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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The Great Unraveling? Media, Geopolitics and the COVID-19 Pandemic

What do new physical boundaries mean for our understanding of identity and geopolitics? How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect U.S. global influence? What rival media narratives are emerging amid COVID-19? Global media authority and incoming Northwestern University-Qatar dean Dr. Marwan Kraidy joined the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs this week for a “tour d’horizon” of the repercussions of COVID-19 on media and geopolitics. Here are four key takeaways from the discussion:

We’re in the midst of an ‘infodemic’ of unprecedented scale and scope:  We’re living within a new media environment that lends itself to the proliferation of all kinds of conspiracy theories and half-baked medical notions that we haven’t seen before, Kraidy said. “We now have semi-official armies of trolls affiliated with one government or another wreaking havoc over the kind of information that is amplified,” he added, and called for the redoubling of efforts to promote digital literacy. “I would almost advocate for a digital media literacy test like the driver’s license,” he said. “We know now that people fooling around with an app on their cell phone can animate the rage of groups of people and lead to actual death. We know that now. So how do we foster media literacy skills? Can we teach people how to use media in the same way we teach people to use a car?”

Geopolitical patterns are emerging amid COVID-19, but need to be further examined: Whether and how different political systems—namely dictatorships versus democracies—have affected responses to and outcomes associated with COVID-19 is a key question, Kraidy said, but some patterns seem to be emerging. “If we look at countries where [COVID-19] cases and deaths are climbing, such as Brazil, India, the UK, and the U.S., the one thing they have in common is a strong man as a leader — a leader who has shown some authoritarian tendencies and exhibits a disdain for science through populist rhetoric,” Kraidy said. On the other hand, we have countries like Germany, Iceland and New Zealand where women are in charge and things are going better, but whether that’s a coincidence is difficult to say and will require empirical research, he said. “These are very intriguing things that researchers should get to the bottom of and not just leave as a media discourse hanging out there.”

Tensions between global solidarity and national retrenchment are emerging: Talk about national borders is nothing new, but “has suddenly emerged in full force,” Kraidy said. Anxieties about this new and strange virus are manifesting in hyperactive discussions of borders, he added, pointing to the dangerous rhetoric of late about all things “alien.” “Metaphors of invasion—the invasion of murder hornets and other species—are running rampant, and this is very dangerous,” he said. This can quickly move to talk about human beings and to exterminating the “other” with very dire consequences over time, he said. Even in countries central to the European Union project such as Germany and France, we’re seeing headlines that broach the long taboo topic of borders, Kraidy added. There is this sense that “sovereignty needs to prevail if we are to stop this virus” and there will be “changing feelings among key populations toward ideas and actions connected with a global society” in the years to come, he said.

Longstanding transnational issues of injustice and inequality are getting a new lease on life: People who have been stuck at home for three months taking in images of disease, death and atrocity that are “the psychological equivalents of bullets penetrating your body” are now on the front lines of a transnational social movement that the U.S. is leading, Kraidy said. The U.S. has a unique legacy of slavery and racial injustice, but people around the world see themselves in these struggles, he added, pointing to Black Lives Matter banners on display from Berlin to Beirut. The death of George Floyd “triggered not only a full awakening about injustice and inequality in the U.S. but triggered global actions all over the world tied to issues of sectarianism, anti-immigrant discourse, and memories of the history of imperialism and colonialism.”

While America’s decline as a global superpower has been part of the dominant discourse over the past several years, “U.S.-based activists are leading the world in places where the U.S. government has failed to lead the world,” Kraidy said. Kraidy predicts the movements U.S. activists are spawning will be long and protracted versus short-lived, but will require more than grassroots energy to thrive. “It’s important for movements to emerge from the grassroots, but that fizzles out,” Kraidy said. “You need leadership as representative as possible to translate critical political energy into actual political change — to translate what we don’t want to what we want,” he added, pointing to the importance of universities. “Universities are one of the few remaining places where free inquiry is officially embraced,” he said, and there’s a lot of space for empirical research into activist claims.