The mathematics of fake news

Image: Max Mishin
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By LUIS FERNANDO VITAGLIANO*

The left today are in an existential dilemma. Whether they combat viralization with real proposals or use the same strategies as the neoliberal right

The social sharing of personal data on the internet is now appropriated by companies as a valuable input for contemporary capitalism, whether to process information and generate services, or as an element of advertising. Directly, the data allows the public to be reached by digital advertising through the presence of the ad in the individual's most intimate circles.

But, nothing compares to going viral, it is the most sophisticated communication process today, the strategies that result in “going viral” have gained enormous market value, due to the amplified and immediate reproduction of advertising. However, viralization was a perverse effect of digital communication, generally viral campaigns have a negative, pejorative, defamatory content that was appropriated by official communication given their ability to reach people.

In 2023, for example, montages of conversations on social media between young Jessica Canedo and influencer Whindersson Nunes and an invented romance story between the two went viral and were considered the reason for the girl's suicide. The girl was harshly criticized on social media. Attacked by people who didn't know her, insulted and defamed for something she didn't do. Her fragile mental health did not resist.

It is a type of post promoted by a website that wanted to increase traffic to its networks. Obviously, whoever posted the malicious news had no idea how big it was going to be, nor the ongoing consequences. Viral content has this element of unpredictability that is present in marketing campaigns: not all content designed to go viral is capable of fulfilling its expectations. And in the tragedy of the girl Jéssica: two things draw a lot of attention to social investigation: firstly, the speed with which news spreads in an exponential contagion; and, secondly, the effect that social media posts have on the human psyche.

Added to this is the fact that the internet is not a neutral element. If it was built as a space for sharing data for research, it became something else over time and today it is a tool fully integrated into the neoliberal market economy. According to this perspective, the internet is a tool for defending individualism and making it possible to strongly attack collective, public and democratic solutions to politics.

The internet appears to be a democratic space, but it is driven by Capital's money and mobilized by the value of individualism. Therefore, the neoliberal, conservative right has an easier time with social networks, for example, than the left that defend collective and public projects that combat the so-called unrestricted and irresponsible freedom of the internet's state of nature, as the CEOs of Silicon Valley want. .

Therefore, viralizations necessarily depend on two elements: first, the neoliberal algorithm that leverages right-wing ideas and suffocates left-wing ideals and secondly: the engagement of real people, sharing, posting, discussing and paying attention on digital devices. Without people's attention, algorithms are opaque means of transmission, robots without the ability to dialogue with people; Without the boost of algorithms, virtual campaigns are slow and, mainly, without paying for boosting, left-wing posts are slow, even if they have the capacity to engage, if they are at odds with the schedule, they rarely go viral.

It is not difficult to understand, with some measurement, that the most viral content is formed by defamatory campaigns. Sociologically, it can be explained by our attraction to freak circuses, which ends up creating a culture where strategies of degradation, gossip, bad news, even if false, are considered perfectly legitimate by companies that do not hope to build collective and healthy spaces in environments. virtual, but that people feel curious to read, watch and listen to controversial issues.

Thus, from a political point of view, anyone who wants to build healthy solutions, democratic and collective policies, will have greater difficulty using the repertoire of digital tools, will face low audiences and certainly going viral is not an option. If we call these viral campaigns as fake news, we need to consider that this is purposely untrue information, purposely driven and created to generate engagement. Such is the power of this strategy that, the more absurd it is, the more likely it is to go viral.

Measuring the effect is important. There is a classic mathematical riddle that assumes that amoebas in a bucket double in population every second. In 40 seconds the bucket is full, in how many seconds the bucket was half full? Generally those who are unaware or uninitiated in exponential growth will say 20 seconds. But not. If the population doubles every second, the correct answer is 39 seconds: if the bucket is full at 40 seconds, it will be half full in the previous second, because in the next second, when it doubles, it will occupy the entire bucket.

This mathematical anecdote well illustrates a phenomenon that is important today in social networks: the speed with which a news item, post, photo or video can spread when it runs at exponential speed. It is also part of the viral theory. Viralization depends on two factors that are present in mathematical theories: the time or exponential reproduction speed (x²) and the size of the community – its infinity or finiteness of processes.

In the debate about populations that grow at exponential speed, it is necessary to consider certain conditions for this growth, and when considering the growth conditions, we have logistical growth, where the speed of reproduction decreases as the limit of that population is reached, forming a graph with an ascending growth curve at the beginning and a tendency to stagnation as it approaches the population ceiling.

The exponential growth of an internet virus depends on the population that shares it. We learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic that the limit that a population reaches based on the contagion rate obviously depends on contact and also depends on immunization. The famous herd immunization is when the entire population is affected and has already suffered the effects of the disease. Therefore, those who became infected and had side effects and recovered, had more resistance to COVID later. The problem is that another statistical variable comes into play in the study of epidemics: the fatality rate.

COVID-19 had a high fatality rate at the beginning of the pandemic, around 3%. Therefore, if all Brazilians were affected by COVID in 2020, as that government proposed, it means that around six million Brazilians could die from the disease. We reached close to 1 million, which means that the protective measures advocated by science probably prevented around five million people from being spared from premature death.

Furthermore, our healthcare systems, saturated with COVID care, were wasting resources that were important for treating other illnesses. It was not just biology, but economics and sociology that were in question because hospital beds, palliative treatments, types of hospitalization and care with other treatments, all factor in and make it more complex.

However, statistics applied to contamination prediction are used to reduce the harmful effects of viruses. There are several action strategies to face an epidemic, and they are different from pandemics. Mutatis mutandis, national campaigns in Brazil are large-scale pandemics, while the upcoming municipal elections are campaigns against epidemics that coalesce into several foci with different ways of manifesting themselves.

Associating elections with epidemiology is a necessary discussion about the effects of social networks on electoral choices and which has possibilities for measurement and combat. If we have this knowledge about Biology and understand how the reproduction of a biological organism works, why can't we apply it to the manifestation of virtual organisms?

The left today are in an existential dilemma. Whether they combat viralization with real proposals or use the same strategies as the neoliberal right to combat ongoing demoralization campaigns on social media. It is an existential dilemma because it defines which left we will have in the Digital Age. If the option is to use the same tools as the right, the ability to defend the collective, values ​​dear to public space and the philosophies of transforming societies against individualist appropriations will be lost. Let's not be naive: anyone who defends individualistic values ​​and interests goes viral.

Take, for example, the debate over the idea of ​​socialism. On social media there is a systematic and false campaign against socialism. A socialist is a thief, he will take possession of your home, your possessions, he doesn't like to work and he doesn't know how to do anything except steal. Fear mongering about this is easy. And, what most occurs in response to this is not a counter-argument questioning these correlations, but a negative one around being a socialist. Obviously if the image of socialism is linked to banditry and incompetence, no politician will want their image associated with that. Also with this, the collective debate on the private appropriation of social means of production will not be discussed, and why 4 banks in Brazil have the right to charge annual interest from 450% of the population becomes a discussion of individual rights and not of a model. of development.

When you deny an image from a smear campaign, you are affected by the virus. Attacks on socialism are likely to increase. The attack on someone on the left will probably continue. In the denial of the image, what remains is the absence of collective proposals for action, which again allows the success of neoliberalism that boycotts collective action.

In order to take another path to the left (of existing even with the defamatory campaign on the networks without resorting to the same tools and maintaining a combative stance), it is not just a question of being beaten up on the networks and maintaining dignity and trying to win votes in other territories: it is I need to win over the networks by creating narratives capable of being debated and shared and defending themselves with virtual vaccines. For every fake news, for every defamation campaign, for every viralization strategy, it is possible to create vaccines.

Vaccines have their own characteristics, they are not advertising pieces or narratives, as many have mistakenly used the tool on the networks. Engineering a vaccine requires good metrics of the virus and some creativity in disarming the virus's core message. These are surgical actions, they are not individually expensive and they manage to discuss the image that the virus tries to create.

We continue with the example of attacks on socialism: what pieces can be created on the networks to redefine this image? It is not in denial, nor is it a narrative campaign, explaining what the issue is with long, boring videos. Fighting the formation of an image is different from discussing and forming a narrative. Take advantage of the ready-made images made by viruses, fit in. A comedian, in response to Pablo Marçal, was surgical: Jesus didn't give out sticks, he gave the fish.

Today, the engineering of digital vaccines has several possibilities for action with very satisfactory results. It is obvious that viral campaigns, even with vaccines, have some effect. It is a disputed space; it takes work. But with a good strategy, it is possible to minimize the harmful effects of fake news to the point where the right's advantage is stifled and we turn to factors that are decisive in an electoral dispute, such as the debate of proposals for real people; which allows us to return to dispute the narrative and political protagonism.

*Luis Fernando Vitagliano political scientist and university professor.


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