Fake news to the attack: A new threat to democracy

By: Ximena Bautista Valles

What is fake news?

Phrases taken out of context, extraordinary and curious stories but with a pinch of reality, adulteration of statements made by someone or simply phony information that appear to be true. These are some examples of what is considered "fake news". The era of the internet and the use of social networks as important information sources, have led to their proliferation and spread, having even larger scope in recent years. We witnessed an example of how they spread during the forced confinement, which we went through a few months ago. False statements from Ministries or alarming WhatsApp audios -alleged infiltrated scoops- that were shared exponentially.

In the political dimension, these stories are created with the purpose of discrediting a candidate or group, influencing the perception of citizens with the ability to exercise the right to vote. The ultimate goal is to benefit the political rivals of those affected, be it a public figure, organization or government. These practices have been perfected to such a level that they can be mistaken for real news. Either by developing a news portal that gives the impression of being reliable and truthful (by name or aesthetics), by the way they are written (impeccable and professional level writing) or by the photographs (duly accredited). While not all fake news that are around the web meet these conditions, those that are more effective (and can do more damage) seek to disguise themselves and access the "terrain of trustworthiness", where their victims cannot differentiate what is real and what not.



Fake news industry: dissemination and manipulation




Although it may be difficult to believe, there are companies dedicated exclusively to the development of this type of project, they usually disguise themselves as digital marketing agencies. These have departments of "Anthropology" or "Psychology", responsible for targeting and segmenting the most suitable individuals for dissemination. Another important element in the whole process is the intervention of "trolls", those anonymous users who fulfill the essential task of spreading this type of news, through social networks. On the other hand, these companies are dedicated to magnifying the political achievements of those who hire them; by promoting a better perception of these. According to data provided by a former worker in this industry, in Mexico, smear campaigns cost up to 250,000 US dollars. (Barragan, 2018)

Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica- the company involved in the scandal between Facebook and the Trump campaign - explained to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) their modus operandi: they began with the dissemination of shocking news through blogs or news portals, which look credible but the portal was not known. Thus, Internet users began to question how it was that the traditional and important media did not give the necessary coverage to these issues. In a third phase, distrust of the prestigious media increases and they finally managed to change the opinion of their victims. (BBC, 2018)


From the “chicha press” to misinformation through social networks

If, from the abundance of false news, we subtract access to reliable sources of information, we find ourselves in a disastrous scenario for citizens. The Peruvian case can be exemplified by the events that occurred at the end of the last century. During the Fujimori regime, journalistic credibility was already doubtful, due to the manipulation and repression of the Executive authority; in addition, access to alternative media was limited.

With funds diverted from the Armed Forces, the government created its own disinformation dissemination machinery, currently known as the “chicha press”. (Caballero, 2017). Smear campaigns towards characters in particular became common. The main victims of these newspapers were political opponents, such as Alberto Andrade, mayor of Lima at the time, or Gustavo Mohme, director of the newspaper “La República”; moreover, Alejandro Toledo, who was just emerging as a political figure. They were victims of slander and derogatory qualifications, terms such as: "corrupt", "communist" and "terrorists".

Fake news tends to proliferate with greater intensity during election time, a crucial time in deciding the future of a nation. In our region, we have some cases such as Brazil, where the effect of fake news derived into an increase in the popularity of Jair Bolsonaro. During the 2018 campaign, the then candidate suffered a stabbing while conducting a public activity. The attack was falsely attributed to an alleged supporter and member of the Workers' Party (PT in portuguese acronym), another party with high chances of winning. It was also reported that Fernando Haddad, who represented the PT in those elections, proposed to legalize pedophilia (Barragán, 2018). Evedently, the purpose of these fake news was to discredit the main political rival, through headlines that generate controversy and impact among the public. Despite the fact that the information is later denied, the clarifications will never have the same dissemination.

Meanwhile, in the Mexican elections, also in 2018, more false news were spread -especially through Facebook- against then-candidate Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO. The news linked him to Venezuelan Chavism or Russia's public support for his candidacy. While the most tabloid pointed out that his wife was a descendant of Nazi war criminals, due to the fact that she had German ancestry. Also, a video circulated in which Pope Francis I openly "expressed" his rejection of AMLO's "ideology" and even described it as a "dictatorship." The words were taken out of context, as Pope Francis I never referred to the Mexican candidate and also the statements were from 2015. In this case, despite the fact that López Obrador was the most attacked by the disinformation campaign, his voting intention was not affected and he even was elected as president until 2024. (BBC Mundo, 2018)


Fact-checking: Our tool against misinformation

In view of this problem, lucid minds have appeared that seek to put an end to the spread of lies on the net, in order to provide more clarity to voters in the face of the massive amount of this (mis)information. Fact-checking aims to analyze the sources of information and make a cross-section of data between what is disseminated and what is real. Thus, more elements are presented to society to understand reality in a more objective and critical way. Those journalists who carry out fact-checking work try to show information in the least biased way possible, so that power groups -political leaders, parties and corporations- cannot manipulate popular opinion. (Checked, 2014)

Latin America has fact-checking organizations such as: Aos Fatos (Brazil), Verificado (Mexico), El Mercurio (Chile), Chequeado.com (Argentina), colombiacheck.com (Colombia), Uycheck.com (Uruguay), El Deber (Bolivia), gkillcity.com (Ecuador) among others. All of these have as their main mission the verification of news and biased topics. Portals such as Aos Fatos or Verificado give priority to those news that have had the highest level of interactions (more than a thousand) through social networks. Likewise, they constantly monitor politicians' discourses and activities on social networks. (Magallón, 2019)

In Peru, we have: “Ojo Biónico”, a subdivision of the “Ojo Público” portal, it is the most complete website and is dedicated to verifying viral information or statements by public figures such as politicians or ministers. We also have the "LR Verifier" from “La República" group, which denies information related to topics such as health and politics. Recently, the portal "El filtro", born in 2020, is dedicated exclusively to fact-checking, has also been added. These webpages will play an important role during the electoral campaign season (which has already begun), since disinformation campaigns will begin to be more notorious and noisy in order to eliminate opponents from the race.


Final comments

We live in an era where the benefits of the internet translate into the speed in which information can travel, the interconnection of this type has brought many advantages in our lives. Unfortunately, it has also allowed the scope of fake news to be amplified. Disinformation and the discrediting of the rival have long been used as a political strategy and needless to say that we cannot underestimate those who create and disseminate false news at all. These organizations have clear purposes to manipulate and will seek to fulfill their mission in the best way possible. Being aware of the phenomenon of manipulation present on the internet is vital in order not to be a participant -inadvertently- in disinformation campaigns.

In a few days, we will start the electoral year and these elections cannot be more symbolic since they coincide with the 200th anniversary of our independence. The election of a new president is always a great responsibility for citizens and with the constant political crisis that we have experienced in recent years -which began after the results of the 2016 elections- we cannot continue with a role of passive voters. We must now be more alert because the disinformation campaigns will intensify. Reaching the presidency is the objective of many power groups - we are not only talking about political parties but also about the great interests that finance them and some are willing to bet everything in order to reach the presidential seat.



References:

Barragan, Almudena. 2018. «This is how 'fake news' is written during the electoral campaign in Mexico». El País, June 29.

Barragan, Almudena. 2018. «Five fake news that have benefited Bolsonaro as a favorite in Brazil». El País, October 18.

BBC News, 2018. "Cambridge Analytica planted fake news."

Knight, Gerardo. 2017. «Brief sample of how chicha newspapers worked in the time of Fujimori». Útero.pe

Chequeado, 2014. «The boom of fact checking in Latin America. Learnings and challenges of the Chequeado case ». Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

Magallón, Raúl. 2019. "Verified Mexico 2018. Disinformation and fact-checking in the electoral campaign." Revista de Comunicación 18 (1): 234-58.