Let me begin with something that is at stake in this era of pervasive false news: an objective fact. It is an objective fact that Oxford Dictionary has declared the coinage ‘post-truth’ as the ‘word of the year’ in 2016 suggesting the moribund state of objective facts, especially in terms of shaping public opinion. In other words, facts and corresponding public memory are not photographic but requires reconstruction based on a shared framework of emotional appeals.
This organized fictionalization of facts has its heyday when the coinage of paid news began to acquire currency, where the leading media outlets of a country are sponsored to engage themselves systematically in the propagation of news items, articles, and stories in favour of a particular political organization. The principle behind spreading these biased stories is a profit-motif, which characterizes a new trend in the line of Yellow Journalism; where jargonized headlines are prioritized over well-researched news in order to increase sales.
Yellow press. Available at Flickr.
Now, the aggravating threat on media credibility reaches its zenith after the advent of false news where the (yellow) journalistic exceptions such as sensationalism, exaggeration of events, scandal and hate-mongering became the norm while thanking the unimpeded advancement of technological enterprises. The point of beginning this feature with the succinct illustration of post-truth is to corroborate primarily what Matt Pearson; the creative technologist of Brandwatch proposes in a 2019 article, “Fake News isn’t a technical problem. It’s a philosophical one”.
It is contextual to note that Pearson blamed the phenomenon of false news for Jair Bolsonaro being elected as the president of Brazil in the 2018 general elections. Before entering into that in detail, it is worthy to highlight Pearson’s thoughts on ‘opinions’ in the age of social media, which he compares with a “liquid in a centrifuge”. What he insinuates through it is regarding our principles, when we curate news feeds in respective social media sites, where we construct an “echo-chamber” with only those items, which we approve of.
This is how social media subtly incubate intolerance within us, making us docile subjects of what Noam Chomsky would call “manufacturing consent”. In summary, as Pearson points out, our opinions in the age of social media, are founded upon the universal ignorance of those opinions, which poses the potential to confront our cherished beliefs (thus rendered unfashionable) sanctified by shared frameworks of emotions.
The proliferation of false news through social media
It won’t be an exaggeration to mention that, amidst numerous social media apps and websites; Facebook and WhatsApp were exercised extensively as platforms to spread false news chiefly due to its reach. In case of Brazil, especially considering the 2018 general elections, WhatsApp eventually transformed into the most lucrative medium to spread false news, which, apart from glorifying Bolsonaro’s visions, also considered maligning the opponents like Fernando Hadaad as one of the chief tasks.
David Nemer, who wrote very eloquently about this in a Guardian article of 2018 (25 October), suggests that
“(…) the rise of Brazil’s next president, the far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro, owes much to WhatsApp.”
Nemer’s statement is credible since he himself joined four pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups, mainly to understand the motivations and psychology of them and also to understand the use of the tool for spreading false news. Also, it is worth to include Nemer’s statement primarily since it resonates with Pearson’s proclamations about the state of opinions in the age of social media. Nemer writes,
“The groups function as echo chambers; every time a member posts polls results or other news, members rally behind them, cheering with the Brazilian flag or the handgun emoji – a reference to Bolsonaro’s promise to relax gun controls and allow police officers to shoot suspects with impunity.”
On top of that, Nemer classified the members into three categories and among them, according to him, the ‘Influencers’ appear to play the most decisive role in the propagation of false news. They constitute the least proportion (5%, as Nemer said) of the group and they are among the least loquacious of the group. Their passive participation is restricted to creating false yet “emotionally engaging” content, sharing them, and coordinating the protests afterwards.
In terms of developing intriguing contents, they usually take refuge of sophisticated image and video editing software. Besides, they are also competent in content manipulation and creating memes out of them. For instance, as cited by Nemer, when Marine Le Pen – the French rightwing and populist leader – considered some of the statements of Bolsonaro as unpleasant, the influencers of the group quickly made a meme out of her accusing her to be communist. In addition, they also seem to share links from Facebook posts that confronts Bolsonaro’s rise and coordinate other members to mock and abnegate the profiles.
In an interview taken after the accession of Bolsonaro in 2019, Nemer said that similar to him, Donald Trump in the US is deliberately using popular social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to spread disinformation and false news by simply delegitimizing the mainstream media as ‘fake media’. Moreover, they also run with the famous principle of ‘if you cannot convince them then confuse them’, which in return, turns out to be effective for muzzling the dissenting voice where, being confused, the consumers have not been able to reach or understand the true fact behind it.
Media consumption after false news
The trends of consuming media have altered radically after the advent and extensive use of social media, which, in return, turns out to be favourable for this new lot of dictators to convince the consumers about their debauch intents. It is ironical since, as Zack Beauchamp of Vox suggests,
“Social Media, once seen as a profoundly democratic technology, is increasingly serving the needs of authoritarians and their allies”
The mild regret in this statement is embedded into the outcomes of the Arab Spring, where social media serves the purpose of both being the ally and weapon of democracy by exhibiting the potential to transform the passive consumers of media into what Zizi Papacharissi termed as ‘affective publics’. So too, the results of the Arab Spring can be perceived as the ideal manifestation of what Habermas has called ‘public sphere’, where a fine blend of public opinion with reflective reason can actually mobilize the mass to overcome the unjust obstacles within the society. False news, on the other hand, introduces an element of distrust in our habit of media consumption, which will either manifest itself in a perpetual scepticism, or in an unquestioning faith while being intolerant to opinions that confronts our cherished belief.
Even the most acerbic critics of these organized disinformation campaigns informed by totalitarian political agendas such as Evgeny Morozov seems stagnant mainly since, as Beauchamp suggests,
“they were largely brushed aside in an Arab Spring-induced high”.
In other words, this unquestioning faith has stripped the public from any chance to exercise reflective reasoning and thus, the tasks of validating news have been given to those who seem to be the leading exponents involved in spreading deceitful information.
On the other hand, as practising scepticism perpetually is destructive, the other spectrum of media consumers ends up forming echo chambers where confronting opinions, often derived from nostalgic effects, are cultivated without judging their potential to combat the origin of false news i.e. encouraging the denial of those happenings.
Impact on the media landscape
From the instances given of false news, it is evident that it has turned scandal-mongering, hate-mongering, riot-mongering, xenophobic litanies into a norm of media narratives, which is coordinated by dictators such as Bolsonaro, to feed a social disturbance. In an article by Gray et al. (2020), the authors have theorized it as an ‘infrastructural uncanny’ where, while recognizing the threat of routine circulation of false news, they prioritized consistent monetization and engagement into these contents as the chief problem. It is interesting to note that these authors have classified the impact of false news in the contemporary media landscapes into three categories and those are:
1) ranking of content and link economy,
2) metrification of engagement through “like economy”
3) commodification of attention and tracker economy respectively.
The point of referring to this article is to share the affirmation that the article propagates regarding the process of combating false news, instead of focusing on the collaterals of threats and helplessness. In essence, this article is a call for scrutinizing the infrastructural conditions, which enables false news to be spread. Indeed, it claims from active public interrogation and intervention, i.e. the resurrection of the use of reflective reason and to configure the impacts of false news from the perspectives of social, political, and economic life respectively. This call resonates with Nemer’s disconcerting views about the helpless plea of the researchers to WhatsApp to offer a technological solution for “Brazil’s false news epidemic”. Apart from the Guardian article, in his book titled Favela Digital: The Other Side of Technology, Nemer suggests,
“The solution will not be found in technology, but in the voices and actions of people who still believe in Brazil” (Nemer, 2013).