Who to trust?

Image: Stanley Ng
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By JOSÉ COSTA JUNIOR*

The informational disorder was propitiated by technological resources and by the action of malicious agents

Between pizzas and baby bottles

In the 2016 American presidential election, a curious story was disseminated on the networks: one of the candidates worked with other important people to maintain a network of child abuse in the back of a pizzeria in Washington, the capital of the United States. The story, which became known as pizza gate, was one of the most commented topics during the campaign and generated intense reactions and protests, including from an individual who believed the story and wanted to invade the place armed “to free the children”.

A similar narrative emerged in the 2018 Brazilian elections, when one of the candidates was accused of promoting the distribution of baby bottles with penis-shaped nipples in Brazilian schools. The situation, which became known as the “cockroach bottle”, also involved a “gay kit”, which would be offered to Brazilian children. Both stories were dismissed as “fake news” but sparked debate about the relationship between the internet, fake news and politics.

News like this received credence from many people in both countries, who may or may not have cast their vote in both elections based on false information they received via their smartphones and computers. As two of the largest democracies in the West, a broader debate has arisen: what would be the effects of spreading fake news? Even if lies, disinformation strategies and concealment of facts are always present in history and public debates, the possibility of wide dissemination via the internet and the targeted use of false information has raised concerns. Created intentionally or not, false information can have considerable political, social and economic consequences. For many scholars, this is the main challenge of our time.

The documentary After the truth: misinformation and the cost of fake news presents this debate and addresses important questions about the risks and challenges involved, returning to almost unbelievable examples (such as the cases of the pizza gate and the “cockroach bottle”). It shows how the revolution in information and communication technologies expanded the possibilities of interaction and data distribution, but also generated side effects, such as (i) dissemination of false information and (ii) conspiracy theories, (iii) attacks on the press and (iv) specialists, in addition to (v) manipulation attempts by individuals, institutions and governments. Some attempts to control and limit the scope of disinformation are also addressed, a situation that has generated an “arms race” between expectations of information and the construction of means to destabilize debates and create extreme reactions.

The main actors are also presented in the documentary: (i) those who strongly believe in false information, (ii) politicians who make use of these tools and (iii) those responsible for the production and dissemination of disinformation, usually installed in distant countries and under protection from governments and anonymity. Those who give credit often do so fervently, sustaining questionable narratives.

Those who pay for the dissemination of fake news usually depend on the results of disinformation and the disorganization of debates to gain resources or create some kind of destabilization. An important element of this process is that it ends up generating denialism about issues that until then were peaceful for most people, such as the sphericity of the Earth and the massacre of Jews during World War II. Debates that generate intense discussions, such as global warming and disarmament, are also impacted by fake news, with positions that are increasingly extreme and immune to any form of dialogue.

Finally, two important questions are also mentioned: Who benefits from misinformation? Would limiting the reach of false information be an attack on freedom of expression? In the first case, in addition to the political agents who ascend and maintain power, there can also be financial gains for those who produce and disseminate them, since social networks and the internet in general are guided by engagement and sharing.

Thus, the more something is replicated and read, the more profitable it will be for those who promote it. In the case of freedom of expression, distributing false information can have consequences for people's lives and for society. In this sense, the fight against disinformation in current contexts is a necessary element for us to avoid such social, political and economic losses, which does not constitute a limitation of freedom of expression.

After the truth: misinformation and the cost of fake news it is yet another relevant production for today, bringing data and questions that are increasingly important for us to think about the various tensions mentioned. We are increasingly involved with information and communication technologies in our daily lives and it is very likely that more and more challenges will arise, mainly linked to our autonomy and sovereignty as subjects. But how did we come to live this way? And why are we such easy prey for all these procedures? What can we do to maintain our intellectual and civic integrity in such confusing times?

Connections and systems

A starting point for reflection on current disinformation and its effects involves the recognition that there has always been a tension between the distribution of information in societies and the horizon of truth. At various times, disinformation was used to gain political and economic power and maintain control over societies.

However, with the great advancement of information and communication technologies, we have reached scenarios rarely imagined for the use of lies and falsehoods, paving the way for considerable political and social tensions. This advance promoted changes not only in the way we receive and react to information, but in almost all aspects of human life. On this aspect, the philosopher Luciano Floridi argues that we are currently living in a stage of technological development where all spheres of existence, including our identities and the ways in which we deal with reality.

This conjunction between life offline and online life configures what Luciano Floridi (2015) calls on-life, a configuration of life where the digital world maintains a direct and intense relationship with the non-digital, in a situation where everything is connected and producing real effects, even when we are not connected. False and inaccurate news that reach us through social networks and the Internet can guide behaviors, beliefs and political options, in an example of the presence of virtuality in circumstances outside the moments of connection.

According to Luciano Floridi's analysis, it is necessary to develop a critical relationship with technologies, without demonizing them or seeking to retake a world in which they did not exist. In this way, understanding the phenomena of this new scenario will guide the formation of a citizenship that can deal with the difficulties and challenges. It is necessary to become aware that such technologies can shape and influence us as agents, but that we can also critically shape them, creating more humanized dynamics and relationships.

Another important element of this reflection is the understanding that the initial expectations that the Internet would promote emancipation and freedom proved to be limited. Offering knowledge and different interactions are realities, but there are also tensions in our relationship with the digital world, as researcher Marta Peirano points out in her book The enemy knows the system: Manipulation of ideas, people and influences after the economy of attention (2019). Marta Peirano describes how we are open to surveillance, manipulation and behavioral addiction by large corporations, guided by business models that are not very concerned with freedom, in which our personal data appears as the central attraction. Structures and networks are built in order to get our attention and data, stimulating our psychological mechanisms more and more. This situation makes room for surveillance routines and behavioral addictions, all under a veneer of entertainment that escapes our everyday assessment.

In the case of possibilities of disinformation, social networks can be used as a means of offering inaccurate or manipulated information, which generate many interactions and reactions, including through stimuli aimed at specific audiences (for example: young people, from 18 to 20 years old who vote for the first time). This clipping can be carried out by searching the data that we make available on social networks.

The title of Marta Peirano's book refers to the fact that the big internet corporations know us in depth, just as they know the systems they build to addict us, surveil us and manipulate us. Knowing our tastes, our relationships, our expectations, many times better than ourselves, opens up considerable possibilities of control and influence. Marta Peirano also does not offer an invitation to go back to a time when we were completely free and sovereign, because perhaps that world never existed; it is rather an invitation for us to better understand the new dynamics in which we are inserted and of which we are almost completely unaware.

Who to trust?

Considering the innovations and implications of the new information and communication technologies, mainly in relation to the potential of disinformation, in 2017 the European Council developed a study entitled Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making (“Information Disorder: Towards an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making”). In it, researchers Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan pointed out that changes in the structure of information processes made it possible to disorganize the production and distribution of information, with the aim of impacting the way information is received and shared. Phenomena identified as “post-truth” or “fake news” are part of this disorder, but also processes where information can be manipulated or constructed with inaccuracy, with the aim of misinforming, disturbing or creating tensions linked to expectations of truth.

We are thus inserted in contexts of “informational disorder”, since credibility in traditional information sources has fallen, at the same time that we do not know who to believe in the new connection scenarios. In the political context, for example, speeches that speak directly to people's insecurities and tensions, through simple proposals, but without foundations, can be embraced very easily. Another example is the case of the dissemination of false or inaccurate information related to health issues, such as doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines, the reality of epidemics and scientifically questionable cases that are disseminated through digital media and that find an audience that contributes to the its disclosure. We can also mention the questioning of scientific sources by individuals or institutions that seek to attack the credibility of experts, using these means to disrupt public debates.

The American researcher Whitney Phillips researched one of the means that contributes to the informational disorder: it is the phenomenon of trolling. Troll is how humans or artificial intelligence systems are known on the Internet for promoting attacks, through comments and posts on social networks, with the aim of provoking and persecuting. According to the analysis by Whitney Phillips (2015), the phenomenon of trolling happens because the informational ecosystem offers the possibility that anyone can publish and disseminate anything, without great financial or reputational costs.

In this way, the space for debates becomes occupied by polemics and violence whose only objective is to promote tensions, increase visibility and disseminate content without any structured discussion. In this sense, the performances of trolls they can contaminate the flow of information through falsehoods and fanciful narratives, along with misrepresentation, denialism and conspiracy theories. They also involve processes of trivializing violence and dehumanizing it, since virtual attacks and exposures by trolls become increasingly common in digital contexts.

In addition to social networks, other means are also used to disseminate inaccurate, out of context or false information, such as messaging applications, platforms for sharing videos and pages on thematic blogs. As most of these tools are available free of charge, with free and open access, the possibilities of contention and limitation of the reach of these means are limited. This context also creates tensions in relation to the credibility of information sources and even in relation to the expectations of truth on the part of those who receive them. The term “post-truth” has been used to describe this situation in which alternative narratives and varied interpretations of facts come to compose public debates. In 2016, the Oxford dictionary pointed to “post-truth” as the word of the year, due to the popularization of the term to describe current circumstances, mainly from the political uses of these mechanisms.

Considering these aspects, the philosopher Lee McIntyre (2015) defined “post-truth” as “a situation related to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Thus, the post-truth phenomenon would be part of a growing international trend in which some feel encouraged to promote distortions in reality according to their opinions, beliefs and goals. It is not just about disregarding the facts, but the possibility that the facts can always be reinterpreted, selected or presented according to the desire of those who do it.

An example would be the questioning of scientifically established and confirmed information, such as the sphericity of the planet, the process of evolution by natural selection or the efficiency of vaccines, which come to be questioned by alternative narratives that seek to undermine scientific authority. In this way, the great risk is that only facts that are aligned with certain sets of ideas are accepted, with the aim of building forms of “ideological supremacies” and impositions of “truths” that prevent questioning and criticism. According to Lee McIntyre, this would be a fundamental step towards political domination. 

What to do?

As discussed so far, we live in contexts of increasingly constant digital social interactions, with possibilities of influence and manipulation based on the data made available by users. Along with this, an informational disorder was caused by technological resources and the action of malicious agents, with a consequent confusion in public opinion and debates.

Thus, some more general issues related to this scenario arise, which can help in reflecting on such phenomena, along with possible approaches to reducing the social, political and economic effects of disinformation. Among others, we can reflect on the following questions: (i) Why does informational clutter impact people's beliefs and opinions in such forceful ways? (ii) What is the relevance of stronger truth expectations in democratic societies? (iii) What can be done to limit the scope and consequences of such lawsuits?

Brazilian philosopher Ernesto Perini has developed a hypothesis that seeks to understand why it is so easy to spread misinformation. Perini argues that “the dissemination of information on the internet is much cheaper than the previous model of dissemination of information”, both in financial terms and in terms of reputation. Technological advances have provided this greater freedom, however, they have also removed filters and evaluation processes in the distribution of information. A second point involves the fact that the theses and theories offered on the Internet, due to their simpler and less-reflected character, can adapt to previous beliefs, positions and desires, finding audiences willing to accept and defend them, even that are questionable in the most varied aspects. In the specific case of science, these are difficult to access and poorly understood by most people, in addition to “going against values ​​that people already have, against images they have of the world, and against more intuitive views”.

As for the reasons why this dissemination finds people willing to accept them, even if the information is extremely questionable and little based on solid facts or theories, Ernesto Perini points out that “beliefs play a role in marking identities”. In this way, there is a social component in this acceptance, since “what I believe also marks the group with which I identify and the type of person I am”.

In this way, sharing beliefs becomes a defining feature of groups, where people agree and mutually reinforce their beliefs and expectations, with little room for objections and criticism. As in one of the cases addressed at the beginning of this text, sharing the belief that children are kept and abused in the back of a pizzeria, with constant reinforcement of this belief and without room for questioning, can make many people uncritically accept this narrative, citing even even justifications and reasons for maintaining the belief.

And what are the political and social effects of post-truth contexts? Philosopher Michael P. Lynch analyzes in The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data some of the consequences of what he identifies as the “collapse of the public conversation”. This collapse impacts one of the pillars of the democratic system, which is the informed discussion about conceptions and facts that guide political and social decisions. When these debates take place without foundations or foundations, based on views that are not supported by scientific investigations, there is a risk that the public discussion becomes atomized and polarized, with no possibility of democratic consensus or answers.

Michael P. Lynch believes that societies remain healthy as long as their citizens make informed decisions and from a basic level of public sincerity. Without such traits, as in situations of informational disorder, “power of the people” is nothing more than an empty slogan, as the possibility of using the organized and demanding discourse typical of democracy is lost.

Michael P. Lynch's analysis of the collapse of the public conversation assumes that people are able to understand and evaluate information so that they can support their positions. This assumption faces challenges in post-truth contexts, where the interpretation of facts can vary and spread according to the will of some. One answer to this tension involves what the philosopher and mathematician William Clifford (1845-1879) identified in 1877 as the “ethics of belief”: “it is always wrong, wherever and for whomever, to believe something without sufficient evidence”.

In this way, when we believe in something without sufficient evidence, or just to suit our belief system, our values ​​or our personal tastes, we would make a mistake. To use more current terminology, when we believe without sufficient evidence, we act without “epistemic responsibility”, that is, our beliefs are not supported by evidence. In this way, for the public conversation to be effective in the best way, it is necessary that people are encouraged to have this epistemic responsibility, basing their beliefs on the basis of proof and evidence requirements.

However, we cannot assess all possible facts to support our beliefs; here, a degree of confidence in the work and competence of specialists and institutions that promote knowledge is fundamental. Almost all of human knowledge was produced by a few people who carried out investigations into specific aspects of reality. And these discoveries have implications for our lives, as in the case of the production of antibiotics and vaccines.

Thus, as much as the theory of evolution by natural selection is difficult to understand or that contradicts some of my most important values, there is a lot of evidence that supports it (along with some questions that are still being discussed about evolutionary processes). Denying it simply because it doesn't match what I want would be epistemic irresponsibility. In this context, many of the denialisms promoted by informational disorder involve beliefs without evidence, which seek to question reliable sources through disinformation strategies. Here, a key point is the cultivation and demand for epistemic responsibility, encouraging people to support their beliefs based on evidence, helping to limit the scope of misinformation.

When two plus two is not four

British writer George Orwell introduces us to literary dystopia 1984 the story of Winston Smith, a guy who lives under a totalitarian government that dominates all spheres of his life. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, one of several institutions at the service of the regime, which seeks to constantly rewrite the past and point out what people can and cannot believe. One of the regime's objectives is to rewrite history according to its interests, making criticism and questioning non-existent, creating an adequate alternative narrative for the processes of political and social domination.

In this totalitarian nightmare described by George Orwell, there is a direct connection between (i) surveillance processes, (ii) disinformation initiatives and (iii) totalitarianism. At some point in his history, Smith starts to question himself about the falsification and disinformation procedures developed by the Ministry of Truth, which start to torment him more and more. His reflections became more and more intense: “The heresy of heresies was common sense. And the terrifying thing wasn't that they might kill him for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. Because, after all, how do you know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is immutable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable - then what?

like the documentary After the truth: misinformation and the cost of fake news evidence, we live in strange times, described by one of the interviewees as an “Orwellian time”. This parallel between the possibilities opened up by today's informational disorder and George Orwell's dystopian fiction also involves the connection between disinformation, surveillance and totalitarianism. We are increasingly available for control and surveillance; we are easy prey for the promotion of false and inaccurate information that arrive at all times with the aim of impacting our beliefs and worldviews; this set of situations makes room for political regimes that attack traditional sources of information, creating their own narratives about the present, the past and the future, thus expanding their power more and more.

However, just as Winston somehow harbors hopes in 1984, we also have expectations and can act in the current contexts of informational disorder. Cultivating critical and reflective capacity, encouraging epistemic responsibility and being more demanding in relation to the sources of information are practices that can contribute to limiting the scope of disinformation. At some point, Winston comes to similar conclusions: “The solid world exists, its laws do not change. The stones are hard, the water is humid and the objects, without a support base, fall towards the center of the Earth. With the feeling of […] expounding an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. If this is admitted, everything else follows”.

To which we could complement: Two plus two must be four. The Earth is round. Evolution by natural selection explains the development of life forms. We must always fight disinformation, surveillance and totalitarianism.

*Jose Costa Junior Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences at IFMG –Campus Ponte Nova.

References


CLIFFORD, William. “The Ethics of Belief” (1877). In: MURCHO, Desiderio (ed.). The ethics of belief. Lisbon: Editora Bizâncio, 2010.

After the Truth: Disinformation and the cost of fake news. Directed by Andrew Rossi. New York: HBO, 2020.

FLORIDI, Luciano. The Onlife Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era. New York: Springer, 2015.

LYNCH, Michael P. The Internet of Us. Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. New York: Liveright, 2016

MCINTYRE, Lee. post truth. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2018.

ORWELL, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Translation by Alexandre Hubner and Heloisa Jahn. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019. (1949)

PEIRANO, Martha. The enemy knows the system: Manipulation of ideas, people and influences after the economy of attention. Madrid. debate, 2019.

PERINI, Ernesto. “From fake news to flat earth”. Interview given to Marco Weissheimer. South21, Porto Alegre, 25/11/2019.

PHILLIPS, Whitney. This is why we can't have nice things: Mapping the relationship between online trolling and mainstream culture. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2015.

WARDLE, Claire; DERAKHSHAN, Hossein. “Information disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making”. Council of Europe Report, v. 27, 2017.


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