Democratizando: scientific dissemination against fake news

July 17, 2019

Amongst so many national and international holidays, it is easy to get lost in commemorative dates and tributes. On July 8, for example, the National Science Day and the Scientific Researcher Day is celebrated in honor of the creation of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), an entity that promotes scientific production, encourages that children and teenagers engage with science and disseminates scientific knowledge to society.

Each year, the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Federal University of Minas Gerais – UFMG) and other institutions promote an event open to the public that celebrates the date and brings science closer to society. On July 6, 2019, the Centro de Referência da Juventude (Youth Reference Center – CRJ), in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, hosted a science fair, with the presentation of projects from various knowledge areas.

It was difficult to compete with 3D printing, programming workshops, biochemical experiments and application launching. However, the Study Center on Transition Justice (CJT/UFMG), a project of the Law School of the above mentioned University, was present and discussed a theme of great relevance: fake news interference in elections and democracy.

Democratizando: the Study Center on Transitional Justice’s project of scientific dissemination

The CJT/UFMG is a research and extension project dedicated to the study of transitional justice, that is, the processes of leaving behind authoritarian regimes, such as the dictatorship faced by Brazil between 1964 and 1985, or periods of civil conflict, as suffered by Colombia until the recent signing of the Peace Agreement. The four basic pillars of transitional justice are: accountability; reparation; right to memory and truth; institutional reforms.

  1. Accountability: the obligation of states to investigate, prosecute and punish gross human rights violations committed during the authoritarian period as a means of guaranteeing the right to justice;
  2. Reparation of victims and their families: the need to repair the damages and violence suffered through indemnities, restoration of jobs, and also offering symbolic reparations such as amnesties and public apologies;
  3. Right to memory and truth: reconstruction of the historical memory in order to reveal to the victims, their families and society as a whole the truth behind the period and its violations, since authoritarian regimes tend to present a distorted official version of reality;
  4. Institutional reforms: due to the need to interrupt the legacy of an authoritarian and violent period, it seeks to extinguish or reform institutions (such as the police and the judiciary) that are responsible for violations. It is carried out, for example, by the exclusion of perpetrators of crimes against humanity and other subjects involved in the regime of state organs and positions of authority in order to reorganize institutions democratically and remove authoritarian laws.

To CJT/UFMG, the debate about these measures and their effectiveness should not be restricted to the academic environment, but should also occur in civil society, reinforcing the right to memory and truth as a collective right and the importance of a transition to create a healthy democracy. In this sense, several activities have been and are carried out by the group in order to make knowledge accessible.

As an example, it was produced a spelling book on “Transitional Justice”, published by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Minas Gerais during the “Resistir Sempre: Ditadura Nunca Mais” event (2014). The CJT/UFMG also maintains on its website the follow-up of the procedural progress of criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of torture and other crimes during the period of the dictatorship and civil remedies for the victims and their families.

The group is a permanent member of the Latin American Transitional Justice Network (RLAJT) and has already established several partnerships, for example, with the Working Group on Transitional Justice of the Public Prosecutors Office, the Truth Commission in Minas Gerais (COVEMG) and the Truth Comission of Workers and Trade Union Movement in Minas Gerais (COVET-MG). The CJT/UFMG publishes in its social networks news about transitional justice and democracy around the world and carries out a listing of spaces focused on revealing the repression and resistance occurred in the dictatorship, the so-called “Places of Memory”.

The most recent action of the CJT/UFMG is precisely aimed at rethinking democracy, authoritarianism and social actors of these processes in a didactic and accessible way. It is the Democratizando initiative, which includes a blog and a podcast, still in production. In the blog, we unravel facts of the Brazilian political day-to-day in light of the academic approaches on democracy crisis. In short, we show in practice what we read in the books: how, when, and if signs of democratic decline have occurred.

It is a project of scientific dissemination, that is, that seeks to broaden access to our debates to the non-specialized public. It is, therefore, an extensionist effort to approximate academia and society.

The podcast, in production phase, will be a thematic series that will feature episodes in the form of interviews and talk panels. Its launch and publication are scheduled for the second half of this year. Thus, blog and podcast will be articulated in support of the objectives of defending democracy and promoting human rights that involve the CJT/UFMG.

One of the major new challenges facing democracies is misinformation, such as the spreading of false news and rumors. Aware of this, the CJT/UFMG, in partnership with SIGA – Group of Studies on Information Society and Algorithmic Government, sent a contribution to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the influence of misinformation in electoral contexts in 2019. We also took this theme to the aforementioned National Science Day and we will explore a little more the context and implications of fake news below.

Fake news and democracy

CJT researchers at National Science Day. Photo: Felipe Viana. All rights reserved.

“Everything is rumor” has become one of the most popular expressions of this new century. Scientific evidences, as the shape of the Earth and prevention of diseases by the use of vaccines have been doubted by a wave of fake news, which pretend detract the reality or even disseminate the desinformation. This phenomenon, in turn, has directly affected the democratic foundations.

In an attempt to explain this phenomenon many researchers try to find a definition of the term “fake news”, in order to trace strategies to its regulamentation. Therefore, Professor David Lazer, of the  Northeastern University, affirmed that to understand the meaning of the term “fake news” it is necessary distinguish the concepts of misinformation and disinformation: the former refers to the use of a mistanking information and the latter is the use of a mistaking information with the intent to deceive. In this sense, fake news regard to the last group, in the context we are speaking (LAZER, 2018).

The fake news have the power to influence from the dissemination of conspiracy theories and less relevant, such as Flat Earth theory to elections and democratic processes. The campaign for Brexit, for example, widely reported that not leaving the European Union would cost the country more than 470 million dollars a week, affirmation that was later proved misguided.

There are four ways to interfere in the result of a democratic election: 

  1. To manipulate facts and opinions that instruct the citizens’ vote, for example, through false reports from the social media, bots and propaganda;
  2. To interfere with the act of voting (e.g. tampering with voter registration lists);
  3. To alter the results of voting; and
  4. To undermine confidence in the integrity of voting.

The full exercise of citizenship depends on access to information and the ability to make our choices free from impediments. If the information of an electoral process is manipulated, the individual candidate choosing is not being made within the real possibilities of the democratic game. Beyond the electoral moment, political discussion and monitoring of legislative sessions can be negatively biased by fake news leading not only to the creation of purposeful misinformation, but also to increased polarization in the networks.

But how do fake news actually manipulate public opinion?

The recent technological development has allowed the creation of Big Data. They can be defined as “(…) extremely large data sets that can be computationally analyzed to reveal patterns, trends and associations, especially related to human behavior and interactions” (Gurumurthy and Bharthur, 2018).

These data are collected by virtual platforms, while their users use it leaving what we call virtual tracks (footprints). So, every click, every search, every interaction on social networks or in applications are grouped into large volumes of information that are worked on to build profiles. This technique is called profiling.

From the framing of profiles, it is possible to individually target specific content capable of influencing a predetermined and extremely restricted audience. Thus, knowing each user well, the big tech (technology companies) such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Baidu, among others are able to direct content and manipulate access to information, to the extent that each group receives only information that they think they find interesting, creating the famous “bubbles”.

In this context, the democratic process is weakened, since our choices are being manipulated by a series of factors, creating problems such as privacy and data protection, access to information, self-determination and the other principles that guide the democratic sphere.

What remains as proposals?

The popularization of Internet access has resulted in positive results, such as facilitating access to information; the reduction of the impacts of socioeconomic inequality on the individuals cultural formation; the genesis of speech spaces for historically excluded classes, pluralizing the public sphere. However, negative results also arose from this process, causing impacts beyond the virtual space.

The fake news are a clear example of the negative effects of greater ease in using the Internet. The possibilities of anonymity, the speed of information flow and the existence of a culture of citizens/users that, in the past, did not often need to assess the veracity of information, potentialize the use of virtual means for the purpose of social manipulation.

Formal democracy, while positive, is not enough. It must be substantially exercised by all, so that the citizens use the channels of participation properly in order to be listened to. Excessive and speedy information delivery creates a confusing and disorienting environment that, in the absence of filtering and classification, makes it difficult to effectively exercise constitutionally established guarantees and citizenship itself.

In this regard, the problems derived from the popularization of Internet access assume relevance in the project of democracy and must be understood as political issues that demand the active action of the State and of all subjects. It is also the power of society to demand, from the competent authorities, the promotion of policies that generate stability on the Internet, either through specific regulations or through user education strategies.

Nevertheless, each citizen has a share of responsibility in consolidating a safe and healthy space of use of media. Each one can, in the private and public scope of life, filter the information that receives, seeking to confirm its veracity in channels of reliable communication; guide those who, at any time, share fake news, clarifying the importance of checking the news; educate oneself not to become a propagator of fake news.

On National Science Day, the CJT/UFMG team talked with several visitors to the exhibition, who commented on whether they had already been fooled by fake news and how they sought to circumvent the possibility of deception. Several have mentioned practices as indicated above; simple practices that contribute to the consolidation of a culture of well-being in the virtual environment.

By Sophia Pires Bastos [1], Álvaro Luis Ribeiro Reis [2], Luisa Mouta [3] e Gabriela Conrado [4].

For more information, read here:

1 Master’s candidate at the Graduate Program in Law at UFMG. FAPEMIG Fellow. Researcher at the Center for the Study of Transitional Justice (CJT / UFMG). Advisor of the Human Rights Clinic of UFMG (CdH / UFMG)

2 Graduate student in Law from UFMG. Researcher at CJT / UFMG. Monitor in the disciplines “Theory of the Constitution” and “Philosophy of Law”.

3 Graduate student in Law from UFMG. Researcher at CJT / UFMG.

4 Graduate student in Law from UFMG. Researcher at CJT / UFMG.