The virus of unrest


I admit that I was one of the naïve ones who, in the first weeks of the pandemic, thought that our society would come out stronger and more united. The Spanish, I said to myself, are generous and supportive, and in times of crisis we usually show it. Five months later, my moderate optimism has been transformed into a profound disenchantment, especially with the political and journalistic class, who are capable of turning a public health problem into yet another partisan scramble. At a time when the lives of so many Spanish citizens are at stake and when our economy is facing an immediate and unprecedented setback, a very large sector of professional journalists and politicians have limited themselves to continuing with the confrontational and polarising rhetoric of recent years, I am not sure whether this is due to ignorance, bad faith or because they do not know how to do anything else.

I can understand that politicians have not been up to the task. After all, as the German sociologist Robert Michels explained a century ago, those who rise to the top in parties are not necessarily the most prepared, capable and honest people, but rather those who have managed to thrive and survive in the party structure thanks to a combination of uncritical loyalty, mediocrity and careerist ambition. Accustomed to a rhetoric of combat in which admitting mistakes or ignorance is a sign of weakness, it was to be expected that politicians would not admit to being overwhelmed by the situation, even though not even epidemiologists and medical specialists knew how to explain what was happening with the virus. Accustomed to not granting a break to the rival and constantly staging a confrontation that is not such - since on many occasions members of opposing parties in Congress, the Senate and the regional assemblies maintain a cordial relationship with each other - many of our public representatives have poisoned the political debate by constantly resorting to the hackneyed "and you more" and using adjectives that I will refrain from repeating. This attitude, although regrettable, is not entirely surprising, as it has been the dynamic that has worked for years. 

I have found the role of the press and some journalists more disappointing. Although the relations of the fourth Spanish power with certain business groups are well known, as well as the affinity of each media with the different political groups, I expected a more critical, constructive and educational work. For a few years now, the traditional press has been going through a deep crisis in almost all parts of the planet, caused not only by a poor adaptation to the digital format, but also by an enormous loss of credibility among the public. The pandemic could have represented an opportunity for many media to redeem themselves and reconnect with their audience, but it seems that this has not been the case. Personally, what has hurt me the most is that much of the criticism or praise of the management of central and regional governments has focused on the political party making the decisions rather than on the decisions themselves. Thus, the "right-wing" press has attacked the central government, which was defended at all costs by many "left-wing" journalists; while the opposite has happened in the Madrid region: those who praised the central government criticised every aspect of regional management, and vice versa. Instead of using its position to denounce the mistakes of governments regardless of the acronym, an important sector of journalism has limited itself to perpetuating the rhetoric of the parties and maintaining polarization at a historic moment when we need to be more united than ever.

As a reaction, many disillusioned Spaniards have stopped trusting the traditional press and have looked for alternative sources of information. If we add to this discredit of the press the stress of confinement and the worst moments of the first peak of the epidemic, we have the perfect breeding ground for the spread of hoaxes, false news and conspiracy theories. Anyone active in social networking or participating in a family WhatsApp group will know what I'm talking about, as for months we have been bombarded with videos, photo montages and other viral files. Conspiracy theories range from the true - for example, that governments have done nothing against the virus to get rid of the pensioner population, or that the virus was a human creation released by mistake - to the fantastic and implausible for anyone with even the slightest notion of biology - the most popular being that the virus is caused by 5G towers and the vaccine is a Bill Gates plot to implant mind control nanobots. However, one of the most widespread theories and certainly the most painful for those of us who have family and friends working in the health sector and know people affected or killed by COVID-19 is that the virus does not exist and is an invention of governments to muzzle and manipulate us. Stunned, we watch the demonstrations organized around the world - the last and most important was in Berlin - where thousands of people without masks shout that they are not afraid of the fake virus or of the satanic and globalist world order - whatever that means.

Faced with this proliferation of disinformation, hoaxes and conspiracy theories, some politicians and journalists have seen the opportunity and have tried to become spokespersons for these discontented sectors. Instead of using their position of power and prestige responsibly - since, after all, we are all potential victims of the virus - there are certain pyromaniacs who are dedicated to spreading these messages in order to obtain political or economic gain. Perhaps the best example is the United States, where wearing a mask or not has become an ideological issue, although in Spain there are those who try to spread the same message. Obviously the mask is uncomfortable, and more so in the summer, but to present the temporary imposition of the mask as an attack on inalienable liberties and human rights is laughable at the very least, especially if there is the slightest possibility that the measure could save lives. I am too young to remember this, but I suppose there would also be those who would oppose the obligation to wear a seatbelt on similar grounds. 

Anyway, what can we do? Unfortunately, I do not have a clear and simple answer. Given the failure of the traditional media and political parties, it is clear that we need to build a strong and independent civil society with critical media that do not change their criteria according to the party in power. Beyond that, we need to educate people not to resort to magical thinking or conspiracy theories, although this is a long-distance race. But especially, we must avoid falling into despair or pessimism, even if there are days when you just want to shut down the Internet forever, run away to a cabin in the mountains and get into bed with your head under a blanket. We journalists, communicators and disseminators who take our work seriously must overcome the virus of unrest and continue to do our job with the greatest possible objectivity, honesty and clarity, regardless of the trolls, idiot "influencers", lying politicians and ignorant chatterboxes. The physical and mental health of our society is at stake. The struggle will be difficult, but if we throw in the towel it will be hopelessly lost.