Two years ago, I sat at dinner with my family. My grandmother scrolled through her phone and randomly said: “did you guys see the news saying that Lula wants to distribute pro-gay kits in schools?” Considering I tend to keep up with the news and have some political knowledge of my country, I found the statement highly unlikely. In about 5 seconds, I googled the words “Lula gay kit,” and the first result I got said something like: “false information: Lula does not want to distribute gay kits in schools.” Although my grandmother is older and less experienced with digital news, she is among the millions of victims of one of today’s biggest threats to democracies: fake news.
Brazil has been especially plagued with this problem since 2018, when the presidential elections were largely determined by widespread false information on social media. We are now in the midst of new elections, whose second term will occur in less than a week, and even though the institutions in the country tried to be more prepared to handle fake news this time around, it seems that the issue got worse.
There are hundreds of fake news complaints per hour taken to the electoral court, which, of course, makes it that much harder to take them down and handle the consequences in a timely manner. What makes it even harder is that the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, continuously casts doubts on the electoral process by targeting the electoral court. Therefore, all of its actions are put under a giant microscope by Bolsonaro’s supporters, exerting pressure on the institution and making it excessively vulnerable to criticism.
This issue was illustrated by an article recently published in the New York Times, entitled “To Fight Lies, Brazil Gives One Man Power Over Online Speech.” In short, it criticizes the fact that the president of the electoral court, Alexandre de Moraes (who is also a member of the Supreme Court and is heavily criticized by Bolsonaro and his allies), has too much discretion in determining what is fake news and will therefore be taken down. Needless to say, the article was incessantly shared by Bolsonaro supporters in the country. The fact that one man in the country has so much power to decide what is false information is indeed problematic. However, it is the approach that Brazil took in order to tackle an issue that has to be handled mostly by the judiciary (a body that is known for working very slowly), yet is inherently dynamic and fast-paced.
The (mis)handling of fake news encompasses an enormous amount of difficulties. One of them is, of course, how laws, governments, and other institutions aren’t able to keep up with how fast technology evolves. In addition, the difficulty in defining “fake news” and placing information within its scope or not comes with many obstacles. For example: sharing information taken out of context and using sensationalist headlines might be misleading, but it is not strictly under the definition of fake news. However, it is still problematic. Therefore, should it be considered under the umbrella of fake news? Should it be tackled as a different issue? Or should it not be tackled at all, and just accepted as a consequence of the XXIst century reality?
Evidently, there are developments in how well institutions react to the changes of a world so prone to spread fake news. In Brazil, for example, media platforms now have 2 hours to comply with Moraes’ orders, as opposed to the 48 hours they had before – so by that whole time passed, the information could already be shared and accessed an exponential amount of times. Still, a big discussion of this century remains true: technology and its consequences evolve at a much faster rate than regulation and regulatory bodies do.
The current world is one of constant avalanches of information, but little of which is actually absorbed. Since we get so much stimulation at all times, we paradoxically become less informed, and we absorb less of that information because of cognitive overload. Thus, we gravitate towards means that give us less developed news so that we can quickly clasp it. We tend to read headlines and not try to understand the complexities behind them, which is very problematic in an ever-increasing complex world.
The relationship between fake news and the new technological world order has been discussed, as the difficulties of traditional institutions to deal with them continue to come up. Maybe, while traditional institutions are slowly trying to handle this problem, we can each find our own solution: ensuring to double-check information and call others out when they don’t.
Featured image by: EFF