Marcelo Rech is president of the Brazilian Newspaper Association.
The attack against Brazilian democracy that the world witnessed on Jan. 8 – when a horde of far-right fanatics invaded and plundered the headquarters of the three branches of government in the capital city of Brasilia – was not an event sprouted by spontaneous generation. The thousands of rioters who marched into the heart of Brazilian democracy with the intention of strangling it represent the tip of a global phenomenon threatening the very stability of the planet.
The Jan. 8 riot was the culmination of a movement that began shortly after the Oct. 30 Brazilian general election. Encouraged by social-media influencers, thousands of supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro left their homes and families to protest his defeat at the polls. Over the course of two months, they set up dozens of encampments across the country and demanded there be a “federal intervention against fraud at the ballot box.” Not even the matches played by the Brazilian team at the Qatar World Cup had the attention of the people in these camps, because their leaders considered the tournament to be a distraction.
The expectation of this crowd, increasingly radicalized by social media, was that their demonstrations would compel the country’s armed forces to prevent the inauguration of newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro portrayed Mr. da Silva as a threat to religious freedom, and accused him of harbouring secret communist ideals. It was from these camps that radicals, wrapped in yellow and green flags and decorations, came to invade the headquarters of Brazil’s presidency, the Supreme Court and Congress, armed with cellphones that transmitted videos and live updates to other extremists.
For years, supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro have been fed conspiracy theories, falsifications of reality, and superstitions. From claims over the supposedly miraculous effects of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19 (which did not turn out to be true) to more recent accusations of fraud in electronic voting machines (which were never proven), under Mr. Bolsonaro’s influence, millions of Brazilians have begun to live in a parallel world.
In this universe of the absurd, a cultlike spirit is fomented by social media and other online platforms. The followers of this movement are urged to ignore or disregard press reports and to believe unquestioningly in its leaders, who in turn provide their supporters with an intoxicating cocktail of preposterous theories based on grudges and fears that work to transform moderates into extremists.
It is possible to recognize traces of this collective hallucination around the world, including during the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In some countries, it is the government itself that has promoted a massive disinformation campaign (in Russia’s case, with the aim of sustaining an invasion of Ukraine). In many others, political organizations with radical views gain ground by manipulating the public’s emotions, triggering revolt and indignation by falsely taking news events and political statements out of context. The truth is that no country, however advanced and developed, is immune to this virus, which corrodes truth, plurality, respect for adverse opinions and, therefore, the otherwise friendly co-existence of opposites – the basis of any democratic society.
In the face of such threats, the time has come for the sane elements of the world to put an end to this epidemic of falsehoods. The United Nations needs to take the lead in combating disinformation through a global, self-regulated agreement that reverses our disastrous course – just as it has with the COP meetings to contain global warming.
The logic of such a pact is simple. Just as climate change is the biggest threat to the Earth’s physical health, so is the disinformation epidemic the greatest threat to the mental health of its billions of inhabitants. Its potential consequences, ranging from the erosion of democracies to a nuclear confrontation, are as – or possibly more – catastrophic than those of climate change.
The UN should invite to the table the two parties with the most immediate powers to contain and reverse this disinformation epidemic: the major technology platforms and representatives of professional journalism. In Brazil and around the world, the toxic cloud of fake news spreads in the vacuum of journalism. The news media has been forced to find a new economic model after a long period of contraction and revenue devastation, while the balance sheets of big tech companies have grown fatter.
Journalism is far from perfect but, as seen during the pandemic, it is still the best antidote – giving voice to reliable sources, re-establishing the truth and correcting falsehoods that circulate on social media and messaging services. Some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have approved laws that will allow local news organizations to financially recover, and to gradually reoccupy “news deserts” – vast regions where there are no more traces of an independent press. (Canada will join these ranks if Bill C-18 is ratified.)
Although it represents an advance, such legislation is not an achievable solution for most of the planet. In dozens of countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, governments would not like to see a strengthened press with more plurality, diversity and an investigative capacity that’s able to confront them. On the contrary, autocracies and even immature democracies often work to weaken and intimidate a free press instead of making it an increasingly loud and independent voice.
Despite being relatively simple, the creation of a global pact combatting disinformation would face its own mishaps or possible setbacks, as seen in discussions related to the climate crisis. But with the support of governments and democratic societies, such an agreement is possible. It is also a necessity for the business interests and very existence of big tech companies, which are increasingly threatened by the content controls and external regulations of autocracies that do not always have these companies’ best interests in mind.
Enough, therefore, with procrastination in the vain hope of a natural cure for the fake-news epidemic. We need to create, through a tangible pact, a vaccine against disinformation as soon as possible, before the virus spills out into even more capital cities around the world.