the magnitude of the problem in the context of its broader “geopolitical” realignment, but the question remains whether its myriad of initiatives and plans will converge towards a pan-European strong and effective answer. One essential point here refers to how a carefully-designed general framework will be implemented and how different types of institutions and organisations (some outside Europe, but sharing similar values and interests) will cooperate and adapt their approaches to tackle one of the main challenges of our times.

Prior to COVID-19 those most inclined towards ignoring security concerns could claim that “they were not seeing it”, that the cocktail of disinformation, misinformation, and fake news had negligible consequences. Now we can connect the dots, and the result shows a game of smoke and mirrors which has tricked many and which increased the reputational risks of our organisations and institutions, at global, continental/regional, or national/local levels. As EU’s High Representative Borrell said, disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill. Thus, whether you are working for NATO, the WTO, the European Commission, the African Bank for Development, the Gates Foundation or a German exporting multinational, to name just a few global players, you should be concerned. The solution to the COVID-19 infodemic, I argue further down, is action not (continued) reaction (including by invoking naivete, like some top EU officials did in the past), and particularly substantial ecosystem action: we can’t succeed by a communications response alone. Before going into implementation mode, we should fully grasp the strategic dimension — the bigger picture.

There are two levels of impact of the infodemic we are experiencing. First, the obvious, simple, “above the line”, against which everyone warned – how the West “didn’t help” (enough), and how liberal democracies are useless when it comes to actually doing things and protecting people. Then, things get complex. The second level is topical and subversive; it has two main features. First, it works as “infotainment”: whether reading an outraged column in the militant media, or a social media post about cute cats that are more useful in life than politicians, the infodemic narrative is capable of insinuating itself in such content to make you dismantle everything that was wrong with society and government that allowed COVID-19 to happen (to you). The second feature: the message has to be, or look, self-evident, since, of course, it was by greed (spot the partial backlash against global philanthropies via conspiracy theories), by departing from care for the people, that such profoundly wrong things could be allowed to happen.

The majority of the counter-communication from the West and responsible world media tried to mitigate the impact of the overarching theme – that of the dismantlement of the Western-made world order. However, few have had the time and attention to warn against the industry level-infodemic themes. If, for example, the EU wants to empower citizens, raise awareness, and increase societal resilience in relation to infodemics, then this is a point to consider. As a brief inventory, we’ve seen debates about central banks, new monetary policy, and managed markets; about increased socialisation and mutualisation of responsibilities and support; and about possibly reshoring production facilities amid rethinking global supply chains. All these can be the target of disinformation campaigns and it really helps to address the potential damaging narratives head-on and from the start.

These, however, are wonderful macro-approaches, but they bring little clarity and concreteness at the level of the day-to-day organisational life, as well as individual fears amid talks of global recession and possibly depression. In an effort to bring intelligibility  and certainty to your colleagues, partners, and stakeholder ecosystem, whether as EU decision-maker, UN SecGen, head of a MNC, or a line manager, from a strategic communication perspective you have had to transmit stability and confidence in the future. And it all worked fine, in the first week or so, until the economic numbers attached to coronavirus came in. Are you starting to be worried about the future? Imagine how those not on top of the hierarchy feel. So, don’t be fooled by infodemic talk, look into a reality check of global and local expectations and fears.

On the backdrop of opaqueness and lack of information from their own countries, our “competitors” have been digging at the base of our edifice, and cracks are starting to appear. For the first time in Germany, the US, and other countries, or multinational cities such as Brussels, people are starting to fear the future – something they have not known since World War Two. If you were wondering why people are attacking their governments and lockdown measures, why the protests are drawing such large crowds. it is because they are starting to no longer believe in a “return to normal”. They may be on to something. For the first time in 70 years, Western societies will need to learn a new script; again, this is a process of substance not just communications, so solutions have to be substantial, not shallow soundbites. In fact, they will need to create it, as we are all learning as we work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and tectonic geopolitical shifting. Against this backdrop, those that do not lead will be penalised more than those taking the prudent route. Against the backdrop of many in a position of leadership being accused of being too ineffective, those that at least try may have a chance to get a less bad reputation in the end, even if not proven right. “Bold prudence” may become a guiding mantra for the coming times.

In order to not deceive the expectations of the wider stakeholder community, organisational leaders need to consider a number of actions. I have grouped them in five categories. First, take bold action and turn the table. Engage with the wider community, build a dialogue of ‘system of systems’, and turn the heat on to spur creativity and urgency. Second, you can’t afford to focus in just one direction, think ecosystem, because the world will continue shifting and readjusting for another couple of years. This will be a chain of Ws, because after the public health issue we will have to deal with the economics, then with the political fallout, policy, geopolitics, implementation of reshoring etc, if not even manage several of these at the same time. So, do keep an ear to the ground and be open to any sort of exotic ideas.

Third, build a guiding coalition – from a diverse group of thinkers; build a support coalition – because those boards and shareholders will not convince themselves; then build an implementation coalition – because even in countries with 35h work weeks and strong labour unions, if you want your organisation or your country to survive, you may need to wake people up in the middle of the night and have them work weekends. And then make sure to build a critical coalition, to ensure you constantly question your assumptions and you strive for the best data and science possible. However, don’t delay decision making in the hope of consensus. Fourth, don’t be a slave to the stock exchange or quick wins, perceptions and applause. Since the beginning of the crisis, rating companies have shown incredible restraint, and the stock markets have been decoupled from the real economy. But when the hammer will drop, all those rankings may be talking about the before-COVID world and describe in no way your preparedness and capacity to function in the after-Covid reality. So, prepare yourself and those around you, both emotionally and technically, to “decouple” from the ratings and the reporting standards you’ve gotten used to. The reporting standards will survive. But few have had the practice in the Western world for the first reporting to turn in to be “in the interest of the state”. 

Fifth, various organisations, corporations, primarily, have proven impressively resilient and have worked against the current over the past five months at pulling transatlantic ties together. Clearly, NATO is not defunct or braindead, nor is the European project. It is just ironic that corporations have had to pick-up the slack of the societies that were supposed to close in ranks around our community of values. As a leader, you should take pride in that and engage in these heterodox circles. This “counter cyclical” political economy dialogue can constitute the basis for a new economy starting as early as this summer. It can also bring the Transatlantic West back together, in a wider recovery boat also with the Global South. Rather than bet on Cold War & Containment 2.0, it is better to invest in Collective Recovery as competitive advantage in great power rivalry.

So, fear not what the future brings about and include everyone in the conversation about setting new bases for the post-COVID world. By action, and not by just complaining (in reaction mode) about the infodemic, you can win the COVID-19 Recovery March. Focus on substance, not just soundbites, on coalitions not just communications, to defeat this disinformation 2.0 powered by coronavirus. You will thereby manage hope, address fears, and offer a new societal and organisational deal. It may not be Sinatra’s way, but it may prove an effective way forward.

Radu Magdin
Radu Magdin
Radu Magdin, a global analyst and former diplomat, advised Prime Ministers în Romania and Moldova