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Paralyzed by disinformation

Disinformation is not a recent phenomenon, but its exponential growth is correlated with the increase in the use of the Internet and the massification of social networks. Thus, it is worth clarifying that disinformation refers to the dissemination of deliberately false, misleading, or biased information, especially when provided by a government, its institutions, or leaders, with the intention of influencing policy and public opinion. The term “misinformation” (erroneous or incorrect information) is another matter. It differs from disinformation in that it is “intentionally neutral”: it is not deliberate, it is simply wrong. Finally, disinformation differs from propaganda in that it always refers to something that is not true, even though it is sometimes used as propaganda.

In mapping how disinformation is configured in the minds of Latin Americans, we need to understand in what context their perceptions and attitudes manifest themselves. To accomplish this, social listening allows us to understand the spontaneous conversation that circulates through social networks based on the topic and the level of affectation.

The findings of the latest study by the WIN (Worldwide Independent Network) in Latin America, regarding social networks, indicate that disinformation grows noticeably during disruptive moments, crises, or events that present a high demand for information.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the population was eager for information regarding vaccines or biosecurity measures, or the war between Russia and Ukraine, political crises and electoral processes are examples of these moments. The greater the demand for information, the less time there is to confirm the veracity of the information, the source or even to deny it.

The study carried out in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Paraguay, shows that often the reputation of universities or traditional media is often used to give an aura of veracity to fake news. This way, the news goes viral even faster when it is about controversial people or when it seeks to instill fear and chaos.

Attentive, but overcome by inertia

Fake news is present in people’s daily lives. However, most people feel confident in being able to recognize them, although they are not in the habit of checking the information they access. According to the study, in which 6,049 people from these eight countries were consulted, 6 out of 10 Brazilians and slightly fewer Ecuadorians consider that they encounter fake news every day. In Latin America, this perception is usually high.

In this context, slightly more than half of Argentines (55%) and Mexicans (53%) feel some confidence in being able to recognize fake news. However, despite the high exposure to disinformation, more than half of Latin Americans rarely or never verify the source or accuracy of the information they are exposed to.

But if citizens feel harassed by the biased and disfigured way of reporting reality and are concerned, but, on the other hand, do not make an effort to protect themselves, to whom do they delegate this function?

Rather than washing their hands or resigning themselves to live skeptically with disinformation, Latin Americans seem to expect certain people or sectors to take the lead and become the validators and reliable sources to edit or (at least) educate about problematic versions of reality, due to fake news. The school is one such potential leader, as are the “fact-checking” entities that are dedicated to verifying the authenticity of the information in social networks and media.

Academia (colleges and universities) is another potential ally. Seven out of ten respondents say they trust the information coming from this source and almost six out of ten recognize them as those who make the greatest effort to combat disinformation.

However, although academia is the most trusted, it is also attributed some responsibility for disinformation, but at a certain distance from television, traditional media, politicians, the government, and Internet search engines. This reveals a crisis in the political system whose members are part of this disinformation phenomenon.

Political authorities as part of the problem

Politicians and governments suffer from a deep discrediting of information. Barely 27% of Latin Americans trust the information provided by their government, and the length of time they have been in office seems to have a negative impact on the credit given to those in power since incoming governments have greater credibility than those that have been in office for several years.

The panorama is worse in the case of politicians, since only 14% of Latin Americans trust the information they disseminate. In fact, most of those surveyed pointed to politicians and governments as the main culprits in disseminating disinformation to the public, but only surpassed, in some cases, by television and journalists.

Some countries see a way out in legislation. Such is the case in Brazil, where, in addition to trying to regulate, legislative commissions of inquiry have been created. But as long as those who regulate are perceived as the least trustworthy and responsible for disinformation, it will be difficult to achieve results.

Therefore, beyond the efforts to legislate in this regard, awareness of this problem and efforts to reinforce citizen behaviors that encourage the recipient of the news to check the veracity of the information before sharing it is key to minimize the impact of fake news.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

Autor

Otros artículos del autor

Directora Ejecutiva de Datum, consultora de opinión pública de Perú, y profesora de la Universidad del Pacífico. Actualmente es vicepresidente de WAPOR Latinoamérica (www.waporlatinoamerica.org)

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