By Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway University London, UK
In recent weeks, attention has been understandably on the public health of communities around the world. In the UK, our focus is on daily televised updates on illness and mortality and advice on measures such as social distancing and self-isolation. An unwillingness to extend the Brexit transition period, coupled with a Prime Minister who is facing a lengthy recovery from a COVID-19 infection, is adding further to criticism that the UK’s handling of the pandemic continues to be shambolic. Much of the national conversation is playing out on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In the presence of UK national Parliament in ‘lock-down’ mode, and ongoing restrictions on the physical interactions of government and wider society, the digital space has assumed ever greater importance. Academic scholarship is already assessing the scale, size and speed of social media misinformation and sentiments of anger, frustration, hope and panic.
Public communication and the strategic management of information is crucial at a time of crisis and war. In previous work, I alongside two other geographers looked at a Cold War operation called Project Revere, which was funded by the US Air Force in the midst of the Korean crisis (1950-1953) and later the work of so-called rumour control centre in 1960s America. What linked both was an interest in how rumours, conspiracies and what has been termed improvised news was of considerable interest to military and civil authorities alike. Depending on the nature and spread of rumour and ‘fake news’, this had implications for societal cohesion and national security.
In the current era, intelligence agencies around the world are committing resources to tracing, tracking and intercepting the spread of ‘fake news’ (#Cyberaware) and financial scheming. Citizens are being asked to report coronavirus-related phishing emails. In Putin’s Russia, public opinion matters less. The president needs to retain the support of the security-military-business apparatus but there is regional protest against ineffectual governors and virtual protesting as well. Russia’s vast geography, that was initially cited as a possible positive in terms of halting the spread of the virus is not quite as helpful as once thought. While President Trump uses his own hashtags to criticise Democratic governors and #lamestreammedia, China, Russia and Iran are accused of harnessing pandemic disinformation. Social media campaigning and medical supplies have been put to work by China in particular, as part of their concerted effort to deploy #Coviddiplomacy.
The pandemic has provided opportunities aplenty for states such as Russia to utilise social media diplomacy. In the recent past, the Putin administration has attracted a great deal of critical attention for its investment in so-called ‘troll farms’, the Internet Research Agency and information warfare. Much of this work intensified in the wake of the imposition of sanctions post-annexation of Crimea in 2014. The US presidential election of 2016 became a hotspot of interest for those interested in Russia’s capability and determination to weaponize dis-information and propaganda, revealing along the way that nativism and populism make ideal bedfellows for what has been described as complex non-military measures. Designed to secure competitive advantage, the efficacy of that work helps if large sections of the targeted populations are only too willing to accuse one another of treachery, corruption and betrayal.
While President Putin has been comparatively low-key about the impact of the virus on Russia, he has seized the opportunity to project Russian benevolence. Under the hashtag #FromRussiawithLove and #Russiahelps, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been active in transcribing and visualising the supportive work of the country’s medical staff and armed forces. Images of Russian planes, cargo, and expressions of gratitude from European citizens have been brought together and curated. One of the biggest diplomatic coups was arguably the publicised landing of Russian medical supplies including ventilators and personal protection equipment at New York in April 2020. The landing itself was lauded as a display of international goodwill by some while others chided the Trump administration for giving Putin a welcome propaganda victory. President Trump was forced to declare that Russia was not involved in his 2020 presidential election campaign and condemned the Democrat Party for peddling its own ‘misinformation campaign’.
But as the geographical scholarship on overseas aid always warns us, there is no such thing as cost-free benevolence. In Italy, another beneficiary of Russian medical aid, journalists have expressed concern that the Russian intervention carries with it some real dangers. How closely is the Russian medical-military team being scrutinised whilst it is located on Italian soil? While some have questioned the quality and usefulness of the aid, the mere presence of Russian taskforce will surely be used by critics inside and outside the EU to showcase the vulnerabilities of Italy, Greece and Spain. While President Trump has railed against the ‘Chinese virus’ and the ‘invisible enemy’, Russian watchers worry that President Putin will use the COVID-19 pandemic as a further opportunity to promote mistrust within the EU and the United States. Mischief-making suits a president seeking to entrench his power until 2036 and one that is eager to ensure his re-election reinforces his reputation as someone who can continue to be trusted to ‘make Russia great again’. But Putin (and Trump) also faces dangers; crises have a habit of creating opportunities for ‘leadership’ to flourish elsewhere in major cities and states.
Russia post pandemic trajectory will hinge in large part on whether it can come out of all of this with its political-economic model (including its strategic reserves) intact. While Russia will continue to monitor closely the price of oil and the robustness of foreign investment in natural resource development, it has long since imagined itself as a country that must work around the dominant liberal international order. From Putin’s point of view, one ideal casualty of the pandemic might be the liberal-democratic model itself, as countries like the UK becomes more militarised and securitised and less democratised and liberal. Surveillance capitalism intensifies further and governments around the world have to make uncomfortable deals with private companies such as Google and Amazon in order to operationalise governance. Questions will be asked again about whether the North American-European global order with its highly integrated supply-chains, international finance and global consumer markets, actually triumphed over the alternatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s onwards.
Putin’s relationship with China is far more important in the immediate term. President Trump’s assertions about China’s culpability for the COVID-19 virus is a diplomatic gift for Putin. Russia and China have plenty of things to work on, including resource projects in the Russian Arctic. Europe in particular can be charmed with medical supplies and humanitarian intervention while long-range bombers can enter in and out of European air space (no #FromRussiawithLove hashtag posting). Fake news, information warfare, social media hashtag diplomacy will continue to play a part in sowing discord and disorder. All of which is important because longer-term Russia will face profound societal challenges from an ageing population and stagnating energy production, to societal unrest brought on by poverty, unemployment and pension losses. A low carbon energy transition will inevitably pose questions about the future of petrostates like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Norway. Putin has been criticised by Russians for being out of touch with the everyday realities of living in a deeply divided country. Hashtag diplomacy is just one element of all of this and geographers such as Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin have done a great deal to make sense of blame storylines.
Geographers have opportunities to contribute to making sense of the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. Geographers such as Alan Ingram have alerted us to ‘pandemic anxiety’ and its role in the production of insecurity. There might not be a neat ending but what we can do is tease out the territorialisation of the pandemic. We can continue to pose questions about the multi-scalar future of the global geopolitical order and the nation-state, which is in the case of the latter is showing no sign of withering away. Russia, China and the United States are grappling with what is worth preserving about the international order and what is ripe for opportunism and self-interest. In Trump’s words, spoken at the UN in September 2019, there is a world out there made up of ‘patriots’ and ‘globalists’ and he was clear that America’s future was one shaped by the ‘patriotic’. It is a vision that President Putin might share as well.
We are, albeit with different levels of vulnerability and exposure to risk, going to be living in a COVID-19 world. Bio-surveillance will be one of the new norms, for patriots and globalists alike. Geography will continue to matter but in ways that even great powers will struggle to master. Look out for the hashtags of the future.
About the author: Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University London. Hi research primarily focusses on the areas of geopolitics and security, media/popular culture, ice studies and the international governance of the Antarctic and the Arctic. Twitter: @klausdodds
Suggested Further reading
Füller, H. (2016), Pandemic cities: biopolitical effects of changing infection control in post‐SARS Hong Kong. The Geographical Journal, 182: 342-352. doi:10.1111/geoj.12179
Cliff, A., & Smallman-Raynor, M. (1992). The Aids Pandemic: Global Geographical Patterns and Local Spatial Processes. The Geographical Journal, 158(2), 182-198. doi:10.2307/3059787
Dodds, K. (2008), ‘Have You Seen Any Good Films Lately?’ Geopolitics, International Relations and Film. Geography Compass, 2: 476-494. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00092.x