“The World has Faced this Pandemic in Disorder and Without Solidarity”

By Bernarda Llorente on January 5, 2021

The Spanish journalist and essayist Ignacio Ramonet, who has devoted the last few months to analyzing the economic, social and technological transformations that the pandemic is causing, maintains that the crucial debate in contemporary societies today is about the truth, which has lost weight compared to the value of beliefs, making journalism “more necessary than ever because it is the one that comes to put some rationality and light on what is happening”. Here is Ramonet’s interview with the president of Télam, Bernarda Llorente.

To understand and decipher the world” is the motto of Le monde Diplomatique, a prestigious publication that you have been directing for many years. In times of essential reflection, how do you explain the moment we are living in and how do you imagine the post-pandemic world?

First, something is unquestionably happening to us that never happened before: the brutality of the pandemic, the novelty of the pandemic as well. No human generation today has had an experience of this kind. In an essay called “The Pandemic and the World System” I defined this pandemic as a total social fact, because only violent, open and frontal warfare resembles what we are living through. It is a type of war in the sense that it disrupts the whole of society’s parameters, be they collective, individual, economic, social and cultural. The whole world is a bit upside down because of the pandemic, we have been experiencing almost a year. China reported the existence of a new virus in December last year, and we now realize that all societies on the planet, all states have been confronted with it, some more, some less. We have seen that there is no government, no authority that was ready, that had an agenda to deal with this pandemic. Some governments have done better, others have done decidedly badly, in particular the government of the world’s leading power, the United States, and all this has obviously led us to reflect on the fragility of our world.

We were at a time when there was a kind of excessive pride in the capacity of human beings to have state-of-the-art technologies. In particular communications, but also in the economic, financial sense. Another example to consider the conquest of Mars. And suddenly a small, almost invisible virus has come to show us that we are indeed dependent on nature. On the other hand, what is clear is that the pandemic has changed the world and we must think about what world we are going to. Here too we must be very prudent, it is a very difficult question to answer, we can only make a few bets; there is no doubt that at this time what the world is waiting for is to get out of the pandemic.

Following the motto of Le monde, what tools are used to decipher the world today? Do you think the media can continue to fight between the powers that be and the people?

I believe that in each era communication technology has determined the organization of society. Finally, the human being is a gregarious being, who lives in society, who lives in a group and, therefore, throughout history every time the dominant group has had a different way of communicating, the group has changed. We could say that, from an anthropological point of view, when the group of great apes that we studied we found a way of communicating through speech, well, that was where the border between the animal and the human was flanked. Humanization was made with the word, or at least it accelerated that process. When human beings begin to communicate, to transmit and accumulate experience, they distinguish themselves from the rest.

When writing was invented, which is the second great revolution in communication, it was in one place – not two or three – and then it expanded. This was a very important revolution that gave birth to the state, to religion in a hierarchical way, to organizations of a very different political and social nature. With the invention of the printing press in 1440, the book and its massive dissemination changed the history of humanity, the political history. And perhaps now, with the Internet, we are in the fourth revolution that has an anthropological effect. When the Internet appeared, we all thought – as communication specialists – that the Internet allowed us to free ourselves from the domination of the big media. At the time it appeared, at the end of the 1980s, television predominated over the rest of the media: the written press, radio, cinema, photography. At the same time, multimedia groups began to merge to try to dominate it.

Did the Internet appear at that time as the democratizing response to a process of media concentration and the need to diversify voices and broaden citizen representations?

When the internet appeared, we thought that in view of the possibility of circulating from a planetary point of view, there would no longer be any communication distances: someone in Europe could read a Mexican newspaper, someone in Mexico could read an Indian newspaper. This kind of planarization of communication made us think that we could free ourselves from the dominant media groups in each of our countries. And in fact that is what happened, there was a democratization of communication. This is what we are doing now: it doesn’t cost us anything, it’s free. It is the democratization of communication. Now, has this solved the problem of our intellectual autonomy, of our cultural autonomy, of the eventual manipulation of communication? No, obviously not.

In an article I recently published I said that human history is summed up in a Greek myth, the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a demigod punished by the gods to climb a stone, to roll it to the top of the mountain, but when he reached the top the stone rolled back down and Sisyphus had to roll it back up again, and so on until the end of eternity. Well then, when human beings find the solution to a problem, that solution is another problem. Then there will always be one. The difficulty is to identify the problem and now to see what the solution to this new problem is. We aspired to the democratization of communication so as not to depend on this or that medium. In that sense, you and I, talking now, are not going through any television channel, or a dominant radio, or a newspaper. We are doing it autonomously. But to do this we have to go through Zoom, and Zoom for example did not exist before the pandemic. One of the effects of the pandemic is the brutal expansion of Zoom on the stock market, which has become a millionaire company and today has replaced Skype, for example, or other tools that allowed this type of thing with more technological protocols.

Obviously today we can say that Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple (known as GAFA) dominate the world of communication. We have left the domination of some groups to be in the hands of other groups, less numerous and global. And, moreover, they have all the information about us. So today Orwell’s world of 1984 is possible.

And, paradoxically, we seem to voluntarily submit to this control or at least naturalize it

It is the generalized manipulation, the empire of vigilance. During the pandemic when we were all confined, there was a production crisis and a consumption crisis. Factories did not produce and citizens did not consume. But what was done, more than before, was to devote oneself to the screens, to consume screens. Either by subscribing to Netflix, or by discovering TikTok, by communicating through Zoom and all the existing networks. As a result, while the aeronautical or hotel giants and the automobile giants were falling on the stock market, the shares of the companies that people were locked up in their homes with were rising. We have to deal with this situation and consider how to resist the domination of these four huge giants. This is the task today. They know more about us than the States. In 1984, Orwell was denouncing the Stalinist regime, a political-state regime, but today it is Google that is watching us, much more than the state.

Religion, democracy and alternative truths

In that context, how do you imagine the future of the media and the role of journalism?

The world we are in is a world that needs journalism more than ever. Today the central debate about information is about truth, it is the question of truth, even though it has always been a central issue in the short history of journalism, since it is a recent practice. To do journalism you need a minimum of freedom, and freedom is a new idea, from the end of the 18th century, when some newspapers appeared and the mass press spread in countries with a minimum of conditions. If people cannot read, for example, there is no journalism. Nor is there mass journalism if the press is not cheap, so many newspapers have to be sold every day so that, with volume, the price drops. And there must also be freedom, the possibility of exchanging newspapers for people of different tendencies. Because opinions are free, that is freedom. But always, what is fundamental, is the truth.

The value of truth seemed to lose weight against the value of beliefs…

Today it seems to me that the question of truth has become fundamental, it is a central issue, and journalism knows that it has to face it. Trump, being president of the United States – a country that used to be defined as a great democracy – is the first president who, in a brazen way and with a kind of indifference to what one might think, emits big lies. He has invented this concept that needs to be reflected on: “the alternative truth”, the idea that everyone has their own truth.

One of the principles of a democracy is to admit that everyone can have their truth. On the principle I do not think there is any difficulty, after all in free societies there are many religions. And what is a religion? It is an opinion about creation, about what is after death, about how to prepare for death. They are opinions. In fact, religions affirm things that anthropologically depend on something that we call magical thinking. But in a rational world, of progress, that tries to be serene in the face of human passions, since for two and a half centuries work has been done on the principle of rationality, so that there is a truth that is as objective as possible, with data, with elements that comfort it. But no, Trump has returned to magical thinking. All the figures and surveys indicate that he has lost the elections, but he says that he has won them, and that there is fraud even if it has not been proven. And this is now with the election, but he has always done so with other issues.

In the past, misinformation was understood to mean a lack of information or difficulty in accessing it. Today it appears more related to intoxication due to bad information or directly to false news.

The idea that everyone can manufacture truth is what we call false news. A truth is manufactured, and since now each of us potentially has the strength that only the big media had until a few years ago, this gives us the capacity to invent falsehoods, manipulations, intoxications that can spread through the networks, which are the dominant medium today. And therefore on the networks we can develop a whole discourse that is totally invented, with supposed proofs, with apparent demonstrations, etc. This is the world we are living in. In that world in which journalism is more necessary than ever, because it is the one that comes to put a little rationality, a little light, a little clarity on what is happening. In fact today there are more and more sites on the web trending towards the elucidation of lies. That is, there is a journalistic will to do what is called the fact check, to check the facts.

Journalism can no longer be done as before, it is now essentially digital, graphic journalism is on the way out. Because, technologically speaking, the paper medium is disappearing: it is increasingly expensive, it is produced much less, the presses are no longer produced. This is now very easily done on the web. So today journalism is more necessary than ever, that’s what we would say to a young person who wants to enter a journalism school.

Also, young people no longer have to wait to be taken on in large media. They join together and take out a medium, with very few resources and credibility. And credibility remains the key parameter for journalists. Today you can create a media on condition that you work hard, you check a lot and you go back to the basics of journalism. Going back to the sources, seeing the credibility of those sources, how it is verified, how the information is cut. The basic principles that are taught in journalism schools; and since today we are all journalists, because everyone uses Facebook, sends information, everyone should therefore discipline themselves, they should even teach the basic principles of journalism in schools, as a fundamental subject for using social networks.

Emotional information and information insecurity

The possibility of constituting ourselves as senders and receivers of information and opinion has not made us more rational or tolerant. Hate speeches predominate in networks and societies seem increasingly polarized.

These issues today force us to reflect. Firstly, on the question of emotional information, this question is very important. Indeed, today a tendency to react to information in an emotional, sentimental way is developing through the networks, and because of the networks. And of course, this is not ignored by the manipulators.

We must be careful. On the networks, with the speed, it is difficult to be so. On the other hand, networks have the tendency for any user not only to consume information but also to share it, which is why it is a network, a network and a chain. So the question is this: we have studied that the information we share most is that which we share most emotionally. And if there is something that goes in the direction of what I intimately believe, then it is something that I will believe more quickly than if it is something that goes against my convictions, and this is what is being used… So that today is almost a science, it is the emotional truth.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the interview, how do you imagine a post-pandemic world? more supportive, immunized by vaccines and more prepared for what is to come?

If only, it would be a great advance. The world has faced this pandemic in disorder, not organizing itself and without solidarity; there have been very few countries that have helped other countries. The European Union, which is a political union as well as an economic and commercial one, has fought the pandemic with every man for himself, governments taking action, closing borders, fighting to have masks when there were none.

The world’s leading power, the United States, did not help anyone, was conspicuous by its absence, and has not sent medicines or masks to any of its allies. In contrast is the example of a small country like Cuba, which is blockaded and unjustly sanctioned, but has sent medical brigades to dozens of countries to help, showing something, a dimension that the world has lacked, which is solidarity. It is true that the Chinese have also sent masks, gloves, alcohol gel, the Russians have also sent, but few countries have helped others in Latin America, there has been no continental solidarity, where there are many regional integration organizations. So there too we have seen that in the face of a difficulty, which is collective and which impacts on humanity as a whole, there has been no solidarity.

For the moment there is no guarantee that the vaccine will be free for all of humanity; in some countries it has been announced that it will be free but in others it will not, and there too we have seen that humanity is not ready to face a danger, a catastrophe, with a collective challenge.

Source: Telam, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau