Caio Túlio Costa. Crédito: Divulgação

Caio Túlio Costa: "In spite of fake news, Internet helps democracy"

In an interview to bluevision, the journalist, philosopher and first ombudsman of the Brazilian press talked about ethics, democracy, journalism and fake news

False news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories. This is the finding of one of the largest studies on this topic, published in 2018 in Science magazine. Researchers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tracked roughly 126,000 cascades of news stories spreading on Twitter from 2006 to 2017 and realized that the spread of false stories was more pronounced for political news, which are spread three times more than news in other categories.

A few months before the presidential election, in which polls show a high rate of indecision of Brazilian voters, false news shared on social networks can become a danger to the country's future.

The 3rd Brazilian Report on Digital Security, published by dfndr lab, PSafe’s security lab, has shown that, between January and March 2018, fake news were accessed more than 2.9 million times in Brazil. The report also says that, at least, 8.8 million Brazilians were impacted by fake news and WhatsApp was the media that most spread them, responsible for 95.7% of total flow.

Caio Túlio Costa, author of the book “Ética, jornalismo e nova mídia – uma moral provisória” (Ethics, journalism and new media - a provisional moral - Zahar, 2009), is one of the biggest names on the Internet and in Brazilian journalism. He holds a Doctorate in communication from the University of São Paulo (USP), and has worked for 21 years at Folha Group, where he was the first ombudsman of the Brazilian press. Túlio Costa was also the founder and general director of UOL, Universo Online, the first Internet provider and large content portal in Latin America.

Today, he teaches Ethics in postgraduate courses in journalism. He was also the coordinator of the digital department of Marina Silva’s campaigns (REDE-AC) to the presidency of Brazil in 2010 and 2014, and is a founding partner of the digital monitoring platform Torabit. In an interview with bluevision, Caio Túlio Costa spoke about ethics, democracy, journalism and fake news.

Read the interview below.

When the internet became popular, many people who studied communication and politics thought it would be a truly democratic means of communication. Two or three decades later, the so-called "bubbles" in social networks have been forming more and more self-centered groups, whose opinions are reinforced among themselves. Today, when it comes to social networking, do you think the internet is a factor that mostly contributes to or damages democracy?

Caio Túlio Costa: In short: it collaborates with democracy. The internet has given power to any citizen, any institution, any company. Paradoxically, at the same time that the monopoly of economic power in the media has come to an end, this market was even more concentrated with companies running a good race, such as Google and Facebook. Citizens earned a media channel they never had.

Obviously, this works for both good and bad - and this good or bad will depend on which side anyone is on. Social networks act as megaphones for individual opinions, which once were restricted to the physical boundaries of each individual and the economic power needed to be part of the media. Mankind has lived with fake news since before Gutenberg. The internet allows them to be widely distributed - that's the difference.

From a political and human rights perspective, less inclusive and less tolerant world understandings are increasing - this is shown in hate speech and the growth of fascist figures in many Western countries. Considering the internet’s supposedly free environment, whether in the production and dissemination of content-advertisements of these ideas, or in the formation of collaborative communities, does it play a role in this process? How do you see the participation of social networks in this movement? And how is it?

Of course social networks play an important role. Freedom of speech in these platforms works for any side, any trend, any situation. Society is the one who should regulate this, and is trying to regulate it, through its laws, by the definition of crime. The networks are there to be used by all chains, all individuals, no matter what color they are.

They are not there to commit crimes, obviously. You see, society has always coexisted with insults, slander, and defamation, but it has laws to prosecute, judge and punish the extremes. Freedom of speech must be preserved, above all.

We strongly feel that the share of content produced by traditional journalism is less relevant in this digital environment. In your opinion, is decentralization of information good or bad – or both – to settle a healthy democracy?

Consider the main results of a search on any news on Google and you will see that the news from traditional sources of communication appear in the first results. This shows that news produced by traditional media is more relevant. What has changed?

The fact that the traditional journalist is no longer the main actor of the news has changed; the journalist is just another actor. He competes with other sources of information. This is only good for the news program. The multiplication of sources is healthy, even if this multiplication brings incorrect, distorted, wrong material with it.

The greatest trump of traditional vehicles is to bring credibility. It is sad that they are not ready to face this disruption that requires great technological investments because it completely changed their business model. But at some point, they will hit it - or they will not survive.

For decades, there have been criticisms about the concentration of the mainstream media in a few companies in Brazil. Today, much of the information is consumed through platforms of only two companies: Facebook and Google. It is not a Brazilian phenomenon, either. How dangerous is this media hyper-concentration?

It is hugely dangerous. Europe has moved ahead in regulating this market. However, we still have many battles ahead. Regional or national vehicles need to unite to compete against Google and Facebook in advertising.

This is possible if the advertising platform of all Brazilian vehicles is unified, for example. They are unified on Google and Facebook, but they don’t unify themselves, which shows a huge misunderstanding of the reality of the market and the radical changes occurred with the emergence of the internet.

Fake news is one of the most troubling issues in recent years, especially when it comes to politics. Since we have elections in 2018, we would like to hear from you: Do you think fake news will be relevant during the presidential race? If so, to what extent? Do you think they can even define the next president?

I wouldn’t say that fake news can define the future president, but they will be relevant. Oh yes, they will. Just as they were in past elections - whether on social networks or on TV, with videos filled with fake messages, using lies and distortions, produced by electoral campaigns alike, such as Dilma Rousseff's campaign that was headed by the marketer João Santana (in 2014).

That is, although it’s absolutely unethical, it is part of the electoral and political game to make use of distortion, misinformation, lies. Social networks didn’t launch this procedure that [the historian and Italian philosopher Niccolo] Machiavelli realized and defined back in 1532 [date of the first publication of the work The Prince].

Was there fake news in traditional journalism before? Also, is it possible to measure the percentage of fake news content that runs, for example, on a platform like Facebook?

There has always been fake news. The internet has made it easier to spread them on a large scale. As for its accurate measurement, I believe that not even Facebook would be able to carry out this survey completely. To begin with, it’s very difficult to know which news are fake.

There are many gray lines, many possibilities for interpretation. However, it is possible to measure how many news were considered fake news by Facebook users, for instance. Will that catch all fake news? Probably not.

In your opinion, who has the role of fighting fake news in society: the State and Justice; the private enterprise and media companies; or the citizens and militancy?

All those you have named are responsible for this role, each one with its possibilities and its responsibilities, with only one serious exemption: no damage to freedom of speech. It is up to the State and Justice system to regulate how to prosecute, judge and convict (in the case of Justice) producers of fake news, which entail moral or material damages. All this should be done with no damage to freedom of speech.

It is up to private initiatives, and especially to media companies, to create codes of conduct capable of preventing them from broadcasting false material. They can also create fact-checking agencies – with no damage to freedom of speech. It is up to the citizens and militants to constantly search and report fake news.

In times of fake news and strong polarization of opinions, what do you recommend for people to be informed correctly and inform their network responsibly?

I recommend the constant reading of traditional vehicles, those who deal technically with the news, which always bring the different sides of any issue. Even these vehicles still make a lot of mistakes, but they are the most reliable ones.