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When guest editor Alastair Reed and I first discussed the idea of a special issue on strategic communications, in 2018, security concerns for Western liberal democracies revolved in large part around the threats from terrorist and extremist groups, and threats from state actors seeking a revision to the current international order. This special issue thus focuses on understanding how such actors use a variety of communications strategies to further their aims – be they recruitment to their cause or destabilisation of liberal democracies – and how both state and non-state actors in the West can counter those activities.
Yet today the coronavirus pandemic that has swept through much of the world has brought to the fore a very different kind of challenge – and while this is first and foremost a public health crisis, it has significant repercussions for security, spanning from societal resilience and the mobilisation of military resources providing aid to civilian authorities, to the swift re-establishment of border controls or even the outright closing of some borders in some cases. It is also a striking experience in the public communication sphere: it has had a marked and immediately visible impact on the way in which governments communicate with their own citizens, and also on the way in which some governments and international institutions communicate with each other.
As the number of cases started to grow exponentially in Italy in the second half of February, followed in quick succession by France, Spain and the rest of Europe, governments that had for weeks downplayed the risk of a pandemic found themselves, one after the other, moving not only towards restrictive measures unprecedented in peacetime, but also to a new style of communication: daily press conferences from government ministers flanked by public health experts provide bulletins outlining the numbers associated with the contagion. This exercise in transparency clearly aims to build trust between citizens and decision-makers, a vital need when facing a virus whose behaviour is not yet fully understood. It is also an attempt to provide information from authoritative sources when so much mis- and disinformation freely circulates on the internet, apparently being exploited by some state actors who see an opportunity in the seeming disarray of the Western response.
Meanwhile, heads of government and of state have found themselves, in some cases several times over the span of a few short weeks, broadcasting messages to the nation in which they evoke wartime metaphors to rally citizens to a common fight against ‘an invisible enemy’. The rhetorical arsenal they reach for is the classic one reserved for wars that involve the whole of society, with terms like ‘front line’, ‘at war’ and ‘heroes’ now applied to key workers such as hospital staff, and, in a shift of roles, the military is being deployed in auxiliary roles to support law enforcement to ensure that lockdowns are respected or, in the UK, to help build new medical facilities in record times. Similarly, the visual elements of this pandemic communicate the existential challenge and the war-like atmosphere just as much as the choice of words: dramatic footage shows medical teams, covered head to toe with protective equipment, on the other side of doors with the words ‘keep out’, on what is described as the last line of the defence against the virus. Doctors and nurses film themselves as they dress to enter these areas, or show the marks the equipment leaves on their skin at the end of a shift, like physical scars of their fight. In Italy, lines of military lorries are shown carrying the coffins of the fallen out of Lombardy’s worst hit area, Bergamo, whose cemeteries and crematoria are too full to cope.
Once the emergency has passed, many will rightly focus on how the medical and economic challenges of the pandemic were approached. Others will want to know how the disinformation efforts of hostile state and non-state actors will have penetrated the societies of liberal democracies, and to what extent they will have managed to undermine the trust that Western leaders are trying to build with renewed attempts at direct communication with their citizens. Two fundamental questions will be: How has this change in communication influenced the way in which societies see themselves and their representatives? And what will they expect from each other once the emergency has passed?
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