Global Extremes

Resilience, radicalisation and democracy in the COVID-19 Pandemic

With lockdowns, an already alarming situation of vulnerability to political manipulation is at risk of becoming a disaster for democracy.

Vivian Gerrand
2 April 2020, 12.00am
SARS-CoV-2 virus particles emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab
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NIAID-RML / Flickr / Public Domain
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In the absence of a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19, how might we build resilience to it? To buy ourselves the time necessary to grapple with the health threat the virus poses, adopting radical new physically distanced behaviours is crucial.

These paradoxically distanced yet pro-social behaviours have the potential to undermine the capitalist world system and its treadmill existence. Like many, I initially felt relief at the prospect of having to ‘slow down’ and shared posts on the coronavirus as an opportunity to mitigate the climate emergency. After a catastrophic season of bushfires in Australia, in which over a billion native – including rare and endangered – animals perished, it was easy to welcome the pandemic as a kind of mother-nature enforced de-growth. Just look at the silver linings – air pollution has dropped and the water in Venice is clear again!

Then came the sobering surge in deaths in Northern Italy and with them the reality that, for all its potential to push us towards more sustainable ways of living, COVID-19 is not simply a ‘common flu’ to be taken lightly and is instead a force to be reckoned with. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has described the virus as the biggest challenge Italy has faced since the second world war.

While we are all in the same boat with this pandemic, as Italian writer Francesca Melandri points out, that boat looks different depending on your circumstances. Inequality matters more than ever.

COVID-19 is likely to deepen existing inequalities and polarisation, in ways that may damage community resilience and democracy

The coronavirus threatens much more than physical health. Without appropriate measures in place, the social distancing required to fight COVID-19 is likely to deepen existing inequalities and polarisation, in ways that may damage community resilience and democracy.

For the many people and firms who have lost their livelihoods as a consequence of COVID-19, and where government policies fail to provide a basic income, lockdown measures will be crippling. To mitigate the potential devastation deriving from coronavirus induced inequality, governments would do well to go hard and early in their introduction of measures such as universal basic income to support people to self-isolate without needing to earn an income through the crisis, at the very least during lockdowns. Not doing so will set the scene for social unrest and long-term economic depression.

Given that many of us cannot go outside, lest it be for a cheeky dog walk, trip to the pharmacy or to buy groceries, we are now confined to a life online. On the one hand, the internet affords us the opportunity to remain socially connected to loved ones, friends and colleagues in spite of physical distance. Digital parties and meetings have fast become the new normal. On the other hand, being constantly connected means we are also, to an even greater degree than before, almost constantly under surveillance.

Overnight, human social life has shifted from a blend of off and online, to a social life that is predominantly lived online. This has important implications for democracy. If our governments behave in ways that are not in the interests of the public good, we are unable to take to the streets. At the time of writing, for example, the Australian government has suspended parliament until August 2020. That is effectively six months without an operative democracy in a time of unprecedented disruption. American president Donald Trump has also used the crisis as an excuse to impose further restrictions on Mexicans entering the US.

Overnight, human social life has shifted from a blend of off and online, to a social life that is predominantly lived online. This has important implications for democracy

Living much of our lives at home online means we are also are spending even more time immersed in what is familiar. The content-surfacing, future predicting algorithms that dictate what we see and what we can know in this time of uncertainty shape our perceptions of reality: my google search is not the same as yours. Perhaps this helps explain why Trump’s approval rating has soared even though his response to the pandemic has been dangerously inept. And while some surveillance is proving critical in our fight against COVID-19, online platforms remain vulnerable to divisive political manipulation.

As a researcher, I have the privilege of a global network of friends and scholars so my algorithms tend to recommend trusted sources of information. Even when I am not online, I am fortunate to know where to access reliable independent journalism that holds the powerful to account.

For someone who has lived a more insular life and who has not had the opportunity to develop media literacy, content-surfacing algorithms may lead to greater disinformation, and especially to sources of conspiracy about the coronavirus. This is heightened by the significant number of small yet well-established local media outlets that are ceasing operation due to COVID-19.

Content-surfacing algorithms may lead to greater disinformation, and especially to sources of conspiracy about the coronavirus

Moreover, for many far right influencers and organisations the coronavirus pandemic represents an environment that is conducive to their longed-for demise of democratic society. The large increase in numbers of jobless people who are housebound and online, constitutes a new potential demographic for recruitment. Losing one’s livelihood represents a loss of dignity and we know that violent extremist groups exploit people with a real or perceived lack of prospects. Indeed, terrorists often succeed in radicalising people through narratives of restored agency and purpose.

Alternatively, the dignity offered by a basic income and access to independent and reliable information may help to ensure that as many people as possible remain resilient to violent extremism. Universal basic income would give people the resources required to survive and stay solvent, at least until the worst of the pandemic is over.

The dignity offered by a basic income and access to independent and reliable information may help to ensure that as many people as possible remain resilient to violent extremism

It is clear that, in the absence of targeted economic stimulus measures such as basic income and more robust regulations surrounding social networking algorithms, an already alarming situation of vulnerability to political manipulation is at risk of becoming a disaster for democracy.

To build pro-social resilience in an era of COVID-19, governments must provide people without work with the dignity of a basic income. They should ensure social media companies adjust their algorithms to promote trusted sources of information, including space for an independent fourth estate. Lastly, governments should quarantine and then test as many people as possible for the virus, supporting medical staff globally until a vaccine is developed.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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