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What can COVID-19 Tell Us about the Post-Truth World Order?

Gabriele Cosentino is an Independent Researcher working on Political Communication and Disinformation. He is the author of Social Media and the Post-Truth World Order: The Global Dynamics of Disinformation. Read the chapter “The Post-Truth World Order” free on Springer Link until 10th June 2020.

At the end of March 2020, as Italy was struggling to contain one of the largest and most deadly Coronavirus outbreaks in the world, WhatsApp chats and groups in the country went abuzz with the constant forwarding of a video containing footage from a State television news report dating back to 2015. In the segment, the show anchor, in a slightly alarmed tone, discussed an experiment being conducted at the time in China aimed at creating a chimera virus, or ‘supervirus,’ out of the hybridization of an existing strain of the Coronavirus, circulating among bats, with the SARS virus infecting lab mice. The goal of the research was to study the potential evolution of viruses, and the news report suggested that the experiment demonstrated the ability of the engineered pathogen to attack respiratory human cells. The report concluded by mentioning a 2014 moratorium imposed by the US government on research aimed at altering existing viruses (later lifted), which it contrasted with the Chinese decision, considered dangerous by parts of the research community, to further pursue research into this field.

The WhatsApp message chain had its moment of popularity in Italy especially since it contained information from an official journalistic source, which added traction to a series of rumors that had been circulating, both in the country and around the world, since the beginning of 2020, when the first cases of the new Coronavirus were reported in Wuhan. At the center of the rumors was the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a level 4—the maximum biosafety level—research facility where the aforementioned experiment took place. The fact that the location of the initial outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic was the same place where the high-security virology lab operated—a pure coincidence, according to scientists—led inevitably to a quick flaring up of rumors, speculations and conspiracy theories, suggesting two possible scenarios: a bioweapon or a virus leaked from poorly managed laboratories. To these, further speculations were added which suggested that the virus was part of a population control plan by China, coupled with an economic warfare scheme aimed at upsetting the global geopolitical order to its advantage. The US alt-right and right-wing media ecosystems, well-versed in criticizing China, were especially active in popularizing some of these rumors, which could be seen as the most acute symptoms of the worsening relations between the United States and China under the Trump administration.

In an attempt to dismiss the conspiracy theories and quell the tide of disinformation and misinformation that surged alongside the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic—which the World Health Organization labeled as a dangerous ‘infodemic’ which could lead to the stigmatization and discrimination of people of Chinese descent—prestigious scientific publications such as Nature and The Lancet, as well as several media outlets, had already confirmed that the parsing of the virus genome by scientists demonstrated that the Sars-CoV-2 virus, causing the COVID-19 disease, was the product of natural evolution and not of a scientific experiment. Doubts remain on how the virus ‘spillover’ actually happened, since an intermediary transmitting agent is usually required for the Coronavirus contagion from bats to humans to happen. Such doubts further contribute to the fog of suspicions, fears and blames surrounding the handling of the crisis by China, which has been accused of covering up and downplaying the gravity of the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan. Also, the precedent of documented examples of the 2002 SARS virus escaping from virology labs in China was still a vivid memory in the scientific community.

In a country like Italy, mired in the most severe health crisis of its recent history and bound to face dramatic economic and political aftereffects of the Coronavirus epidemic (this is also true for most other world countries), the notion that the virus could have been created artificially and that blame could be easily placed onto someone was too tempting to resist, especially for the finger-wagging populist right embodied by politicians such as Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, who both circulated the video segment on the Chinese experiment via their social media channels. The conspiracy theory, however, failed to catch on, partly thanks to the prompt debunking by Italian news outlets, and arguably also because in a moment of widespread emergency the Italian and international scientific community has been able to rely on the trust of the population and establish its consensus on the origin of the virus and on the most effective measures to curb its epidemic.

Nonetheless, the threat of Coronavirus-induced ‘infodemic,’ as feared by the WHO, is still a clear and present danger in these uncertain times, and it is closely related to the pre-existing post-truth crisis that has been engulfing liberal democracies worldwide for the past decade. Post-truth is closely linked to the crisis of authority of democratic institutions such as political parties and the press to act as arbiters of truth on matters of public affairs, as well as to the rise of a highly emotionalized and polarized public sphere via social media. In the midst of the health emergency, citizens might be willing to grant trust to their governments officials, and resist paranoid attitudes and conspiracy theories, but as the health emergency morphs into a likely economic and political crisis, the threat of an irreversible post-truth pandemic, where fictions, propaganda, rumors and disinformation will obscure factual reality, often to the advantage of ruthless or violent political actors, is more real than ever.

Zooming out on the picture and bringing in broader, geopolitical considerations—which are required to better frame the anxieties about China’s responsibility in igniting the pandemic—it should be noted that the global health crisis is happening against the backdrop of an already deeply shaken geopolitical order, where the hegemonic role of the Western world is being challenged by internal and external forces. As both Europe and the United States are struggling to contain the spread of the epidemic, the upcoming political economic toll of the pandemic is bound to further undermine the global standing of Western powers. Existing rifts between southern and northern members of the European Union, which is barely recovering from the Brexit crisis, are coming to the fore. The political polarization within American society, exacerbated by rogue actors such as far-right White ethnonationalists, might be pushed to an irreversible breaking point should the economic and social consequences of the epidemic exceed the US government’s capacity to contain them. Governments with autocratic tendencies—in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America—while being forced to acknowledge their difficulties with the health emergency and to reluctantly provide official counts on the contagion, are nonetheless seizing on the opportunity of the Coronavirus crisis to further implement draconian measures of population control and surveillance, further curtailing civil and political rights. China, after the initial debacle caused by the outbreak, has projected an image of effective coordination and mobilization of political and economic resources to contain the spread of the contagion. It is, however, resorting to social media, in the same vein as Russia did during the 2016 US elections, in order to deflect the blame on the origin of the pandemic.

The post-Coronavirus world order is unlikely to resemble the one created by Western-led economic and cultural globalization during the past three decades. While it is still too early to detect its contours, the emerging consensus among scholars, politicians and commentators is that the Coronavirus pandemic is a watershed historical moment during which old power structures, political alignments and economic models are being drastically undermined. We might never know for sure the origin of this epochal health crisis. History, though, offers us a clue on how such a crisis might unfold, and eventually be solved. The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic eerily resembles the mayhem caused by the Wall Street crash in 1929. America’s hegemonic role over good part of the planet during the 20th century began when the country was effectively able, after World War II, to stem the global economic, political and military long-lasting consequences of the Great Depression, a crisis of its own creation. The Coronavirus pandemic might very well represent the historical parallel of the same scenario for the 21st century, this time with China as the disruptive State actor upon which falls the responsibility, and the power, to reestablish a new world order and a consequently, a new regime of truth.