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The fake news that associated the image used by the newspaper to the Carnaval. Screenshot.
One of the most discussed topics of 2018 Brazilian elections has been the production and massive dissemination of fake news. This is the Brazilian contribution to the international phenomenon of manipulating information and targeting niche audiences identified with certain preferences, like what we saw in the scandal of Cambridge Analytica, in the context of the US elections and the “Leave campaign” in the United Kingdom.
It is a bad contribution. In general, the dynamics of fake-news imply identifying that people living in a dry region suffer from lack of rain and then sending to those same people information that shows that a particular candidate wants to build a dam on the only river that supplies that region in formats that appeal to them. In the Brazilian version, this candidate would be involved with tribes that promote witchery rituals to move the rain clouds to another place.
Accordingly, during the Brazilian election campaign, we saw pictures of bottles with a penis-shaped mouthpiece, supposedly distributed in day care centers during the Workers Party (PT) government; manipulated photographs that placed posters with phrases supporting pedophilia in the hands of left-wing politicians; many images of Fernando Haddad and Manuela D’Avila wearing T-shirts with anti-Christ messages; many pictures of Manuela full of tattoos, holding a bottle of beer and carrying the presidential belt, and so on.
This practice sets up a first problem that is known as fake news. Only in the last week, the Superior Electoral Court ordered to remove from the internet 35 references to Haddad and another 33 references to Manuela, Workers Party candidates for president and vice president. Brazilian right-wing movements have been identified as producing and disseminating fake news. Earlier this year, Facebook removed several pages identified with this kind of misconduct, including some linked to MBL - Movimento Brasil Livre, which was directly involved in the mobilizations for the dismissal of President Dilma Rousseff, and another one maintained by Olavo de Carvalho, an activist recognized by his attacks on left-wing politicians and social movements.
The post-truth issue
Fake news constitutes a serious problem and, for that very reason, is liable to a judicial penalty in Brazil, associated with the crimes of slander, libel and defamation.
But we need to retake the discussion about another problem, which involves fake news, but it is deeper than that. It is the problem of post-truth and how it can hurt democratic culture. Post-truth is a term that refers to the construction of a broader narrative, which gives meaning and legitimacy to specific worldviews, often combating already consolidated knowledge.
Focusing on fake news to the detriment of post-truth guides the solution to the high appreciation of traditional media in opposition and delegitimization of alternative media.
One recent example and one that is producing quite dangerous impacts is the narrative that vaccines are dangerous, which goes against all the established scientific findings and threatens the immunization success that has been achieved to combat serious diseases in many countries. It is more than fake news, because the culture of vaccination in particular and scientific knowledge in general is being questioned. In this sense, limiting the debate to the issue of fake news has at least three important implications.
The first is that focusing on fake news to the detriment of post-truth guides the solution to the high appreciation of traditional media in opposition and delegitimization of alternative media. Accordingly, the remedy against fake news is the good, neutral and impartial coverage made by journalists formally linked to registered and recognized media.
Even if one believed in the tale of journalistic neutrality and impartiality, it would be impossible to rely on it in a country where the concentration of media ownership is as high as in Brazil. In 2017, The Media Ownership Monitor project evaluated the plurality of the media sphere in the country and revealed that five groups or their individual owners control concentrate more than half of the media at the national level. According to another media evaluation project, the Atlas da Notícia, more than 70 million Brazilians live in a so called “desert of news” and popular media are frequently the only outlets permanently covering the daily life of peripheral communities.
Focusing on the fake news means disallowing social movements and citizens who spread untruths but on the other hand, it also implies a weakening of the already poor condition of the community, alternative and popular media.
On the one hand, focusing on the fake news means disallowing social movements and citizens who spread untruths but on the other hand, it also implies a weakening of the already poor condition of the community, alternative and popular media that are often the only dissenting voices in relation to many important matters. If it had relied solely on traditional media, the immense mobilization of women in the campaign #elenão would have gone unnoticed by the public and, at best, would have been compared to a small demonstration pro-Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro.
It is also worth remembering that, in addition to concentration, traditional media in Brazil has shown that it has a clear party. Jair Bolsonaro had an exclusive interview with TV Record at the same time the presidential candidates were debating on TV Globo. This represents a clear disregard for the rule of isonomy, which Brazilian televisions should follow as long as they are public concessions.
A second implication refers to the construction of narratives impermeable to the debate. The post-truth combines a collection of false information to deny knowledge, as in the case of vaccines, or to deny history, as in the case of the military dictatorship in Brazil or the Holocaust. According to post-truth followers, these historical facts do not exist (for instance, a Minister of the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court classified the military coup in Brazil as the 1964 Movement).
The legitimation of these realities does not depend on a scientific or historical validation of any nature. Sometimes, there is a tentative one. Vaccine doubts have come from groups of researchers who have raised questions and even published test results in reputed scientific journals.
Although these publications were later revoked due to the fragility and bias of the research process, their existence continues to inform the public. But frequently public expression suffices to validate a postulate. Hence the ease with which fake news diffuses in this context. There is no need to present a source for the information being distributed. As an illustration, the increased use of ‘memes’ in comments to news articles or social networks publications has largely replaced any kind of dialogue or personal interchange.
Post-truth dynamics associate precarious or deficient education conditions (going beyond formal education or level of instruction) with society's moral emergencies to build and consolidate worldviews. Looking at it from this perspective, post-truth is part of the exercise of creating abyssal lines, as defined by the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos.
False news of PT candidates associates them with statements against faith, God and Christians. The post-truth mechanism justifies the false news.
It is the exercise that separates the existing from the non-existent, which tries to eliminate by delegitimizing everything that destabilizes structures of domination. In the case of current Brazilian society that is increasingly influenced by neo-Pentecostalism rooted in community bases, it is easy to understand why false news of PT candidates associates them with statements against faith, God and Christians. The post-truth mechanism justifies the false news.
In a discussion with a well-known person who posted a false report on Facebook about two members of PSOL (another Brazilian left-wing party), she told me that lying did not matter because those people would be quite capable of saying what was contained in the report. This posture reveals a structure of interpretation of reality in which the fact itself has little importance in the face of convictions. In this sense, the first implication of revalidation of traditional media as a solution to the fake news becomes more severe.
Again using the case of the #elenão demonstrations, Brazil's leading newspapers did not give front page headlines to associate the event with photos of popular masses that filled streets and squares all over the country. In doing so, they corroborated the interpretation that the mobilizations did not exist and that those photos, in fact, were carnival records or other popular street events, as the fake news propagated.
The cover page of O Estado de São Paulo, without a headline for the protest #elenão
A third implication is that post-truth is related to the naturalization of particular cultural models as opposed to collective projects of society. As Roland Barthes suggests in his essay Mythology, naturalization is an ideological resource widely used to inoculate realities that are far from natural. In this sense, the post-truth dynamics associate the postulates of the interpretation that it wants to consolidate with everyday facts, easily verifiable by the ordinary citizen, making them evident and incontestable.
Some of the voters-defenders of Jair Bolsonaro justified his homophobic, sexist, misogynist and xenophobic discourse by a "direct and sometimes kind of rude way of speaking" that would be typical of the average Brazilian. On the other hand, since many politicians in the Workers' Party have been indicted on corruption investigations, all party politicians are corrupt - something that does not even consider whether the accusations are true or the political bias of the judiciary.
From post-truth to self-truth
Eliane Brum talks about an evolution (or involution?) of the concept of post-truth to the one of "self-truth". The Brazilian journalist associates "self-truth" with aesthetics in opposition to ethics. It is the realm of proclamation, of the use of the pulpit. She also relates the concept to the production of realities. The fake news is there, but the most important thing is not to contradict a version of history. It is only necessary to establish a utopia (or dystopia) that starts to govern the behavior of the person who disseminates it.
The numerous cases of aggression against leftist voters, activists of social movements, women, homosexuals and blacks, which have been reported in social networks, can be interpreted as the naturalization and incorporation of a discourse of violence that is the hallmark of Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazilian law considers that homophobic and racist actions and statements constitute crime. Challenging the legal and moral rules, the "freedom of expression" of the candidate in making open attacks against social groups and human rights naturalizes the dystopian reality in which ordinary citizens can express their prejudices, including carrying a weapon, if they consider themselves threatened in any way.
The reality created by Bolsonaro does not solve the problems that produce this criminality, but authorizes the vociferation against the supposed enemies and allows the curtailing of rights in the name of utopian security.
The dystopia of this is justified by the utopia of most of the Brazilians that associate that freedom of speech with the protection of the family, both in terms of security, motivated by rising levels of violence in the country, and in moral terms, again fed by neopentecostal movement.
The "self-truth" is so potent that it leads free citizens under the enjoyment of a democracy to declare that they prefer the meddling of the Armed Forces regularly searching their pockets and houses rather than continuing to live at the risk of crime. The reality created by Bolsonaro does not solve the problems that produce this criminality, but authorizes the vociferation against the supposed enemies and allows the curtailing of rights in the name of utopian security.
The post-truth turns democracy into an inert mass in the hands of those who dominate it. It loses its primordial values to adapt to the interests of the moment and is depoliticized by the deliberate absence of debate. Ideas are not discussed. Truths are confronted and interlocutors are delegitimized. In that process, the Brazilian elections of 2018 were hijacked by post-truth.
No proposals were discussed and the concentration of efforts against a presidential candidate, although source for a historical and highly politicized mobilization, dismantled the debate for all other positions, paving the way for the election of the perhaps more conservative composition of legislative chambers in Brazilian history.
Institutionally, the effect is harmful, because the absence of debate weakens the political and ideological orientation of the government that will be established. But there is still a serious effect on the social fabric, which embodies the dynamics of post-truth or "self-truth" as a modality that authorizes the symbolic and eventually physical elimination of dissonance, of the opposed, of the other. There is no greater risk to democracy.