During the coronavirus pandemic, the everyday lives of many people have been characterised by concern – concern about their personal health and that of their friends and family, about how to run their lives in the middle of the exceptional circumstances as well as about their jobs and livelihoods. As we have all had to face an unfamiliar situation, such concern has been mixed with and deepened by uncertainty. How many will contract the virus? How long will the exceptional circumstances last? How far ahead can I plan my future?
Indeed, during the coronavirus crisis one of the central strategies of the EU has been the thwarting of disinformation. Among other things, the European Commission has maintained a close dialogue with social media platforms to get them to intervene in the distribution of disinformation, and also to guide people towards reliable information provided by the authorities. At the same time, we are closely coordinating our work with the member states and, for instance, supporting fact-checking efforts and research in the fight against what is known as the ‘infodemic’. Why are we doing these things?
Living in the midst of uncertainty increases our sense of insecurity. Regrettably, there are operators willing to shamelessly exploit the crisis and the vulnerability brought about by it. As news about a new and unknown viral disease began spreading around the world, various medicinal natural products and devices appeared on internet marketplaces, whose sellers claimed they offered protection against or a cure for the disease. Falling for a hoax creates a false sense of security and results in financial loss. In the worst cases, harmful substances have been marketed as ‘drugs’.
The exceptional circumstances and uncertainty are also harnessed for attacks against societies as a whole. Individual fake news articles circulating on social media may seem harmless, but when the dissemination of false information is systematic and its aim is, for example, to influence someone’s opportunities to take part in the public discourse, general attitudes or political decision-making, it falls under the sphere of information operations. Parties involved in such influencing have their own interests in terms of power, geopolitics and the economy which they wish to promote through the falsehoods they are spreading.
No one had a textbook for managing the coronavirus crisis. Instead, decision-makers have had to rely on the best knowledge and models of the virus’s spread available at the time of making decisions. Having trust prevail in society makes living amid uncertainty slightly more tolerable.
In terms of trust, Finnish society is strong. Trust stems from strong fundamental rights, equal treatment and the rule of law, the freedom of speech and that of the press, equal opportunities – as well as from a scientific community that contributes to the public discourse by making research-based knowledge available to the general public. Trust in the authorities sharing accurate information that is based on research makes citizens take a critical stance towards ungrounded claims about health benefits and external influencing attempts.
We must learn from this crisis. One lesson from it is that trust makes societies stronger in crises, which we will certainly be facing in the future, too. In fact, consolidating democracy and transparency, the cornerstones of trust, must be considered part of improving resilience and crisis preparedness in Finland, Europe and across the globe. One of the objectives of the new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy proposed by the European Commission earlier this year is indeed to build resilient, inclusive and democratic societies.
Jutta Urpilainen, Commissioner in charge of international partnerships