People claimed WhatsApp and Facebook as news sources. What happens next?

Marília Gehrke
Mar 20 · 6 min read

When a president attacks the media and the journalists, the message of ‘fake news’ is reinforced. Maybe there is a lesson to learn: transparency.

Source: The Disinformation Age — Jacksonville Advertising Agency

Something very serious is going on with media credibility when people worship WhatsApp and Facebook in front of journalists. Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters scream it out during the presidential ceremony, when he sworn in as the new president of Brazil, on January 1st, in Brasília. After getting a little shocked as a former reporter and current researcher — and as a human being — I realized it sadly makes sense.

It’s not my intention to explain the political situation in Brazil, but here are some facts:

Brazil’s new president keeps calling the mainstream media ‘fake news’. As president Donald Trump, he calls ‘fake news’ every piece of information he disagrees with. The journalism that confronts something, bring accurate facts and put all the information in context, doing what it is supposed to do to the maintenance of democracy, indeed bothers him. The presidents had a meeting this week and ‘fake news’ appeared in the conversation.

Recently, Bolsonaro spoke that a free press is fundamental for the democracy and asked journalists to be strong and impartial. Days before, however, the professionals that were covering the new president’s ceremonial received a lot of restrictions from Bolsonaro’s staff. Journalists had little access to the official buildings when he took office. There were restrictions even in the snacks. There was no place to sit down — a hundred journalists had to work stood by; and there was just one bathroom for all that people. Monica Bergamo, columnist at Folha de S.Paulo, one of the biggest newspapers in Brazil, described that January 1st as a “dog day” in a text she detailed the situation.

In his Twitter, Bolsonaro publishes screenshots from news about him and call it ‘fake news’; his sons, also politicians, do the same. Without a warning, the president retweets posts from satirical accounts that imitate serious and credible newspapers, which can mess up even more what is true or false and confuse the public debate.

Last week, he personally accused a journalist of Estadão — from mainstream media and one of the biggest newspapers in Brazil — of something she hadn’t said about one of his sons.

According to the newspaper, Bolsonaro attacks the press in his Twitter account once in every three days. Does it sound familiar? Trump of the Tropics is actually a good nickname.

Source: G1/Globo

Brazil has been polarized since the election before, in 2014, when the leftist Dilma Rousseff, from the Workers’ Party, took office. She was impeached two years later, accused of manipulating the federal budget in a period of economic crisis in Brazil. Her party is involved in corruption and the manly figure, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is currently in jail.

It’s hard to tell, for sure, what was the impact of disinformation in 2018 presidential elections, specially close to the runoff, when far-right Bolsonaro runned against Fernando Haddad, from the Workers’ Party. Lies were spread from supporters of the both sides, mainly by groups on WhatsApp. And the thing is: people mostly believed in everything they received without checking the source of information, including very nonsensical things, like an erotic baby bottle that was supposedly distributed in schools. How could anybody believe it? Well, people did it and shared.


Now I return to the first point of the text: social media as news sources. The Digital News Report 2018 detected people are using messaging apps for news. In focus groups held in the US, UK and Brazil, the participants said these apps facilitate interaction and discussion, especially in groups, to chat and post articles. The report also pointed Brazilians as enthusiastic users of social media. Facebook is the number one in social media and messaging: 52% of people who respond the survey said they use it for news, while WhatsApp 48% and YouTube 34%.

Social media had a growth as news sources: from 47% in 2013 to 66% in 2018. The opposite happened with print media: from 50% in 2013 to 34% in 2018. Only 22% of the participants respond they pay for online news; 61% said they share news via social or email and 38% comment on news. They also said that believe in news overall (58%), but the percentage is lower when it comes from social media (32%). Besides trust in social media doesn’t seem very high, people are using that information to take important decisions like voting.

Still according to the Digital News Report, people think mainstream media has to fight against ‘fake news’. People believe media companies (75%), technology companies (71%) and the government (61%) should do more to separate what is real from what is fake on the internet.

So when did journalism lose confidence and credibility? Probably when journalists decided not reveal their sources and methods. In the elements of journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel wrote about verification, in which journalists reveal their procedures and how far they went. It’s what they called Spirit of Transparency. It shows the audience how the information was obtained, what controversies are involved. Although anonymous sources may help to create a unique story, journalists has a price to pay: it costs credibility.

I studied documentary news sources on my Master’s Degree in Communication and Information. Currently, in my PhD studies, I added transparency to the debate. I understand transparency in journalism as openness, being clear about the procedures. It means a journalist is able to identify when she or he used a scientific study as a source — why not offer the hyperlink to the original study? It is similar to science, when people can reproduce the method and get the same results. This more scientific approach was exactly what Philip Meyer defended in Precision Journalism — I interview him a while ago.

The Code of Ethics of Society of Professional Journalists of the US presents a section about responsibility and transparency in journalism. The definitions go beyond transparency as a method and it’s also about publication practices, like informing errors. According to the document, promoting an ethical journalism means exercising the responsibility and explain its decision to the public. That’s why journalists should justify their choices and processes to the audience, estimulating a debate about news coverage.

Glen Feighery also defends a wider dialogue with the audience — and not just in moments of crisis, but as a daily practice.

Shortly, he says that journalists should be prepared to publicly justify their choices (including the use of a specific term/phrase); news organizations should post their own ethics codes to contextualize their choices; news organizations should seek public input about standards and practices; and journalists should continue conversations on an ongoing basis. It’s what he calls a two-way symmetrical communication.

More than a discursive practice, journalism has to mean it. We need more journalism and less gossip in this disinformation era. Nobody knows, for sure, what sausages and news are made of. And journalists may be in trouble because of that.

Notes:

I prefer disinformation instead of fake news to classify misinformation distributed with the purpose to confuse the audience. Truth is the core of journalism. ‘Fake news’ is more a tentative of taking away journalism credibility. I’ll write about it soon.

If you are an English reader and wants to know more about the new president and the political situation of Brazil, I recommend this text by Vox and this one by The New York Times.

Marília Gehrke

Written by

Journalist and PhD student in Communication at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil.

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