Fake news circulate without being questioned. Eighty-nine percent of Jair Bolsonaro voters trusted fake news. But Brazil was not the only one to have to deal with fake news. Similar situations also occurred during the previous presidential elections in the USA and during the Brexit referendum in the UK.
Supporters of the president of this South American country have attacked the media and researchers who carried out a study on how they were influencing and manipulating the elections, through the use of misinformation.
What is more, people do not double check the news they get, so fake news can circulate without being questioned. So, it was possible for the right to criminalise the Worker Party (PT).
And this happened on different occasions across the UK, during the 2016 Brexit referendum. One of the most famous examples was a claim made by the Leave campaign stating that the UK would take back £350m a week after leaving the EU and the money would be reinvested into the NHS. This statement was fake, but a very wide group of people believed it without question.
In Brazil, the Superior Electoral Court can pursue and punish the use of fake news, but it is always very difficult to determine the origin of it.
Journalist and researcher João Guilherme talked to The Prisma, describing the world of fake news.
Do you think there is a way to educate people to recognise when they are getting fake news? How can I know it is fake news?
It is misleading to associate specific forms of delivering information with fake content, because fake news can adapt to diverse audiences. When focused on university students, it might give false links to alleged sources or simulate statistical bases for false information differing from sensationalist forms of delivery used by other groups. We shall educate people to be sceptical about political information without clear and checkable sources (containing real links to its sources) and familiarize them with fact checking habits.
What elements make a news item count as fake news?
Again, “fake news” in Brazil includes not just the “news” but tactics to make this misinformation go viral and to have an electoral impact. We consider fake news misinformation that is false and forwarded/shared en masse by specific groups with the aim of having electoral impact. Due to diverse uses of the expression “fake news” recently, we prefer to use the term “misinformation”.
Who can deliver fake news? Media organisations themselves or only people using social media?
Media organisations can give false information but would hardly be involved in viral misinformation techniques using mobile phones. Fake news is more than just biased information.
But, in many aspects, the presence of real biased journalism feeds the scepticism around media political coverage that makes WhatsApp groups appear as a source for checking media news coverage (and not the opposite).
Is it difficult to understand the difference between a real news item and a fake one?
This is particularly a problem with so-called “deepfakes”, in which algorithms help people to change faces appearing in videos (potentially inserting the face of a politician on someone else’s body appearing in a video).
In Brazil’s 2018 presidential election it was relatively easy to identify conspiracy theories and misinformation, but an apparently deepfake video involving a candidate to São Paulo’s government in the same year still courts controversy.
Where can we find the highest use of fake news?
It is a strategy employed mainly by candidates with high initial rates of disapproval who need to raise their adversary’s disapproval rating; to make people not voting for them abstain; and to discredit political coverage and policy analysts. It is embraced by radical groups eager to believe anything portraying their adversaries as wicked and threatening, who usually believe they alone have the capacity to make sense of what is “really” happening, and who are not open to respectful debate.
Do you think that the same strategy was used by Trump, or his supporters, during the 2016 presidential election in the USA?
There are clear parallels but also clear differences. As with Trump’s alt light, Brazil have a network of Youtubers that uses young language and that constitutes a civilized conservative interface whilst the radical far-right movement on the other hand (Trump’s alt-right) can be found in militia supporters, militarists and religious fundamentalists.
But there is a huge difference between Facebook (a platform offering microtargeting tools) and WhatsApp (a mobile application without any visibility algorithm) dynamics.
Do you think that the result of the 2016 referendum in the UK, regarding Brexit, was influenced by the use of fake news and misinformation?
Yes. Any tight result in polarized scenarios with high abstention rates can be influenced by misinformation campaigns. Particularly when it concerns subjects somehow far removed from people’s everyday experiences: talking about wages, fares and public services evokes clear consequences when a specific measure is discussed; but talking about international trade, Brussels regulations and economic sovereignty is somehow abstract and open to diverse induced misrepresentations. That however does not mean that everybody voted for Brexit based on misinformation.
When will you publish this research and how?
Shortly before the 2018 elections, preliminary findings on WhatsApp using our method were presented at the Latin American Social Sciences Council (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales) and the Brazilian National Science and Technology Institute for Digital Democracy (INCT.DD), confirming advances in analysing mobile technology as used in politics in polarized scenarios. In 2019, WhatsApp-related studies were already accepted in the Brazilian Association of Political Communication Scholars Congress (Compolítica) and the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Postgraduate Programmes in Communication (Compós); and were accepted for international publication as a chapter in a book and in a Brazilian scientific journal. The research was the main topic of columns in O Globo and O Estado de S. Paulo and was the topic of interviews given to diverse Brazilian newspapers and portals (Agência Pública/El País Brasil, O Globo, Carta Capital, Zero Hora, Sul 21, A Gazeta and Observatório da Comunicação Pública) and it was also mentioned in international portals such as MIT Global Media Technologies & Cultures Lab.
What do you expect from the publication of your research?
It will hopefully help to identify central groups in this dynamic and take action against this kind of practice quickly. This can help journalists, electoral courts and lawmakers to deal with this theme more properly. It is surprising that, after such a remarkable incident in 2014, Brazil’s authorities were so unprepared for dealing with misinformation and mobile technology in politics in the 2018 presidential election.
What do you believe might be the reaction of people after the publication of your research? For instance, Bolsonaro and the people who support him?
Parts of it were commented on in several newspapers circulated among electors before the vote, but Bolsonaro supporters reacted mainly by attacking the media and researchers involved. Hard-line supporters still believe in conspiracy theories against researchers and university groups. The more positive action might come from researchers, journalists, investigators and lawmakers interested in understanding misinformation dynamics and possible ways of dealing with it quickly.
Do you think this research is going to help (for the next election) better inform people of fake news?
Yes. Not necessarily voters, because our focus involves network dynamics (not always a concern for citizens in general). But commentators and people dedicated to political analysis might find tools and strategies for anticipating or quickly identifying central groups in misinformation diffusion for analysis – if we want to understand misinformation dynamics and segmentation in a given network.