In search of truth in the era of fake news
December 05, 2018
By Heitor Shimizu, in New York | Agência FAPESP – Recent elections in Brazil were characterized by a combination of disinformation, WhatsApp, social networks, conservative ideologies and right-wing populist discourse. The analysis was conducted by Eugeno Bucci, a full professor at the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP), during FAPESP Week New York, organized jointly by the City University of New York (CUNY) and the Wilson Center, November 26-28, 2018, at the Graduate Center of CUNY.
“Why? There still are no conclusive answers. We need more research, more and better data, more science and more philosophy in order to understand what happened,” said Bucci, one of the speakers on the panel “Fake news and social media in political campaigns.”
“The results of this year’s presidential election in Brazil are evidence of a clear demoralization of traditional politics. The so-called false news, or to use a better concept, disinformation, played a major role in the campaign of the winner, the candidate Jair Bolsonaro,” said Bucci.
“His success was made through social networking. He had just a few seconds per day of obligatory political advertising. Other candidates had several minutes. Bolsonaro did not even have a strong party to support his candidacy. But on social media, he surpassed his rivals. He reached the level of 87 million followers on Facebook and 2.37 million on Twitter. Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate who came in second in the elections, got 1.7 million on Facebook and one million on Twitter,” he said.
Bucci pointed out that an original aspect of Bolsonaro’s campaign was his major use of WhatsApp. “Although it’s not technically or legally considered a social network, WhatsApp, in the Brazilian case, had the effect of one enormous social network. WhatsApp is protected by correspondence confidentiality. Because of this, it is closed to researchers. We don’t know exactly what happened on it,” he said.
Bucci cited a survey published by Datafolha on October 2, according to which six out of every 10 Bolsonaro supporters said they got their election information through WhatsApp.
“It’s important to remember that the spread of false news is not just a product of the technology, but also the action of the masses, masses of real people. False or falsified news grows much more quickly than real news because of people, not just because of technology,” said Bucci, a member of the editorial board of Pesquisa FAPESP magazine and former member of the advisory board of the Institute of Advanced Studies at USP.
Bucci cited a study conducted by researchers from the Media Lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The study analyzed 126,000 stories shared by approximately 3 million people on Twitter and verified that fake news was 70% more likely to be shared than the true stories.
“And here we came across something strange. Although everyone on the left and the right of the political spectrum uses false news, for some reason, people on the right seem to share it more. I want to be very clear on this point. I’m not saying that people on the right have exclusivity in dealing with false news or other disinformation techniques. Not at all. The only thing I’m saying is that, based on public opinion polls, among men and women on the right, this behavior seems to occur more frequently and is more intense,” he said.
Bucci quoted the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) who, in several works, pointed out that politics, in a democracy, can only be conducted on the basis of facts.
“Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart, are not antagonistic to each other; they belong to the same realm. Facts inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth, said Arendt.”
“According to Arendt, factual truth has to be the basis of political thought. And freedom of opinion is a farce unless the factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute,” said Bucci.
Fact checking and veracity
“I don’t like the term ‘fake news,’ I prefer ‘fabricated news.’ Because the term fake news has become a type of weapon used against journalists. Some say that we are living in a post-truth era, but I think that what we’re living in is an era of deep truth. Truth is much more hidden and we have to do more to bring it to the surface,” said Barbara Gray, a professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism of CUNY, another speaker on the panel.
“Journalism is a discipline of checking. Our job is to be skeptics, not cynics. We have to search for proof, check and re-check our sources,” said Gray a former director of news research at the New York Times.
According to her, today’s journalists have to go back to being like those of days gone by, who did everything. “Young media professionals need to know how to investigate, write, edit, take photos and make videos. But they also need to check everything and dedicate themselves intensely to the veracity of the facts. By veracity, I mean research. Journalists need to get to the bottom of the subject they are writing about,” she said.
“In our journalism courses, we teach students how to fact check. They hate it because it is a fussy and tedious process, but afterwards they say that it’s the best thing they learned,” said Gray.
The panel “Fake news and social media in political campaigns” also featured participation by Michelle Strah, a professor at the John Jay College of CUNY, Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute of the Wilson Center, and Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, communications consultant at FAPESP.
For more information about FAPESP Week New York, visit: www.fapesp.br/week2018/newyork.