And what about the next Brazilian elections? What will happen in 2018? The questions that are inside everyone’s mind are not here by accident. Both the worsening of the political polarization we live daily and the “scorched earth” result of the Lava Jato investigation twitch the analyses and taint predictions. Even without knowing the tone or which will be the main characters of this announced tragedy, one thing is certain: the stage of this opera will be the Internet.
The play starts in a tense atmosphere. “Fake news cannot be underestimated”, says Justice Gilmar Mendes of the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court and president of the Superior Electoral Court. These “fake news” and the influence that they had in other recent electoral processes are pictured as the villains of the plot. The astonishment lies in the power that anonymously produced factoids can have along with their great catalyst: the influence of the Internet platforms.
There is still a lot to be unveiled. The fake news scarecrow overshadows other real and serious problems. Rights such as access to information, freedom of speech, privacy, and the basic conditions for the democratic debate now find new threats in the digital era. What is expecting us in the most “digital” elections that we have ever had?
The logic behind the fake news: the polarization on the networks
Professional journalism has shown us that as important as it is to know who said what (which many times is the news in itself), it is also revealing to know what was left unsaid, to understand the whys. As the result of investigations, fact-checking, and analysis, quality political information is an input produced at a great cost by communicators. In this already dated fable from before the Internet, we learned that the traditional media is not the only possible home to ethical and professional journalism: independent initiatives many times reveal what massive conglomerates do not have the interest to show.
The arrival of new Internet platforms like Facebook radically changed the circulation of this information. Whether because of the competition for the same advertisers or their hard to grasp complex algorithmic structure, these revolutionary intermediaries have put small and big content producers in a hard place by making them compete for more clicks. On what do we click first? On the viral content or on the long political analysis? Each like and share feeds the algorithm that, just like an editor fighting for more and more attention from its readers, adjusts itself.
Since the 2014 elections, we went through a social and political process that adjusted these algorithms towards political polarization. This is what we share. To say that Facebook is the responsible for this is a comforting self-deception. The country is politically dilacerated, whether because of the most narrow election in history, the largest anti-corruption investigation or even the troubled process of impeachment of the president. In this scenario, are we exposed to what we tend to agree or to what we see with distrust?
Data from the Monitor of Political Debate in the Digital Environment of the University of São Paulo showed that polarization has taken the consumption of information as hostage: “that news becomes a combat weapon”, said Pablo Ortellado, of the Monitor. And, just like in a war, ethics does not always prevail and the “weapon” manufacturers make the profit. Running side by side with the costly fact-checking and investigative articles we have the conspiracy theories or sensationalist headlines that play the game of polarization. Behind the production of these “articles” there are hybrid organizations, something between media outlets and digital marketing agencies — and, many times, political parties or movements. There is no shortage of examples: competing on equal footing with Folha de S. Paulo and O Globo when considering clicks and shares, Jornalivre has among its content administrators members of the Movimento Brasil Livre, according to Vice.
It is not what it looks like! Bots and other illusionism techniques
However, viral headlines and sticky conspiracy theories do not move by themselves. In addition to counting on careless users who share these pieces due to their own beliefs, technology opens other possibilities for those who want to control the public debate. As important as the verification of an information is the access to the authentic debate about it.
As revealed by Juliana Gragnani, of BBC Brasil, digital marketing professionals are selling the use of fake profiles with different levels of automatization (from bots to human controlled ones) to those who want to simulate the movements on social networks. With the use of these techniques, the debate that we see on the networks does not always match a conversation had by real people. More than convincing us about something, the coordinated use of profiles that simulate real people can promote attention to a subject in favor of another or even give someone the impression that this or that idea has many supporters. How important will be the influence on what will be the next trending topic?
What is an election without freedom of speech and the participation of all parties involved?
It will not be easy to face this set of problems. Looking over the different approaches to tackle them reveals problems in the Brazilian freedom of speech in a key moment in its history. On the one hand, solutions for the issue of disinformation may result in the control of content, which would transform these remedies into poison; on the other, certain sieves are important as they protect the participation of groups targeted by violence.
In State institutions, we find initiatives of criminalizing nature, which can open questionable precedents for censorship. At the same time, politicians fight for any remaining credibility after the Lava Jato investigation, which turns the public space into fertile ground for legislative proposals that would grant them more control over the speech. In the same sense, they harass the Judicial Branch which investigates them, seeking the removal of criticisms and the constraint of their authors. It is necessary to consolidate solid judicial sieves for the identification of Internet users and content removal so that the fear of fake news does not become the executioner of free expression.
Responding to the public outcry, the private sector is also on the move. Pointed by many as heroes, new fact-checking initiatives face difficulties to increase their scale and to make their verifications resonate as much as the rumors that they uncover. Among the Internet platforms (Google, Facebook), one of the approaches is to fight the use of fake profiles. Another is of mining the spread of clickbait rumors within their feeds or search results, financially suffocating their producers. In their turn, each initiative creates more demands for transparency from the civil society. Which are the policies established by private companies that will impact the circulation of political speeches?
In the definition of such public and private criteria, the transparency and the sensibility that credibility is not necessarily a synonym of traditional media is fundamental. Communication means are bearers of political and economic power and it has always been important to debate ways to make them democratic and increase the number of voices being heard.
In this scope, the possibilities brought by technology are not negligible. But, in spite of the greater access by minorities to the vocalization of their perspectives through the Internet, improper sieves can once again silence them. Censorship drags individuals away from the democratic debate to which they have the right to participate, but the question becomes more complex when we notice that violence and hate speech also fulfill the same role. Facing this demands brave commitments from all the parties involved, especially from the Internet institutions and platforms. How can we once again make other voices heard when violence makes them more costly to speak?
Privacy as a protection for the autonomy to participate and decide
From the several novelties we have in 2018, there is one that still goes unnoticed: these will be the first elections in which paid advertisement on the Internet will be allowed. But not any type of ad — the reform of the law made in 2017 allowed for the sponsoring of contents offered by Internet platforms — the so-called sponsored posts. To “buy” likes or any ‘extra“ service is not permitted.
The magnitude of this change needs to be very clear. What is the difference between the political propaganda made on the Internet from the ones in other media, like radio and television? In television, advertisements run for the whole country — or state — at the same time. Everyone sees more or less the same face of the campaign: from the young middle-class boy from Porto Alegre to the mother of four children in a riverside community in Pará. Of course candidates can modulate their speech depending on their campaigning agenda, but propaganda on the television flattens their proposals and ideas into one single envelope.
On the Internet the format is different. The modulation is much more complex, implying what we call “microtargeting”.
This logic has been operating for years. From a series of technologies for the collection and processing of personal data about our lives, nowadays it is much easier to sell us something. Take a chocolate, for instance. From the logs and crossover of our consumption data or browsing records, it is possible to produce knowledge about what chocolate we eat, how much we are willing to spend, during what time of the day we are more susceptible (and how we react) to the suggestion of eating chocolate. This is best for the chocolate industry: marketing resources to increase their sales can be spent more efficiently. But what if the chocolate is a candidate and the process of choosing and “suggesting” is the electoral campaign? Can these techniques be used?
With the collection and the processing of personal data from voters, it is possible to find out relations between personal spendings and political inclinations and “create” that ad for that person. In 2016, the story of Cambridge Analytica became notorious as the company provided this kind of service for Donald Trump over the last US elections. In its turn, paid propaganda makes it possible to propel a “microtargeted” advertisement to the feed of that specific voter. Or even, to test different ads for the same microaudience to recognize which one is more impactful.
All of this has consequences for the autonomy of each of us to think, decide and take part in the political debate. On one side, the suggestion made by the publicity becomes powerful the more the advertiser knows about its “target”, on the other, how much does the target know what is known about them? It is important to keep in mind that this story is taking place in a country that did not approve any legislation for the protection of personal data of its citizens, which pushes them away from juridical tools that could inhibit abusive practices that can be enacted by electoral campaign providers.
Is it possible to escape this bombing unharmed?
Let’s suppose that a candidate’s declarations are transformed into an ultra-sensationalist headline that plays with polarization. His image is already fixated on the popular imagination. Imagine that the campaign benefits from this image to sponsor a “microtargeted” advertisement. Combined with the use of fake profiles, the campaign will give the impression that the candidate in question is widely supported. Lastly, his juridical team will sue citizens that make any satire of him. This will all happen within technology, but not all of it will visible to the naked eye. And the disparity of resources between campaigns can worsen this picture even more.
As we have seen, magical solutions look like short blankets — by covering one part, they leave others vulnerable. There is not, among the characters of this plot, a savior of the nation.
Civil society organizations have pointed to interesting paths: the transparency and international principles can help us in the protection of rights and we need to tell the campaigns of all candidates that it is not like “anything goes”. Society’s acting is fundamental for calling governments and companies into the debate and to reveal the limitations of their initiatives. Complex problems will demand complex solutions conceived from the shared effort of different sectors.
We will learn from our mistakes, especially because the use of more technology by campaigns is a one-way street. In this trail, access to information, freedom of speech, equality and privacy are cornerstones of democracy. The minimum we can do is be attentive in order to use technology for their protection, not their menacing.
By Francisco Brito Cruz
Translation: Ana Luiza Araujo
Originally published in Nexo