'Fake News' in The Crosshairs

Identifying fake content is difficult, and fighting it can lead to censorship

On Monday (18), Folha reported that the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) is proposing regulation to attempt to contain the so-called "fake news." TSE is clearly preparing for the 2020 municipal elections.

The measure under discussion is intended to punish the candidate, party, or coalition that shares false information during the campaign.

The idea is that information must be checked before it is published and, in case of dispute, to prove sources of "notable credibility." Otherwise, those who feel offended may claim a right of reply, as well as criminal liability.
Controversially, the term "fake news" is quite popular. But if it's not easy to define fake news, imagine fighting it efficiently.

Displeasing reports, errors in stories, misaligned headlines, and even opinion columns carry that name, although they are not fake news.

"Fake news" is fake content. It's a real-looking lie that mimics the form of the news. To do this, it uses journalistic language and seeks popularity on social media.

A crucial aspect is knowing how to differentiate it from mistakes made by the press.

Unlike news, fake news is produced anonymously and seeks to mislead for economic or political advantage.

A professional newsroom is publicly accountable and can be held responsible. Who are the authors of "fake news"? It is not known, and therefore no one can be accountable.

Despite this difference, the president never misses the chance to accuse the mainstream press of producing fake news.

On Wednesday (20), Jair Bolsonaro criticized Folha for showing that this year's Bolsa Familia budget is insufficient to pay the 13th monthly installment to beneficiaries of the program.

Instead of telling society where the money for payment will come from, the president attacked Folha. "I have suspended my subscription, and many business owners have been canceling advertising contracts in this fake news and misinformation champion newspaper," he said.

On Thursday (21), the president criticized Folha's story about the government honor received by the brother-in-law of host Ana Hickmann. Gustavo Corrêa earned a medal for shooting a man who attacked his family.

Without going into the merits of the awards, the thin line of the text (the sentence just below the title of the article) read: "Nominated by Eduardo Bolsonaro, businessman Gustavo Corrêa killed a Hickmann fan in Belo Horizonte hotel after ambush."

As one reader said, the phrase implies that Corrêa ambushed to kill his sister-in-law's fan, and was therefore appointed by Eduardo Bolsonaro to receive the highest honor from the House — which is not the case.

Still, the newspaper did not produce fake news. There was just an error (corrected) in the sentence construction.

In the same week, an article by Federal Deputy Hélio Lopes (PSL) stunned readers for denying the racism in Brazil by distorting historical facts.

Faced with the healthy exercise of making room for dissenting opinions, the press has given visibility to personalities who play the role of turning misinformation into a "rational argument."

Is the opinion piece free of lies and inaccuracy? It is not. But this can not be considered fake news.

Lopes published the text in a newspaper whose address is known; readers may dispute it and demand a right of reply.

In another episode, people accused Folha of misrepresenting facts by including a photo of a pro-Evo Morales protest in São Paulo (whose caption said so) in a story about opponents of the former Bolivian president.

The newspaper acknowledged the failure in editing and promised new text.

The fact is that the press does not have a monopoly on the truth. Sometimes it makes mistakes and misinforms. The point is that when this happens, society has the means to make the press accountable for corrections.

In the case of fraudulent content, there is no room for rebuttal or correction of errors — even if the mistake is intentional.

During the presidential campaign, a video circulated showing a bottle with a penis-shaped nipple that would be distributed in São Paulo daycare centers at the initiative of former mayor Fernando Haddad. This is a classic case of fake news.

The TSE ordered the removal of the video. As stated earlier, fake news is usually produced anonymously, without an accountable source. Thus, in such cases, how would the right of reply be applied? In which platform would it be published? What will be its reach?

All this to say that TSE is setting itself up for a task that is way more complicated than it seems.

The proposal leaves it to the judge to say what is a source of "notable credibility," making room for arbitrariness.

Also, there is the difficulty of identifying fake news. One should also not overlook the risk of confusion and censorship in an attempt to combat it.

Flavia lima

A reporter specializing in economics, she holds a degree in social science from USP and a law degree from Mackenzie. She has been an ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon