A Data-Political Spectacle: How COVID-19 Became A Source of Societal Division in Denmark

Minerva. 2023 Jan 25:1-21. doi: 10.1007/s11024-022-09486-5. Online ahead of print.


The COVID-19 pandemic has been a data-political spectacle. Data are omnipresent in prediction and surveillance, and even in resistance to governmental measures. How have citizens, whose lives were suddenly governed by pandemic data, understood and reacted to the pandemic as a data-political phenomenon? Based on a study carried out in Denmark, we show how society became divided into those viewing themselves as supporters of the governmental approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, and those who oppose it. These groups seem to subscribe to very different truths. We argue, however, that both sides share a positivist ideal and think that data and facts ought to rule. Both sides have also come to acknowledge that data are not unambiguous, and both cast increasing doubts on political uses of data. Though the people agreeing with, and the people opposing, the government strategy are in many ways surprisingly similar with respect to epistemic norms, they differ in what they perceive as dangerous or desirable, and in who they believe are telling the "truth" about the pandemic. These different perceptions result in different types of pandemic-related activism. Resistance against restrictions is often understood as inspired by conspiracy theories and in some countries anti-restrictions activism has turned violent. In our case, however, we suggest that when looking at similarities and differences across both groups, the gap between those opposing and those agreeing with the government approach is not as unbridgeable as might be suggested by their beliefs in differing truths and the emerging societal division.

Keywords: Activism; COVID-19; Data politics; Denmark; Truth wars.