collective delusion

Image: Elīna Arāja


Which propaganda and discourse instruments are capable of producing collective delirium and huge flows of distorted opinion

Marches, crying, prayers, screams, insults, choreographies and bizarre speeches materialize the folly and fanatical belief in a supposed myth, in surprising and multiple performances in real time, in the last post-election weeks in Brazil. It is as if a strongly satirical ballet with violent intentions choreographed in green and yellow the effects of the propagation of false information, ideas and values.

A rhythmic diaspora of common sense, cordiality and factual truth characterizes movements on highways, barracks, interchanges and improvised wailing walls. The spectacle of twitching bodies, raised fingers and loud curses generates an anguishing strangeness: who are these people, where were they, how can they – still – believe and behave this way? Which propaganda and discourse instruments are capable of producing collective delirium and huge flows of distorted opinion?

The astonishment before a fascist emergency that runs through the round world in which we live demands new categories of analysis, considering the environment of intensive connection and the possibility of customizing permanent propaganda adjusted to parallel realities, values ​​and aspirations. But it is possible, with the aid of pioneering authors in the formulation of said public opinion.

Gustave Le Bon, French social psychologist, pioneer in studies about the nature of collective behavior, launched his main work, The psychology of crowds [the psychology of the masses] (1895) at the turn of the XNUMXth century, looking at the psychology of crowds. The text would have inspired Hitler in his Mein Kampf, and became Mussolini's favorite bedside book. Le Bon supported the theory that history results from national and racial characteristics and that the dominant force in social evolution is not reason but emotion.

In today's dizzying digital age, we can say that political confrontation basically takes place in the field of affections and in the online environment. Daniel Innerarity, a political philosopher in the Basque country, argues that cycle changes occur less through precise calculations and sophisticated rationales and more through moods, tiredness, fear, pessimism and repression. That is, the dominant narratives are no longer theories or doctrines, but emotional aspirations.

Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) is the first sociologist who treats public opinion as a field of study of sociology or, more exactly, of social psychology, although Rousseau had previously referred to the subject when constructing a theory of the general will. Gabriel Tarde developed a theory of opinion formation in which conversation and the role of the press are essential components. That is, we have four fundamental elements to understand the essence of his work: crowd x audience; press and conversation. All relevant until today and present in the so-called new information society, in a more complex way.

Although remote, the formulation about the new experiences of sociability, characterized in the idea of ​​publics, is essential for understanding the new western society. Described by Gabriel Tarde, this characterization of publics covers the following aspects: as networks of social-interdependence, which dispense with physical ties and direct presence among their members; symbolic character, it is a purely spiritual collectivity, like a dispersion of physically separated individuals and between whom there is only mental cohesion.

This cohesion in modern societies is the means of communication (newspaper only at the time of Gabriel Tarde) and nowadays it is the digital networks. Gabriel Tarde makes a fundamental distinction between audiences, with regard to the nature of their purpose, or their faith. For the author, publics are less radical than crowds, but with a more acute despotism and dogmatism. That is, the public can also be intolerant and arrogant, because under the name of opinion, it believes that everything is allowed, including rejecting the truth.

The public sphere in this moment of hyperconnection expands, diversifies and becomes singularly complicated. The mechanisms for forming opinion, the mechanisms for controlling and manipulating human groups, the contagious behavior of the masses, influence through shared values ​​and conduct, the ability to influence cohesive groups, the unity in spirit from of certain themes and flags, the distinction and action of publics that can even recreate the truth.

It is in this scenario that journalism tries to maintain itself as a verifier of truth, active in the tacit social contract to describe and interpret world events. This activity, however, is increasingly stressed, discussed, questioned and even confused within the complex and multiple phenomenon that received the generic stamp of fake news.

So when journalism does its framing and selects its sources, it can be accused of also being lying or disclosing a partial “narrative”. Even when it presents data and functions as an expert system, that is, it seeks to show different experts pointing out the factual truth, it still does not enjoy the intended credibility. It all goes down the same ditch of accusation and distrust. Expressions from all ideological and political gradients question its legitimacy and gloss over its conduct. It would be extremely important to make the proper distinctions, because precisely the moment of informational chaos favors confusion.

The people that surround barracks have the press among their imaginary enemies, although they scream for freedom of expression (this is another issue to face). In recent days, however, we have come across the progressive field also questioning the performance of journalists, not without reason, suspicious of the role that the corporate media has in representing the interests of economic and financial elites.

The first thing to say is that one cannot opt ​​for the Bolsonarist standard of insulting journalists, especially women, when the view of the facts is contradicted or the expression of opinion is not considered correct. The most eloquent example was the lamentable speech by journalist Eliane Cantanhede, with a reasonable curriculum of flattering the powerful, about the role of the first lady. However, it is not tolerable that the form of response is in even more sexist and offensive terms. It is possible – and I would say essential – to discuss, reframe and debate the agenda it raises, in other terms.

The second example is the news in Mônica Bergamo's column about the president's supposed ride to the COP in Egypt. It is indeed a question of political morality that will be vigorously addressed in this third term. It is prudent to discuss how a public image so damaged by accusations of corruption will be built and restored by the vote of millions. It is not possible to risk any further damage. This is a fact of reality, maybe it's not fair, but it's real.

What you cannot do is attack the journalist. Although it is legitimate and opportune to debate how the media charges and attacks popular governments and contributes to the criminalization of politics. Nor does it seem productive to me to link comparisons with an infamous government: “ah, but when Bolsonaro did or said such a thing, no one was scandalized”. First because it is not quite true, many denounced, insisted, showed the absurdities. Second, because this infamous government that is now disappearing produced the most sordid in our republican history and we will not be better if we draw parallels with iniquity.

Finally, we are facing a very complex phenomenon, one of immersion in conspiracy theories, dissonance and emotional capture. The bizarre performances that keep us between disbelief and nervous laughter show this. There is plenty of sponsorship for these movements and the manipulation machine is running at full speed. It is necessary to monitor journalism, hold a high-level debate, address structural issues and communication policies, which do include platform regulation and social control.

The press continues to be an essential part of opinion formation, even in this new hyperconnected sociability. It is necessary to recognize that investigative journalism contributed a lot to the dismantling of the legal farce of Lava Jato, that many good journalists incessantly denounced the collusion, the criminal activities of the ruling family, the dismantling produced. Journalism also participated in this victory, even if it was partly responsible for the evil that seized power in the name of market interests.

But I insist, the environment of chaos and the collective psychic illness of important portions of the population require making distinctions, having good manners, valuing the argumentative quality, being willing to listen, firmness without truculence and being extra careful, obsessive, with conducts, behaviors and public image of representatives of the progressive field. She would be the maximum of Caesar's wife cubed.

We won the election, but evil still haunts us. As in Nazi Germany, hate propaganda becomes incitement to genocide. This construction of the enemy proved to be a powerful element of imitation, of the propagation of feelings, of ideas, of the mode of action, it added, gave purpose, instilled fear and made the feeling of belonging to the supreme guide totalitarian.

Less than a century later, the entire planet has unlimited connection conditions, allowing the circulation of ideas, symbols and discourses in an intensive and uninterrupted way. As never before, it manages to produce content in different formats, sending sound, photos, images, in real time, unlimited.

Even in the most inventive and up-to-date forms, what moves and forges opinions on different subjects is still the exchange of emotions and perceptions between people. Although much of what is debated online is not necessarily consequential, serious or politically relevant. Or, on the contrary, be decisive and sustain, with an air of modernity, old techniques for operating terror.

* Sandra Bitencourt is a journalist, PhD in communication and information from UFRGS, director of communication at Instituto Novos Paradigmas (INP).

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