"Fake Science" vs Real Fantasies

The lesson that the pandemic gives us is that the truth cannot be an option

São Paulo

On Thursday, a reader wrote that two issues affect coverage of the novel coronavirus: "escaping fake news and finding common sense." This was also the same day that an audio shared by messaging applications painted a dire scenario for the spread of coronavirus in Brazil.

In it, cardiologist Fábio Jatene, from Instituto do Coração (InCor) at Hospital das Clínicas, described how his colleagues' predict a significant increase in the number of cases of the disease in the coming months, and how there will not be enough ICU beds to accommodate sick patients.

Last Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that having reached a global scale, we live in a pandemic. But I still thought that the audio could be false because of all confusion being shared on social media and predisposition of people share anything without checking.

The audio was true. The doctor, himself, shared the same info to newspapers, including Folha.

So why did a website that looks very similar to that of a fact-agency classify the audio as "fake?"

The website added a conspiratorial element in its analysis by saying that "even if the audio was real, the hospital would not confirm it," and ended the article with the advice of washing your hands.

The audio spread fast through the messaging apps, but had a low spread on social media - there were 1,104 posts on Twitter. Looking at Google, however, it reached 24 of the 26 states and the Federal District, according to data analysis company Bites.

The site that had classified the content as fake soon went offline. But not without having left a trail of misinformation.

Trying to spread fake content as if it were true is something that, unfortunately, we have to get used to. Even before now, fact-checking information was a recent innovation.

The new trend now is what is real and true has become false.

Another novelty is that people are sharing more fake PDF files (a format for presenting electronic documents) through messaging applications.

The PDF version gives the fake content the air of authenticity. In times of coronavirus, fake news is replacing the journalistic format with the scientific format: "fake science," so to speak.

In this field, the content is shared mainly by the left.

According to Bites, the (mis)information that Cuba had manufactured a vaccine against the disease produced, on Thursday alone, had 69,573 tweets, even without being mentioned in Granma, the Cuban newspaper.

What is not new is the coverage of major epidemics, which is always subject to slipping into sensationalism.

In this case, the duty to inform establishes a state of permanent tension with the risk of sparking panic, in a delicate balance, but which should not be overlooked by the news producers.

According to experts, the approach to health crises requires prudence because it involves prescribing behaviors, allocating resources, and even police power, such as restricting the movement of people.

Panic ensues especially when the condition of the Ministry of Health as the leader of the response to the virus is compromised (in approaches such as "China did it right, Brazil did it wrong"), with the spread of alarmism ("SUS will not be able to cope, it is better to think of something else") or with mathematical predictions made without critical observation or consideration.

And, in a scenario of lack of control, it becomes even easier to proliferate fake news.
Since President Jair Bolsonaro described the novel coronavirus as "a fantasy", it has been shaking the country. The search for information has increased, as the Folha website showed on the same Thursday afternoon.

Of the ten most-read articles, nine dealt with coronavirus. Even the Big Brother Brasil article said that the show would not have an audience due to Covid-19.

At times like this, critical sense is the weapon to deal with any content, whether it is false or true.

With social media, content doesn't have to have legitimacy in order to have repercussions.

Perhaps the lesson this episode teaches us is that this lack of legitimacy in public health issues can be as costly as life.

And that the truth, more than ever, cannot be treated as an option. For the flat-earner's nightmare, we need science to save lives, including theirs.

Flavia Lima

A Reporter specializing in economics, she graduated in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon