Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil

Fake News and the Public Digital Sphere – What Is the Impact of Disinformation in the Democratic Decision-Making Process?

Webinar about Fake News and the Present Contributions to the Public Sphere by the Academy in the Fight Against Disinformation

The contributions made by the academy for the debate on disinformation were the axis of the series of webinars Acting Against Fake News on Social Media. The event happened between the days of September 8th and 10th, and marked the beginning of actions that compose the project Digitalization and Democracy in Brazil, developed by the Department of Public Policy Analysis of Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV DAPP), with the support from the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. The conference and the table of the second day were organized around the theme Fake News and the Public Digital Sphere – What Is the Impact of the Disinformation in the Democratic Decision-Making Process?, with moderation from the journalist Tjerk Brühwiller, correspondent of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Professor Jeanette Hofmann, of the Institute WZB Berlin, was the keynote speaker of the day. She initiated her presentation addressing what she has named as a discrepancy between the public perception about the disinformation, and what is, in fact, empirically verified in the studies about the subject. According to her, even though it is not a new phenomenon, the way in which it occurs in the digital context is distinct. “It was connected to the State structures, tending to show how the State seeks to manipulate the people. Nowadays, we have the trolls who misrepresent, twist and drains the debate”, exemplify the researcher, identifying the individuals and the companies as news actors in the device of disinformation.

In Hoffman’s opinion, besides making explicit the complexity of the subject, the academy must invest in the elaboration of methodologies of research that are able to measure the diverse effects of disinformation. She cites Brazil as an example of this scenario, insofar as she observed more concentrated studies on the mechanisms of disinformation than on its effects. In her opinion, even in Europe, there is still a lack of verifiable categories that allow evaluating, for example, how much a campaign of disinformation might have affected the result of an election. However, she admits, “the fact that there are not verifiable categories does not mean that there are not risks or that they are not important.”

Through this presentation, other researchers deepened the discussion based on Brazilian particularities. The anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro Machado, of the University of Bath, presented results of an ethnography conducted in the Grande Porto Alegre (RS). The study showed how the engagement of production and circulation of content, often times fake news, must take into consideration its capacity of producing the sensation of belonging and recognition. People outside of the traditional instances of the public sphere started to make themselves political agents in a context marked by the crisis in the economy, in the public security, in the distribution of gender roles, and in the democratic conventions. “The top-down discussion might be useful for the political debate, but it is simplified in the academic environment. It is necessary to ‘complexify’ the agents”, concluded her.

This scenario, in the opinion of Professor Wilson Gomes, of the National Institute of Science and Technology in the Digital Democracy (INCT. DD/UFBA), is conferred to the digital platforms a much more determining role in lawsuits in Brazil, for example, than in European countries such as Germany itself. He presented a series of aspects that tense up the analysis in the Brazilian context, among which are the level of disinformation and the political knowledge, the level of penetration of the digital platforms in the everyday life, the level of trust in the political institutions, and the level of tribalization (search for identity standards), besides the level of polarization marked, in the Professor’s words, by a situation in which “there is no one making bridges.”

Closing out the table, the director of FGV DAPP, Marco Aurelio Ruediger, ratified a need of forums that make explicit the complexity of the subject through multiple perspectives that can handle the variables that affect the engineering of disinformation. In his opinion, it is too simple to affirm that WhatsApp determined the presidential elections. On the other hand, the Professor defends the need to understand how the use of these and other platforms drew upon a concrete reality to produce narratives that gave support to the result of the lawsuit. These are the dynamics that the conducted discussions in the series of webinars were seeking to capture and, as if using a magnifying glass, to amplify, so that an even greater number of people can visualize and fortify the foundations of the democratic architecture. 



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