Why fighting Covid-19 is a battle for hearts and minds

The European Commission (EC) has finally published its long-awaited Covid-19 recovery plan for Europe’s badly hurting economy – and it’s packing a punch: consisting of a dedicated corona-fund worth €750 billion along its regular budget, the EU is planning to spend €1.85 trillion between 2021 and 2017 to help the continent pick up steam and crisis-proof it for the future. The initiative may well be regarded as a kind of Marshall Plan for an increasingly disheartened European population, one disappointed with the EU’s initial laggard response and ridden with concerns about its livelihood.

While the recovery fund is an important step to help patch up Europe’s economy, the EU is facing a much larger issue that is making the current situation so difficult to navigate, as well. It’s not merely because of the far-reaching economic impact of the pandemic. Rather, it’s because the EU is facing an unprecedent toxic public environment imbued with fake news and disinformation, which in turn is fuelling bizarre conspiracy theories – and which threaten to seriously undermine Europe’s long-term recovery plans. If Brussels wants to overcome this dual challenge, it needs to fight simultaneously for Europe’s hearts and minds.

Of absurd fears and fake news

As far as winning hearts is concerned, the EC just provided 1.85 trillion reasons to look at the future more positively. However, no recovery fund alone can tackle the problem of conspiracy theories. The most absurd conspiracy is also the most dominant one, relating to the next generation of wireless connection – 5G – whose roll-out the EU has prioritised in recent years, owing to its indispensability for future global competitiveness. Swedish researchers first documented the claim that 5G antennas are responsible for spreading or exacerbating the coronavirus in January this year, tracing how it subsequently evolved into a fully-fledged conspiracy theory dominating social media.

Worse, this has led to attacks on the telecom infrastructure across Europe, most notably in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, and has also manifested itself the form of assaults on maintenance personnel. These attacks happen despite the fact that absolutely no scientific evidence exists to support the supposed 5G-corona connection. In fact, globally trusted institutions such as the World Health Organisation have been forced to clarify that Covid-19 cannot spread via mobile networks. The International Commission for Protection from Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP) also emphasised in mid-April that 5G is absolutely harmless.

Fears that viruses can be spread via telecommunication aren’t new – a similar fear was observed during the polio outbreaks in the 1950s, which led frightened parents to refuse talking on the phone. The difference today is that dark forces are believed to be at work, and adherents to the conspiracy can easily organise attacks on the openly accessible 5G infrastructure.

Turning back the tide

However, Brussels is far from helpless in stemming the growing threat and shouldn’t be discouraged. On the contrary, the roll-out must now be accelerated, for while it has spawned irrational fears, it may also offer a solution to the problem. Even if parts of the 5G conspiracy crowd will never be persuaded by evidence to change their minds, those who are merely dabbling in these theories out of frustration, disappointment in political leadership and fear, could be brought back into the fold of rationality when the benefits of 5G become apparent down the line.

The EU needs to take a two-pronged approach to convince sceptics and counter the misinformation surrounding the technology itself. A recent YouGov survey, for example, showed that people in general know very little about the concrete benefits that 5G brings. This is exacerbated by the dominant political focus on 5G’s higher speed compared to 4G, rather than on explaining the space for innovations in medicine, mobility and entertainment that come with it.

Such an information vacuum is readily filled with fake news and alarmist disinformation at a time when the EU is at its most vulnerable. Consequently, fighting the spread of such information is arguably the most pressing imperative going forward. Much of the conspiratorial content surrounding the coronavirus and 5G has been identified as coming from Russia and China, so the task is to find ways to isolate these items and help audiences distinguish between trustworthy and false information.

The EU has already launched a project to that end, called SocialTruth, with the intent to create a database used for assessing credibility levels of circulated information. While this will be useful as a general tool, if 5G-sceptics are the defined targets, relying on independent projects could be more effective. Their advantage is that they’re not associated with “the powers that be” who are considered inherently untrustworthy and therefore are likelier to reach a broader audience.

If the recovery fund is for the hearts of distraught Europeans, then fighting fake news and elaborating the positive effects of 5G is the key to Europe’s minds. EU members need to find a common approach soon to stop this threat in its tracks.

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