Fake news – yesterday, today and tomorrow

Image: Magda Ehlers
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By LISZT VIEIRA*

The left misses street demonstrations, but the main street of the 21st century is the internet

1.

The flood of fake news about the climate tragedy in RS is a before premiere of what will come in this year's electoral campaign and in the next presidential campaign in 2026. The far right predominates on social media spreading fake news for people who are informed only by the news they receive, without seeing or reading the press. The industry of fake news progresses at full steam. It has its financiers and follows an industrial mode of production. These are not isolated individuals, but robots functioning in a corporate production line. Against this, the left seems to still be in the artisanal era.

The left is nostalgic for street demonstrations, but the main street of the 21st century is the internet. We are facing an adversary who dominates and uses social networks in a businesslike manner and has no qualms about spreading fake news. The big issue is the regulation of big tech, with its algorithms serving the greed of ever-increasing profits. In the name of commercial profit, these large information organizations such as Google and Meta accept and retransmit fake news with impunity.

A large number of people – poorly informed or uninformed – accept any information that confirms their beliefs and opinions, generally the result of prejudice or a false understanding of a fact. They believe what they want to believe. And they retransmit, feeding the algorithms that will fatten the fabulous profits of the digital giants. This is a two-way crime. Those who write commit a crime by claiming freedom of expression, and the companies that retransmit commit a crime in the name of their abusive profits.

For a better understanding, it is interesting to look at a historical review of the fake news in order to better understand its use and acceptance today, and also tomorrow with the announced marriage of fake news with Artificial Intelligence (AI).

2.

The search for truth was the foundation of scientific thought spread throughout the world, mainly from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But history shows notable antecedents in Ancient Greece and the East. Until the Middle Ages, when most of Europe was steeped in prejudices and religious dogmas, Arab thinkers made notable contributions to science, such as mathematics. China had already invented paper and gunpowder.

In Alexandria, Hypatia, a Neoplatonic philosopher in Roman Egypt, was the first female mathematician in History. Perhaps for this very reason, she was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a horde of angry Christians on the orders of the bishop. In Europe, the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries provided the breeding ground for the overthrow of dogmas of the past, such as geocentrism.

In philosophy, René Descartes, already in the 17th century, started from the subject, from an anthropocentric and no longer theocentric vision to construct his I think: "I think therefore I am". The Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries overthrew magical thinking and promoted what the German sociologist Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world” which would be explained by science investigating the facts of reality, and no longer by religion. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his Message for the future, from 1959, advised us, in the study of any subject, to “seek the facts and what the facts reveal”.

In recent years, however, the questioning of scientific logic has begun to be reinforced by superstitions, dogmas and lies disseminated on a large scale to society as a whole, mainly through the means of electronic communication. But fake news is not an invention of our time. The news is that today all news expands and becomes instantaneous, true and false. The biggest best sellers the world, Bible, is full of fake news. From Jewish beliefs in the book Genesis even the Christian miracles of New Testament, Bible It is a set of legends that, throughout history, became religious dogmas, in a process that took centuries.

Until the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, facts and legends, truth and lies, mixed together. Today we still see legends transfigured into reality. A curious example is the devotion to Saint George, an imaginary saint who killed the dragon, an imaginary animal. In Brazil, it was associated with Ogun, the warrior saint of Candomblé, a belief originating from the Yoruba ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria and unknown in the rest of Africa. But Saint George is worshiped and patron saint in other countries where there is no religious syncretism with Candomblé. It's the strength of the legend: many people pray for a holy warrior who never existed! In war itself, lies are called counterintelligence.

Since the legend of the Trojan Horse, there are countless examples. In “modern” wars, information and counterinformation are essential aspects of victory. Thus, the phenomenon of fake news is nothing new in history. What is new is its instant multiplication in the press and on the internet, mainly for commercial and political purposes.

3.

Yesterday, the spread of fake news it was mainly through pamphlets, newspapers and rumors. Today, social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, WhatsApp) have become the main vehicles for spreading false information. The instantaneous reach of these platforms provides fertile ground for the spread of misinformation.

But tomorrow's fake news is even more worrying. With the advancement of artificial intelligence and media manipulation technology, the ability to create convincing fake content is becoming increasingly accessible. Deepfakes, for example, are manipulated videos that may appear extremely realistic, but show events that never occurred. This technology has the potential to further undermine trust in the media and the veracity of information.

Today, information can be disseminated instantly to the entire world. An enlightening example in times of internet is the one described in the book The Chaos Engineers, by Giuliano Da Empoli. From a database, a Coordination sends hundreds of millions of different messages, saying opposite things, to different audiences. This system, adopted by the company Cambridge Analytica, was used successfully in the election of Brexit in the United Kingdom in June 2016, in the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 in the USA and that of Jair Bolsonaro in November 2018 in Brazil.

The uncritical acceptance of fake news It is a serious contemporary problem, as many people are not interested in knowing whether information corresponds to reality or not. They cling to opinions based on their beliefs. Belief has a religious, dogmatic connotation, as opposed to conclusions or predictions based on facts of reality.

Every society has its founding myths. These myths have great symbolic importance and guarantee the social cohesion and cultural integration of a nation, city, village, tribe or band. But they can also be considered fake news of an ideological, religious and cultural nature. It was mainly with the scientific revolution from the 16th century onwards that “truths” began to be constructed from facts.

Now, however, there is a worrying setback: many abandon the fact and take refuge in opinion. What was called “post-truth” is similar to the long historical period of “pre-truth” in which facts were disregarded as a source of concepts or opinion: legends, myths and dogmas prevailed. Our civilization based on enlightenment, on reason, on argumentation, is being attacked and threatened by the growing acceptance of fake news. Opinion and belief are irrational because they do not require fact-based verification of reality.

False information is accepted because it corresponds to previously existing opinions and feelings. It comes to confirm what the person thinks, it confirms an opinion that does not care about whether or not it is anchored in reality. In short, the success of fake news is due to the fact that they fall on fertile soil, previously fertilized to believe any information that strengthens a previously existing irrational opinion or prejudice.

On the other hand, rational arguments are not always effective. The Bolsonions in general are affected by authoritarian, misogynistic, homophobic, racist statements from an ignorant, rude, scoundrel, neo-fascist leader who, as president, tried to erode democratic rules and institutions.

To do this, it counts on the applause of its support base that accepts the dictatorship, rejects the tripartite separation of power, and wants the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. Democracy is complex, it involves conflicts and contradictions that force the individual to reflect. Reflection and critical thinking are strange qualities to the hypnotized Bolsonarista voter. The anti-democratic neo-fascist project aims for a dictatorial regime imbued with obscurantist Christian morality, with support from part of the market and the military, as well as paramilitary militias and PMs that are enemies of the defense of human rights. To the fake news fired on an industrial scale by the extreme right are directed not at reason, but at the emotions and beliefs of the recipients.

The civilization built on the Enlightenment principles of reason and logic is experiencing a dilemma and an impasse. Firstly, because it was unable to promote the emancipation of people, the majority of whom were exploited and subjected to oppressive regimes. And also because it faces great difficulty in combating the irrational lie that elects rulers. Among the countless battles that the democratic field faces, one of the most important is the permanent task of denouncing fake news, now strengthened with Artificial Intelligence, as well as setting up an effective mass electronic communication system.

Unfortunately, the left and the entire democratic field are behind in their objective of weakening and nullifying the support base of fascism in Brazil. And Justice, too slow, has not yet outlawed the attempts of the extreme right to torpedo democracy with a view to installing a neo-fascist dictatorship in the country.

For the industry fake news, the environmental tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul is a field of experimentation, a kind of “preliminary” for the future scenario of the upcoming elections. For now, regulatory initiatives by the government are in their infancy. The president of the Federal Supreme Court, Luís Roberto Barroso, declared “Unfortunately, hate, lies, misinformation bring more engagement, and some companies are linked to far-right movements” And, further on, he stated: “At some point, This will have to be regulated” (The Globe, 15/5/2024).

Until that “sometime” arrives, the fake news make the party.

Liszt scallop is a retired professor of sociology at PUC-Rio. He was a deputy (PT-RJ) and coordinator of the Global Forum of the Rio 92 Conference. Author, among other books, of Democracy reactsGaramond). [https://amzn.to/3sQ7Qn3]


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