The word “infodemic” was coined by the Word Health Organization (WHO) to describe the excess of information, usually false, on a particular problem, used to hinder the process of finding a solution. Even though not a recent phenomenon, in the unprecedented period that the world has been living in the last few months, the infodemic has reached such a peak that the United Nations has also added its voice to warn about its potential dangers. If the outbreak of COVID-19 highlighted has highlighted anything (aside from the immediate biological, socio-economic and political threat a virus may pose), it would definitely be the key role of information within current democratic systems.
Fake news on the proliferation of homemade remedies to fight the virus or the most convoluted conspiracy theories about the origin of the COVID-19 have saturated all social media platforms since the outburst of the pandemic. In an exceptional moment in modern history in which mankind had to keep confined to merely survive with our technological devices as the sole umbilical cord with the world outside, we have proved to be more vulnerable than ever. Such vulnerability has been especially the case among a sector of the population prone to believe – mainly out of fear and anxiety caused by the pandemic. Nothing new under the sun though; fake news, populism and post-truth are just new labels for approaches, attitudes and behaviors as old as mankind.
COVID-19 in Spain: VOX’s Weaponization of Free Speech
Spain has not been alien to this world trend and the infodemia, now an accepted neologism in the Spanish language, has been another side protagonist of the confinement, transcending their original boundaries and becoming a weapon for political confrontation. During the first days of the crisis, the radical right party, VOX, focused on the origins of the spread of the virus in Spain (mostly on the demonstration on the International Women Day on 8 March 2020), the reported lack of individual protection equipment for workers in Spain’s National Health System, and discussed the figures on the number of casualties provided by the government. In the second phase, just before the start of the virus’s de-escalation in Spain, a great portion of the public debate were built upon correct information.
The relationship of VOX with the media, both traditional and social media platforms, has always been a complicated one alternating love and hate equally. During the last national election campaigns in 2019, the radical right political party evaded the mainstream media in Spain and gave very few interviews, an attitude that paradoxically guaranteed their constant presence in the press. On social media, where the radical right has a very dynamic presence (mostly on Twitter and Instagram-), they have also had several problems. In January 2020, VOX main account was banned by Twitter on the basis of spreading hate speech and during the pandemic. Moreover, they have constantly contended the government’s new bill. The governments bill gives strict prison sentences of up to five years of prison for the propagation of fake news or offensive discourse since it targets the Spaniards’ right to free speech. Ironically, Vox have sought to use the platform they were once on to defend themselves. On 10 May 2020, the radical right party complained that Twitter did not block the hashtag #mataraabascal (“to kill Abascal”) that became a trending topic during a whole weekend and caused the political force to take the microblogging platform to court.
During the COVID-19 crisis, one of the main targets of criticism by Abascal’s party were the verification agencies, particularly two of them: Newtral and Maldita.es. Though theoretically these agencies were created to stop the proliferation of fake news in social media, VOX allege that they actually blocked all sorts of information that favoured the radical right in the country due to a ‘far-left’ ideological agenda. Again, the irony here was that the party simultaneously spread all the rumours created by the “Chavista” government and their related organizations. Counterchecking the data provided by the government was impossible because of the control imposed by those verifiers, a phenomenon that Jorge Buxadé, VOX’s spokesperson, called “totalitarian censorship”. They even took action and raised a formal complaint to the European Commission for what they described as “media dictatorship”.
But the verification agencies were not the only suspicious agents behind censorship. WhatsApp, the popular mobile application, was also the target of VOX’s critique. The radical right party accused the messaging service of censorship since from 7 April 2020, through its feature that bans the possibility of forwarding the same message to more than five other chats simultaneously. Although the measure was extended to the whole world- not only to Spain, this fact was interpreted by VOX as an attempt of control so they asked their followers to boycott the application and move to its competitor, Telegram. Putting aside the reasons for that sudden decision, it seems shocking since WhatsApp played a central role in the successful communication policy of the party during the Andalusian elections in 2018 and their (following) remarkable national rise in 2019. The number of Telegram users is ostensibly lower than the amount of WhatsApp clients, hence their capacity to reach new potential followers might diminish.
Another controversy on information during the pandemic crisis was caused by the press conference given by General Santiago, one of the Heads of the Guardia Civil, the oldest and most emblematic law enforcement agency of Spain, in which he contended they were fighting all fake news on the management of COVID-19 . He made reference to a previous email sent to all the headquarters of the country urging the guards to identify and monitor all fake news that might cause social stress and disaffection for the government institutions, hence pointing out to either a subjective or selective prosecution of fake news. The unsettled social reaction that resulted from those words led Spain’s Minister of Justice, Grande Marlaska, to quickly clarify that General Santiago’s words had been a lapse in judgement. However, this extremely serious issue was used by the radical right to reinforce their previous arguments on censorship during the coronavirus crisis.
On 29 May 2020, President Trump signed an executive order on preventing online censorship and VOX quickly endorsed the action, stating Spain is moving backwards in relation to free speech. The management of information by the Spanish government during the COVID-19 crisis has been very negative, leaving a lot of diverse controversial questions without an answer. A healthy democratic society needs to understand that freedom of speech works both ways and, for example, it is incompatible with invoking violence or hatred toward a particular set of people or minorities. As Spain enters into a series of localized lockdowns, the world would be advised to exercise responsibility when using such freedoms should they be eroded through their careless invocation.
Dr Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in English and German Philologies, University of Granada. See her profile here.
© Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).