The geopolitical battle for the COVID-19 narrative

Published on April 4, 2020 by

On The Listening Post this week: From China to the US, the COVID-19 battle is as much medical as it is media. Plus, lessons from the coverage of the 1918 Spanish flu.

The geopolitical battle for the COVID-19 narrative

As they have been isolating their populations to keep the coronavirus contained, some powerful governments are simultaneously waging a worldwide war of perceptions – laying out how the pandemic happened, where the responsibilities lie and which country should lead the fight against it.

China is out to shift the narrative from its initially slow response – the way its censors kept a lid on the story – to the collective effort since then to bring down the infection rate. Beijing has also borrowed a page from Moscow’s playbook – using mainstream and social media platforms to spread conspiracy theories and to muddle perceptions. In Washington, DC, a campaign to brand COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is being led by President Donald Trump himself.

This story has grown into a debate about competing ideologies – a global one, played out through the news media – of what the world will look like once the pandemic is over – and which political system, which superpower – will be best placed to lead.


Mark Galeotti – principal director, Mayak Intelligence and author of We Need to Talk about Putin

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian – China reporter, Axios

Emerson Brooking – resident fellow, DFR Lab and author of The Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media

On our radar:

Richard Gizbert speaks to producer Flo Phillips about the COVID-19 emergency laws that are threatening press freedom worldwide.

1918 to COVID-19: 100 years of covering pandemics

How should authorities respond to COVID-19, and what role should the media play? From the beginning of the outbreak, historians have looked to the past for valuable lessons learned – most notably, to the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

John Barry is an American historian and author of the New York Times bestseller, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.

The Listening Post’s Nic Muirhead interviews Barry on the role the media played in 1918; how news organisations, through self-censorship and misinformation, helped spread the virus, and how we are seeing some disturbing parallels in the coverage of COVID-19 today.


John M Barry – author of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.

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