What can be done? Some guidelines for action.
There is no single solution to confronting fake news as a political project. As we have already mentioned, journalistic initiatives for the checking of information are important. It is also important to discuss what can be achieved in the way of regulation, involving innovative approaches such as the protection of personal data used for political propaganda on the internet. Central too is the effort to educate the population on the way fake news is created, and popular prejudices are promoted. Actions should be developed within the educational system to form a generation of citizens with emotional and cognitive instruments to protect them from manipulation on and off the internet.
What can be proposed in the context of daily communication? How to respond when one is the recipient of false news? In what follows, we develop a number of insights on strategies and practical proposals to re-sensitize public opinion on the terrain where this propaganda operates – values, sentiments and cognitive biases.
GUIDELINES FOR AN ALTERNATIVE WAY OF COMMUNICATING
1. Dispute the meta-narrative behind the news, as a whole, rather than focusing on each piece of false information.
Most consumers and propagators of fake news are not fanatics but become gradually contaminated by the atmosphere of destructive polarization. As with all of us they harbor contradictory values. Rather than falling into the game of denying the other we should send messages which promote reflection and the values of civilized exchange.
The first guideline is that in our daily communication we should not confront fake news on a one-to-one basis. Faced with an avalanche of propaganda and memes, the user who wants to reply is already placed on the terrain defined by the producers of false news. Exchanges at this level result in a hardening of positions and can lead to mutual offences. Rather than contest the content we propose that in replying to the fake news which people receive on a daily basis the focus should be on questioning the meta-discourse, the values which are being promoted and the cognitive biases which they manipulate. Within a democratic perspective the aim should be to question the type of world that people want to live in, the values that should be defended, and the importance of maintaining one's autonomy and capacity for reflection.
2. Not everything goes. Defense of what we consider to be good cannot justify the use of fake news.
The second guideline is that combatting the propaganda of destructive polarization demands a democratic and ethical commitment which excludes a policy of “anything goes”. Fake news in fact can be found at all points of the political spectrum. The defense of a democratic public space requires, firstly, a strengthening of the fundamental values which make possible debate involving a plurality of viewpoints. Without this no democratic cause can exist. A response to fake news therefore should not have the objective of defending a contrary political opinion, but that of restoring a reflexive autonomy.
In the current Brazilian context, the principal tendency towards destructive polarization is concentrated on the extreme right and for this reason we have focused on themes associated with this tendency. The proposals developed here, however, are applicable to every anti-democratic tendency. Processes of polarization are relational and need to be seen as a problem facing everyone. Studies on political behavior in Brazil, for instance, indicate that the vulnerability of specific sectors to right wing propaganda of polarization may have roots in the polarizing and not well understood behavior of progressive groups.
3. Look to what unites us
A third guideline which follows on from the previous one is that we should work to revert the current waves of destructive polarization, confronting all collective identities which are closed to questioning and impermeable to the debating of ideas and information.
4. Giving up arrogance, excessive group affirmation, or treating the other as an enemy
A fourth guideline for action concerns the importance of the tone of the reply given in any kind of communication. The existence of collective identities does not imply the elimination of individual reflexive capabilities. Within the members of the most diverse political labels there are individuals with different positions. Labeling is a way of denying diversity and the possibility of dialogue and should be avoided especially in personal relations. Labeling transforms politics into war where the objective is to dehumanize and at the limit to destroy the enemy. To confront this challenge, we should not treat the other as an enemy with definitive positions. On the contrary, we should remind them of the values of conviviality which all share. Our objective is to defend the values which sustain the plural public space.
5. No-one has a monopoly of truth
In the confrontation with fake news it is always important to remember the distinction between factual truth and the Truth, (that is a set of beliefs and ways of viewing the world within which individual facts are interpreted). This distinction implies that it is up to each individual to pursue the Truth, which is not reducible to the data that academics and journalists divulge after they have passed through the necessary filters and checks. The only truth that unites us as a democratic society is the respect in public forums for the diversity of opinions based on facts and rational arguments. As we have seen, a good part of the initiative taken to confront fake news implies that what is being attacked and what is basically at stake are factual truths. In fact, however, the principal concern is not with individual facts but with the promotion of a Truth which denies the relevance of facts and the right to a plurality of ideas.
We should insist on the rejection of lies, and the role of curiosity and learning which demands that people confront their capacity for reflection and for promoting debate informed by plural viewpoints. The presupposition should be that people have a legitimate right to interpret the facts but should not accept lies nor the destruction of democratic conviviality.
6. Where a conversation takes place is important: choose environments where the incentive for group performance is reduced
Open social networks such as Twitter, Instagram, Youtube or Facebook stimulate group performance through the “retweet” and “liked”, etc tools. The online “public places” are different from group “rooms” and private messages which should be taken into account when confronting destructive polarization. We must continuously be aware of the place where the conversation is taking place, giving preference to environments where incentives to take on roles are reduced. Private groups are used for the dissemination of attacks and false information precisely because these are based on networks of informal trust. At the same time, private groups help to segment the audience since the information circulated is not available to those outside the group. These characteristics should be used to promote civic and democratic communication.
7. To demonstrate that information is false it is best to use sources which come from the same universe as the disseminator
If the need to challenge a piece of information were urgent because of the immediate damage its dissemination could cause, one of the few guidelines which might be effective is the recourse to sources and spokespersons who are compatible with the chosen audience.
8. Always be clear on the objective: the reconstruction of the public democratic space
Collective identities are a part of social life. All such identities, religious, national, political, or sportive create loyalties and value the opinions and trajectory of a particular group, desiring that they be successful. Clearly, we do not have the same disposition towards other groups as we have to our own.
In a democratic setting, collective identities do not disappear but the sense of a community of free citizens is created who participate in the public space upholding values of liberty, peaceful co-existence, and respect for plurality. The existence of a public democratic space does not eliminate collective identities but rather these rest on individuals who maintain their reflexive autonomy, and their loyalty to groups, therefore, does not imply an inability to relate to the arguments of others. In this sense, the confrontation with fake news should be based on the construction of a national democratic collective identity which accepts the diversity of its tribes, formed by individuals who share a public space.