Just as problems related to the economy, corruption, insecurity, and drug trafficking appear at the top of people’s priorities, for almost three-quarters of Latin Americans, disinformation is also a major problem for their country.
In the information age, where most people have access to an almost unlimited amount of content, one of the most important challenges is disinformation and fake news. This problem has been enhanced by the use of social networks and different digital platforms that allow the rapid dissemination of information without filters or verification.
But while numerous studies analyze the phenomenon of disinformation from the perspective of “supply”, that is, focusing on how false information is disseminated, there are few that analyze what happens on the other side of that equation, to “demand”, for example, what happens to the citizenry.
Despite the apparent lack of interest in the matter, this is a central issue for people, and may even have implications for physical health. This is according to a study by the WIN Latin America network of consulting firms, which was carried out in eight countries in the region (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, and Peru).
The most obvious example is the huge misinformation that was experienced in some countries about vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in Brazil and Colombia. And the impact of misinformation on mental health is no less significant, especially considering that some countries in the region are above the global average in terms of stress, such as Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina. According to this study, for half of the population, misinformation has been the cause of anxiety and stress in their lives.
The perception of disinformation as a threat is not limited to the personal or individual level of mental equilibrium. There are other consequences linked to the dissemination of false news. For eight out of ten Latin Americans interviewed, disinformation is a threat to democracy. For three-quarters of the people, it can become a springboard to weaken the credibility of the electoral process.
Also, linked to the destabilization of democracy, for the vast majority of people, disinformation increases political polarization. “Fragmented” societies such as Argentina and Brazil are clearly aligned with this perception, although they are surpassed by others such as Colombia and Mexico. This questions the causal direction of this connection between falsifying truth and political radicalization.
Is it the lack of adherence to news objectivity that triggers polarization or (on the contrary) is it the cracked contexts that feed the breeding ground for a disinformation industry?
The study also indicates that Latin Americans tend to see the problem as complex and multi-causal, and their pulse does not tremble when it comes to pointing fingers. What we see is multiple and varied sources in society that have been discredited as reliable informants. But then, where do Latin Americans place their trust? The study reveals that most do so in people or informal groups such as family, friends, and people like them.
On the one hand, this makes sense considering that institutions have less and less credibility in the region. On the other hand, however, it is rather ironic, since, in reality, these institutions are informed by the same sources as you are. Therefore, there is a bring-and-carry of unverified information.
In this critical context, it is worth highlighting the efforts of several groups of journalists that have been emerging in the region and the world, who work in a network to promote the verification of the amount of data circulating in today’s interconnected world. Disinformation has become one of the most pressing problems of the moment and poses a challenge to society as a whole. It is therefore essential that we work collaboratively to mitigate it.
Addressing disinformation and fake news requires a broad approach involving individuals, governments, educators, media companies, and social media platforms. All have a role to play in fostering a culture of truthfulness and content responsibility.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva