Misinformation on the internet

Marcel Duchamp, Miles of String, 1943
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By VANDERLEI TENÓRIO*

The phenomenon of false information is also a new indicator of an older phenomenon.

Misinformation on the internet has grown so much in recent years that it has become a real social problem. To the fake news aroused fears and indignation, to the point of becoming real threats to the democratic debate.

They were notably accused of influencing voter behavior during referendums on the Brexit in the United Kingdom and on the independence of Catalonia in Spain, as well as having benefited the republican candidate during the 2016 American presidential elections. With this new type of threat, many countries, including Brazil (very slowly), are legislating on the subject to more firmly regulate the circulation of information in social networks and media in general.

In fact, rumours, lies, fake news, brainwashing, propaganda, intoxication and disinformation are not the prerogatives of recent times, but are as old as humanity. However, the new reality is due to the multiplication of information dissemination channels, the emergence of social networks and rapid and viral dissemination. In other words, there is an ongoing cyber information war, and fake news are part of the belligerents' arsenal.

Thus, the phenomenon of false information is also a new indicator of an older phenomenon, that of the crisis of political confidence that feeds a deep democratic deficit in many western countries, and that is expressed in particular by a rejection of political, intellectual and political elites. media by an ever-increasing portion of the population.

In this context, effectively combating the fake news it is, therefore, a long-term task, which articulates both ambitious actions in terms of media education and an attempt to regain political trust. But given the problems posed by this massive disinformation on social media, short and medium term solutions are also being considered to try to stop a phenomenon that many observers consider worrying. However, the answers to these questions also pose a number of risks for democratic debate.

After all, today, we are in a society where everyone can say or transmit whatever they want in the public space, including false or hateful messages. This possibility of 'unlimited expression' was previously only reserved for the private space of family, friends or work. In the public space, it was the prerogative of organized groups, political parties, opinion media, various pressure groups, whose excesses could be more or less controlled by laws and regulations or by adversaries.

However, the advent of mass communication has transformed the situation: each individual can publish their opinions, without brakes and without limits, through social networks and websites. Thus, today, the important thing is no longer the content of the message, but the distinction of the sign producer in the crowd.

In this sense, the effects of fake news exemplify well the presuppositions of the “hypodermic theory”. Such linear communication theory suggests that media messages are injected directly into the brain of a passive audience. In this theory, the media is seen as powerful and capable of “injecting” ideas into an audience that is seen as “weak” and “passive” and susceptible to being influenced by a message.

Starting from this premise, today, however, individuals seem overwhelmed by the flood of information that is poured every second by the mass media. Furthermore, it's easy to take the easy way out and drink in each message without trying to question what they want us to believe.

In this, as the hypodermic theory presupposes, it is easy for the media to create moral panics, debates and, above all, polemics and discredit to the democratic debate – such an issue is being experienced in the current conjuncture of the country.

Finally, given the current circumstances, it will be up to us, readers, listeners and viewers, to have the right reflection and always seek to scratch the surface of the controversy to reveal the reality that is hidden below. It is also important to multiply our sources, read several articles that deal with the same topic so as not to let ourselves be convinced by a communicator's lack of objectivity. We are not passive receivers, and it is up to us to try to process information from different angles.

*Vanderlei Tenorio is a journalist and is studying geography at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL).

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