COVID-19 in Post-Truth Societies

In extremely polarized nations, such as Venezuela, where reality is the first fatality, COVID-19 provides the opportunity for both Guaidó and Maduro's sides to gain (or completely lose) credibility.

Photo: Iván Ernesto Reyes.

“Times of fear are also times of rumors and misinformation; knowledge is the antidote.” (Baldwin and Weder, 2020). 

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 officially as a pandemic, they also warned the public about the risk of another outbreak, an “infodemic,” and urged media actors and citizens to combat the spread of false information as an essential part of getting through these difficult times. Misinformation (the accidental spread of false content), and disinformation (the purposeful spread of untruthful content) tend to be lumped together and labeled as “fake news,” but there’s no comparing a grandmother reposting a video of dolphins thinking it was recorded in Venice and the Russian news agency Sputnik saying coronavirus is a biological weapon created in a NATO laboratory.

In this context, the challenge faced by journalists is incommensurable: it’s not enough for them to make sure their own content is accurate, they must also fight “fake news” in an environment where journalistic slips are no longer conceived as human mistakes but as intentional misleading practices. In the post-truth era, the concept of impartiality is rendered null.

And they’re not alone in the struggle. Considering that the reproduction rate of coronavirus is almost twice that of the seasonal flu, the question seems to be how governments have allowed this health crisis to reach this point and why some of them keep addressing it as if it were something minor. The major challenge for political actors these days is how to fulfill expectations during the crisis with an ever more demanding public craving answers. This is better explained with a quote by Michael Leavitt, ex-head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human 

Journalistic slips are no longer conceived as human mistakes but as intentional misleading practices.

Services (2005-2009): “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate.” 

The dilemma is that, on one hand, the decision-making is highly risky (with governments also concerned about the economic impact) yet, on the other, these decisions must be made faster than ever before, as every passing minute is another lost life. This ticking-time bomb has led both political and media actors to announce contradictory and confusing policies, spread misinformation and behave irresponsibly. 

All About Narrative

Let’s go back to 2016’s word of the year: post-truth. 

Defined by the Oxford dictionary as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” post-truth has us discarding the objectively true or false to focus on the controlling conditions of verisimilitude. Within this “reality game”, states, the media and other actors construct a shared meaning and compete to impose their narrative, becoming a key element in the mixture of variables that will shape the post-pandemic era. Putting it in simple terms of internal communication and management: when an institution fails to respond to a crisis or its response is too slow, it loses credibility and opens the door for other actors to frame said crisis. 

When an institution fails to respond to a crisis or its response is too slow, it loses credibility and opens the door for other actors to frame said crisis. 

Let’s bring this into our local context: it has been proven that in moments of crisis and war (when national safety becomes the priority), countries tend to unify behind their leaders, as it happened with G.W. Bush after 9/11, or in Italy with Giuseppe Conte’s approval rating reaching over 70% now. But in extremely polarized nations, such as Venezuela, COVID-19 may have arrived to provide the opportunity for Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro’s administrations to gain (or completely lose) legitimacy.

With all the criticism the Chinese government has received for its hermetic information management, the way the different governments have responded to the pandemic has become a worldwide open discussion. In this sense, the chavista narrative has been consistent since day one: present yourself as a capable, responsible and caring government. They closed down the borders, announced a full quarantine only three days after confirming the first case, militarized the entire country and restricted fuel supply (it seems easier to take authoritarian measures if you’re already an authoritarian regime). 

Maduro and his cabinet are regularly giving updates and numbers, promising to be ahead of the potential socio-economic impact, yet with a state used to hide health statistics (the last epidemiology official report was published in 2016), many doubt that the 175 confirmed cases faithfully reflect the nation’s reality. Those numbers place Venezuela as the South American country with the lowest coronavirus incidence, a “privileged” position that has Maduro patronizing his right-wing neighbors.

When a crisis emerges, governments tend to evade blame and attempt to redirect the public eye onto some other actor. The so-called bolivarian revolution has a long experience in this practice; since the first patients were admitted, Maduro’s administration has insisted on saying that in Venezuela COVID-19 has been “imported”, pointing the finger at Europe and Colombia, similar to the rhetoric of Donald Trump labelling the disease “the Chinese virus”. Sure Maduro knows the first case was registered in Wuhan and that the worldwide contagion is to a great extent due to the high levels of human transit, in any case, not spontaneous generation. Sure Maduro knows that Colombia has a lower death rate than Venezuela (3.2% vs 5.14%). Sure Maduro knows that when he says “everyone is vaccinated against tuberculosis,”  it actually isn’t so.

But that’s irrelevant: it’s all about the storytelling

We must wonder whether this situation will resurrect or destroy the public’s faith in political institutions.

With a nearly total hegemony on the news production of traditional media outlets, in a country with a modest 65% internet penetration rate, Maduro also knows that, just as in the digital world, there’s a considerable portion of the population living in “bubbles” of isolated realities with the only source of information being his polarized spokesmen. Who else is going to be the source of news for the working man living in Santa Rita, Guárico, deep in the heartland, with no Twitter account? 

About 85% of Venezuelans have no savings or guaranteed income to face the quarantine, there are less than 250 ventilators available in the country (84 in the public sector and 150 in the private), with 78% of the hospitals working without regular water supply and with constant electric issues, according to Guaidó’s data. Being already in crisis, the framing contest and the leadership challenges acquire a distinctive magnitude.

In the middle of the biggest crisis of modern democracy, social scientists foresee that the pandemic may reopen the ideological dispute of the role of the state in politics and may reframe the discussion based on how much we could rely on state intervention while dealing with the outbreak, and how much will be needed in the future. The media actors worry about whether they’ll manage to get through this crisis with a renewed credibility or instead further their reputation as untrusted spokesmen. And we must wonder whether this situation will resurrect or destroy the public’s faith in political institutions and their capability of tackling the major concerns of a globalized world.

Will this pandemic be a wake-up call, revitalizing institutions and their role in society, or will it serve as the final block that collapses an already unstable Jenga tower?

María José Montilla Lugo

Multimedia journalist and former teacher at UCAB. Currently completing a MA in Political Communication. A digitally-mediated person dazzled by the interplay between media, politics and society, but... aren't we all?