Comunicar Journal Blog

Bolivia: elections, fake news and citizen responsibility

Written by Claudia Rodriguez-Hidalgo Translated by Daniela Jaramillo-Dent

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In October 2019, Bolivia will elect a president, vice-president, congress representatives and senators. The media, academia and government agencies foresee the greatest amount of electoral information to circulate through Smartphones, taking into account the number of mobile users in the country, according to the State of Internet Situation in Bolivia report, March 2019.

According to the report, in the last 5 years, the level of connectivity in the country doubled, a figure also included in the Digital Report of 2019 about Bolivia, where it is estimated that more than 94% of the population connects to the Internet via Smartphones.

Within this framework, one of the major concerns regarding the upcoming electoral process arises: how information circulates through these devices, and the effects of the manipulated or manufactured information on Bolivian voting decisions.

Videos, memes, audios, photographs, gifs, etc., circulate easily through messaging applications such as Whatsapp and Messenger, and their origin is almost impossible to determine, as warned by two organizations recently created in Bolivia for the verification of information: Verifica Bolivia and Chequea Bolivia, both led by journalists and academics with the mission of denying false information circulating on the Internet. The creation of these organizations responds to a need to alleviate the effects of false information and avoid its effects on election results, as evidenced in Brazil, where Jail Bolsonaro’s campaign used as one of its main fake news resources through Whatsapp groups supporting the candidate. The same has happened before in Brexit in the UK, and the US elections, where the final results are attributed to the fake news effect.

The report dated March 2018 published by the Masachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), states that fake news is 70% more likely to be disseminated and generate more impact than verified news, which they attribute to two key questions: the emotional appeal of its contents, and the surprise and impact it generates. In this sense, the creation of this type of content, far from being a mere phenomenon of the information society, has become, in certain contexts, a profitable business that captures the attention of users and exchanges it for clicks and advertising income, making the ways of identifying them complex, but not impossible.

Even so, in an electoral context, and generally speaking, when faced with the use of information, the first duty of user responsibility is to doubt, and then verify the information before sharing it.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Media education in an era of «post-truth»

A thematic conference The Third International Conference on Popular Culture and Education takes place in the Education University of Hong Kong on July 20th-22nd, 2017. The conference is organized by the Centre for Popular Culture in the Humanities and the Literature and Cultural Studies Department.

One of the highlights of the conference is the keynote speech delivered by the prominent scholar of media literacy, Prof. David Buckingham, Emeritus Professor of Media and Communications at Loughborough University. His inspiring speech «Teaching Media in a ‘Post-Truth’ Age: Fake News, Media Bias and the Challenge for Media Literacy Education» not only pinpoints the trends in the contemporary media landscape which is fraught with «fake news», but also proposes possible solutions in the field of media education.

 

First of all, it is not a strange phenomenon that we are surrounded by «fake news» in everyday life, from political news to entertainment. Fake news is a somewhat inclusive category: hoax messages, spoof stories which people take them as real, and political lies which were extremely excessive during political campaigns (e.g. pro-brexit groups painted an ad on a bus saying: «We spend the EU 350 million pound a week, let’s fund our NHS instead. Vote leave. Let’s take back control.). Tabloids full of fake news»). Sometimes «fake news» is revealed in a form of «disinformation»: telling part of the truth but misleading the message to another direction. Tabloids are full of fake news. And social media and emails is a major platform for «clickbaits». Moreover, as online video channels such as YouTube is not bounded by the political advertising regulations, political propaganda bombards. What is even more familiar to the mass population is the president of the United States, Donald Trump who is the master of «fake news» on Twitter.

So, what’s the problem? For decades, people used to blaming the media for letting the rampant fake news grow. From a perspective of political sociology, it could generate a threat to democracy, as what the concept «media logic’ has told us that mass media has played the role as the surrogate of public opinion. Instead of going through formal «political logic» (e.g. policy making and deliberation), political figures and entities are inclined to make use of media, both in legacy and digital forms, as the major terrain of democratic practice. As a result, a new term has risen: post-truth – the alternative facts that triumph objective facts and the latter become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.  We have seen a changing media landscape – a few number of major media outlets are given way to popular vernacular voices.

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Admitting the important role of the government to impose more regulations to respond to the changing society, Prof. Buckingham advanced the discussion by proposing media literacy as a more profound solution to address the issue. Instead of sticking to a checklist which is adhere to traditional media education pedagogy: Examine provenance; Assess authority; Check source; Cross check facts; and evaluate design (always capital letters? Flash colours?), Prof. Buckingham affirms that critical thinking is the ultimate goal of media literacy education. Going beyond a static «checklist», he suggests:

  • Think twice and put fake news in a wider context of news bias and (mis)representation
  • Media bias: defining terms, objectivity, balance, agenda setting
  • Know how to make news.

While media and education scholars are still paying every effort to tackle the issue, a best solution is yet to come. Media literacy education is never an individualistic approach that readers/audiences could sit back and watch online news comfortably after taking a course, but a social responsibility to build a better environment, to bring back the role of mass media as the fourth power, a check-and-balance force against the government.