Can Europe Make It?

Coronavirus, fake news, and the future of the Spanish left

Coronavirus has offered a taster of what is to come in this parliamentary term for the PSOE-Podemos coalition.

Eleanor Rosenbach
21 April 2020, 10.39am
President Pedro Sanchez hugging his coalition partner Pablo Iglesias. Madrid, Spain, 07/01/2010.
Juan Carlos Rojas/PA. All rights reserved.

As hopes grow that the coronavirus crisis is beginning to fall under control in Spain and a relaxing of lockdown measures may be in sight, the clamour of political dissent grows ever louder. The coronavirus is first and foremost a health and humanitarian crisis, but the Covid 19 fallout is about to become political capital.

As economic catastrophe looms in Spain, a nation heavily dependent on tourism, in which neither living standards nor employment figures have returned to pre-2008 levels. President Pedro Sanchez is appealing for collective efforts to avoid recession, minimise fatalities, and ease the economic and practical suffering of citizens. But his entreaties fall largely on deaf ears – in Spain the only uniting force is that which binds the three right-wing parties in resolute opposition to whatever decisions Spain’s ruling PSOE-Podemos coalition take.

That’s not to say that the opposition shouldn’t hold the government to account over its numerous mistakes. Mistakes have been made which have probably cost lives. This role is vital at the best of times, and in the midst of the coronavirus crisis it is essential that judgements and strategies of the government are scrutinised. But rather than analyse decisions, press for details or seek to inform the public, the response of the right has been to undermine, flout Covid 19 restrictions en masse, and make support for the President’s calls for cross party consensus on the economic and social route out of the crisis dependant on the removal from office of Pablo Iglesias, Vice President and leader of Unidas Podemos. At the same time, a mass online campaign of disinformation launched by the far right seems aimed at destabilising the progressive left alliance.

Slender gains, big losses

Spain has been hit particularly badly by Covid 19, with factors such as demographics (it has one of the longest life expectancies in the world, set to outstrip current world leader Japan by 2040), dense cities and high air pollution levels likely playing a part. But Sanchez’s administration is not without significant fault. In this he joins the majority of nations, whose responses have either been late, incomplete or incoherent. What is interesting to note is that many European leaders are seeing their approval ratings skyrocket – even Boris Johnson, whose lackadaisical approach to the crisis may convert the UK into the worst affected nation in Europe - whilst Sanchez’s popularity is decreasing.

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Perhaps to make up for the slow initial response, Sanchez has since implemented Europe’s toughest lockdown, with no outings permitted which aren’t for food, medicine or hospital visits. It is worth remembering that President Pedro Sanchez commands the slenderest of majorities by a margin of just one, after a failed electoral gamble between April and October which saw both PSOE and his coalition party partner Unidas Podemos lose rather than gain seats. The alliance between Sanchez’s PSOE and Unidas Podemos – the latter consistently portrayed in swathes of the media as a threat to order, stability and democracy – has been a constant target for the right, an evergreen political tool available for undermining the need for unity.

The coronavirus crisis provides a moment ripe for political opportunism, and both Casado, head of the Popular Party (PP), and Abascal, leader of far right party Vox – which surged in the October polls, transforming itself from a fringe ultra-grouping to third largest party in congress – are seizing on this to undermine the coalition.

Centre ground politics in Spain is notable for its absence; since the emergence of Vox, both Citizens and the Popular Party have lurched significantly to the right. PP critiques like those of Vox, routinely lack factual accuracy or any attempt to inform the public, and instead are designed to appeal to brute emotional levels, via every kind of inaccuracy. While Citizens hold a handful of seats and are electorally less relevant, PP’s shuffle dance to the fringes of politics is deeply concerning.

Of the three, Vox’s strategy is the most obvious – accuse the government, media and associated platforms of lying both offline and in a coordinated and mass way online, whilst positioning themselves as the only party the public can count on for the truth. True to form, Abascal spends much time in congress and in media appearances simply parrots his call for Sanchez’s resignation in a way which is as much a social media soundbite as an interjection into any debate. Without nuance or analysis – facets upon which he rarely draws – Abascal has holds Sanchez personally responsible for all the coronavirus fatalities in Spain.

Regional differences

The State of Emergency both affords the government extraordinary powers and offers the opposition an opportunity to sew discord and confusion over national and regional jurisdictions. Spain has a complex, semi federal administration system with an additional layer of local government. Its large geographic territory is divided into 17 Autonomous Communities, each of which have an array of devolved powers and wide-ranging control over essential matters such as health and education. Prior to the recent coalition the presidency had typically been re-cycled between the two major parties, whilst many of the autonomous communities owe a decades-long legacy to PP or PSOE. Madrid, for example, has been under the control of PP for a quarter of a century. Autonomous communities and national government do not always hold the same interests, particularly when they represent opposing parties.

Both assorted representatives of Vox and Casado have repeatedly accused Sanchez of hiding the true extent of the nation’s death toll. Yet the reality is that the fatality count issued each day by national authorities is calculated using figures provided by the autonomous communities. Any information which is not included – for example, the 4260 deaths in care homes as a result of coronavirus in Madrid which were initially absent – is kept back at the decision of the community in question. Blaming the Sanchez-Iglesias administration for these statistical shortcomings is a cynical move, aiming to obscure realities and heap fuel on the fire of frustration and grief among a public suffering the sharp end of the national tragedy.

In the Bannon era, fake news is king

The machinery of the social movements upholding the parliamentary far right have swung into action, and are playing an insidious role in spreading disinformation. With populations across the globe captive in their own homes because of Covid 19 and rates of internet use skyrocketing, disinformation in general is a risk.

On the one hand, social media is more important than ever to keep us connected in a moment of profound personal separation. Yet it is throwing up a deep faultline of seditious rumour and dangerous faux health advice. In Spain, the phenomenal quantity of fake news and hoax information has been dubbed an ‘infodemic’ by El País. The Government estimates that there are at least 1000 false items contaminating social media feeds, ranging from fake official bulletins, to doctored photos and rumours about politicians.

Not all can be attributed to Vox and its supporters, but many can. Taking its lead from the Bannon school of populist political management, Vox’s social media machine is impressive in its cynicism. A recent study by ElDiario pointed to Vox’s coronavirus misinformation machine as analogous to the flat earther movement. Key figureheads in the far-right online movement have been pivotal in disseminating false information which have ranged in creativity from claims that private ventilators have been sent to left-wing politicians’ homes, to ambulances being stationed permanently outside the house of the Vice President Iglesias and Minister for Equality Irene Montero, to Whatsapp censuring Vox. One of the most shared posts from the party’s Twitter feed showed a doctored photo of Madrid’s Gran Via filled with coffins, then suggested that it was an image the government wanted to hide.

Post featuring tearful Spaniards in front of national flags and audios decrying the requisition of ventilators, the culling of the over 65s and the lack of veracity of death figures have swept through social media communities. Whilst the messages they contain are sometimes heartfelt and based on what are believed to be truths, many are deliberate attempts to spread misinformation in coordinated attacks on the government. The content of much of this material has been debunked. But once received by the public its validity is an irrelevance. Interestingly, some of this content is designed to extend beyond Spanish frontiers, with videos subtitled in English.

The content of much of this material has been debunked. But once received by the public its validity is an irrelevance.

Indeed, fake news and criticism of Spain found a welcome home internationally, as Spain’s coronavirus crisis peaked, whilst many nations were still in denial over the extent to which it would affect them.

Spain’s experience fell neatly into the narratives of startling relativism which characterised the approach of many nations at the outset. But there is also potentially a deeper cynicism at work in the sharing and oversharing of criticisms of Spain. The presence of the progressive left in national government sits at odds with the trajectory of most other European nations. In the past the EU has demonstrated its dislike for left-wing administrations, and significant populations across the continent are voicing support for the right. The use of lazy stereotypes in some narratives and commentary – the hapless, disorderly southern European administration struggling to cope, or the ineptitude of a left-wing government faced with a crisis, for example – dictate the ways in which Spain’s coalition will be received internationally. This sits at odds with reporting on the handling of the crisis in other nations. Belgium has the highest death rate in Europe, yet has not received the same levels of biting condemnation. The coronavirus crisis offers a taste of the opposition that the PSOE-Podemos coalition can expect to face, both at home and abroad.

Hopes of social justice in Europe

What is certain is that their campaign of misinformation intends to destabilise the government by undermining public faith in how the crisis is being managed. The capacity of Vox to manage mass misinformation and fake news campaigns is not new; the European Commission sounded the alarm on the online behaviour of Vox and its network of fake accounts and bots last May. In an attempt to address the deluge of fake news, POSE and Unidas Podemos have reported Vox to the General Attorney for possible hate crimes. It remains to be seen how the case progresses.

It is too early to know which political heads will roll in the wake of the pandemic. Despite attempts to weaken the position of Podemos in the coalition, it is at this juncture standing firm. But broader questions are being asked about the future of the Spanish left. Many in left movements opposed the entry of Podemos into government, fearing the long-term impact of their participation in an administration which would have to deal with an eventual recession. These fears have proved less existential and more immediate – Podemos will now form part of a government which has to manage the fall out of an economic catastrophe.

The burgeoning hopes that this parliamentary term would be used to reset social justice in a nation in which unemployment pre-Covid 19 sat at 13.6% and so much work is precarious, poorly paid and temporary have been dashed.

The only note of positivity for the left to cling to is that the coalition’s parliamentary term is just beginning, and four years is a long time in politics. Huge issues like the future of the EU will raise their heads in the immediate aftermath of coronavirus, as the age-old North-South divide and its barely disguised racism again manifests. Yet whilst the tensions are familiar, the way in which they play out may take a different course. Coronavirus has ravaged the continent, and leaders from Conte to Sanchez to Macron have highlighted the fragile future of the European project if appeals for economic assistance packages are not heeded.

However the eurozone shapes its coronavirus policy, there are hardships on the horizon for many. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) predicts a worse economic downturn than that following the global financial crash of 2008. Spain suffered particularly badly in the last recession, and with tourism set to be deeply affected by Covid 19 perhaps until such time as there is a vaccine, the coming months will be tough.

It is better to have the progressive left in government at a time when difficult decisions need to be made and marginalised or vulnerable groups protected, but the long-term impact on Podemos could be debilitating. Importantly, coronavirus has offered a taster of what is to come in this parliamentary term for the PSOE-Podemos coalition. When Spain emerges from the ­­­­coronavirus crisis, a long and embattled road awaits the governing progressive left.


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