"Digitalization is a battlefield in which present and future society is being defined"



Goretti Brunet
Antonio Calleja, researcher with Communication Networks & Social Change (CNSC), an Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) research group at the UOC.


Antonio Calleja holds a PhD in Sociology and is an expert in the intersection of politics and technology. He is a member of Tecnopoltica, a research network with ties to Communication Networks & Social Change (CNSC), an Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) research group at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). In an interview, Calleja told us that he believes the current public health crisis brought on by COVID-19 will strengthen countries' nation state-like status, and warns that such a shift could herald the arrival of authoritarian socio-political models. He also pointed out that certain circumstances may sow the seeds of heightened mistrust towards political leaders, swelling waves of dissent and protest, and new forms of citizen-led political organization.


Could the coronavirus crisis mark a turning point in society and politics?

This is already the case, but it is unlikely to ignite radical change. Since the onset of the pandemic, we've been trying to imagine radically new lifestyles and economic models that could help us overcome pressing issues, such as the climate crisis and social injustice. However, the changes we do see are not likely to be deep-rooted and may lead societies down differing paths.

Despite this, states will take on a more prominent role in the short term as a result of COVID-19, manifesting in greater border surveillance and immigration control, increasing economic measures, better support for the healthcare system and limited versions of basic income, among other policies. People's stances and expectations regarding this change are many and often in opposition with one another. In some cases, state intervention is called out for focusing solely on the survival and smooth running of the market; in others, it's seen as an attempt at rebuilding the enfeebled welfare state.

The ramifications of the crisis on civil society seem equally bidirectional. On the one hand, we've seen a tendency towards self-organization, solidarity and mutual support, exemplified by neighbourhood support networks and maker initiatives. On the other, we've witnessed growing condemnation and mistrust towards others, leading to neighbourhood watch practices and numerous acts of xenophobia. The pooled forces of different stakeholders, practices and social frameworks will determine whether we follow a path towards surveillance and security, as some indications suggest, or another towards solidarity and democracy.

Do you believe the pandemic has the potential to exacerbate citizens' already growing mistrust towards politicians and the political system in general?

That will depend on the context and the stage of the crisis. In Spain, mistrust is likely to deepen as a result of how the pandemic is being managed. In countries where crisis management has proven more effective, whether this means the government has mitigated the impact of COVID-19 or built a more constructive relationship with the opposition, we could actually start to see mistrust dwindle. Governments' ability to rebuild their countries when the crisis is over will be a decisive factor, although to find out to what extent exactly, we'll have to wait to see what public policies are passed and what effects they have, as well as what is said in the political debates and people's reactions to them.

Do you foresee new waves of dissent and protest swelling up in response to how the pandemic is being managed?

There could be a backlash in some countries regarding the way the pandemic is managed, yes. A clear example is the right and far-right in Spain, whose criticism of the government has been a trending topic for weeks now. Much of this criticism is fuelled by political parties such as Vox via its Twitter accounts, something which we analysed as part of our DataPolitik project. Moreover, platforms are already being erected by people affected by coronavirus, some of which hold ties with these same political parties.

Further criticism is being voiced by members and trade unions in the healthcare sector, which had been beleaguered by precarious working conditions and budget cuts for years before the pandemic hit. Consequently, the emergence of new platforms that join forces with previous movements in defence of public healthcare is not off the table.

The economic fallout lurking behind the healthcare crisis will also have a significant impact, especially in countries where a probable increase in poverty and inequality are met with welfare cuts and insufficient support. Initiatives that unite protests otherwise focusing on different areas, such as the Plan de Choque Social (Social Fallout Plan), could help to address cross-cutting social demands. Their requests are aimed at strengthening public services, especially healthcare, and protecting the reproduction of life, which they hope to achieve by calling for measures such as universal basic income and rent regulation.

Will citizens create new forms of action and political organization?

New political organization structures will show up, but they won't make any former ones obsolete. I've already touched on one case of mobilization clearly influenced by lockdown measures: that of the Spanish right and ultra-right, which has leveraged online media and made particularly intense use of corporate platforms such as Twitter to do its bidding. We have also seen demonstrations in Israel and mobilizations of sex workers in Andalusia, the first to produce images of protesters actually keeping a safe distance from one another. Finally, probably the most creative expressions of social self-organization during the pandemic have been associated with the mutual support networks and maker initiatives I mentioned earlier, as well as with the sharing of technology, knowledge, data and open debates on platforms such as GitHub, arXiv and Twitter.

In the post-coronavirus world, will inequalities worsen?

In the past few days, news has spread of the onset of a new global economic crisis, expected to last at least a year. In the midst of such a fallout, we are likely to see a rise in poverty and inequality in more than just a few countries. In theory, the increase will be steepest where COVID-19 has hit the hardest, like in Spain. The ability of these states to mitigate the impact will be key. In this regard, the main challenge facing the Spanish government under the PSOE and Podemos will be to protect the working class from the looming crisis.

Will COVID-19 help to build a better digital society?

Yes. In fact, we're already seeing it happen. In Spain, heightened internet use and the government's unwavering focus on the digital transition are both a result of this and a sign of what's to come. Moreover, possible restrictions placed on movement and physical gatherings in the coming months will prompt digital infrastructures to serve, even more than they already do, as extra social scaffolding. Accordingly, public agendas will begin to address certain topics more closely. These include how to ensure the reliability, stability and monitoring of digital technologies, with the material and geopolitical implications this entails. The social, psychological, economic, ecologic, legal and cultural dimensions and implications of these technologies will also play an important role. In this sense, citizens will further accept the idea that digitalization is not only a matter of technology or economic development, but a battlefield in which present and future society is being defined.

Could populations be more heavily surveilled and monitored with the help of artificial intelligence and big data?

Heated debates on this topic are a part of the past, present and future. It's something that has come up again in conversations about contact tracing apps, an example of the technological solutions being tossed around by a number of governments as part of their plan to lift lockdown measures. One proposal, called DP-3T, is completely decentralized and ensures a high level of privacy; meanwhile, more centralized solutions such as Pepp-PT would give states more leeway when it comes to monitoring the public. Furthermore, corporations such as Google and Apple are playing a decisive role in the debate, a fact which both showcases and further solidifies their control over the digital society. If states opt to move forward on invasive, centralized solutions, this will curtail many citizen rights, affecting anything from privacy to non-discrimination. If that's the case, we should expect to see new forms of resistance on the horizon.

The Tecnopoltica/CNSC group is taking part in the European project known as DECODE, which has explored technological, legal and economic standards for data management that offer an alternative to centralized, extractionist models that fail to respect the rights of data subjects. We've got a long way to go on this front, though.