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São Paulo, Brazil, 14 March 2018 – Fake news and the rapid dissemination of misinformation, particularly online, are a potential threat to democracies and upcoming elections, experts warned at the World Economic Forum on Latin America.
From alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and the UK Brexit referendum to the destabilizing situation in Spain during the Catalonian independence crisis, the world is seeing an industrial machine that feeds fake news through democratic processes, said David Alandete, Managing Editor and Deputy Director of El País, Spain. The impact, he noted, could have a significant impact, especially in Latin America, where voters throughout the region are heading to the ballot boxes.
While concerned about this trend and decades of populism and misinformation, Esteban Bullrich, Senator from Buenos Aires, Argentina, said he senses a change in the population, which he sees as pushing for truth. “Social media [and the dissemination of fake news] can be a threat, but it can also be a tool to get closer to people. I am optimistic about how things will turn out.”
Argentina is gearing up for general elections in 2019. Bullrich added that democracy is not about a vote every two years, but about people getting involved, being participants and calling out fake news.
Not as optimistic, Leandro Machado, Co-Founder and Partner of CAUSE, Brazil, said he believes that democracy and moral authority are under threat by fake news. He cited a recent MIT study that found that false news spreads faster than true news on Twitter, and the false news spreads faster due to people – not bots (computer programmes) – retweeting it. “We are at risk and we must fight this scenario,” said Machado, adding that the fight against fake news has to have multiple approaches through education and free media.
Representing the press, Maria Cristina Frias, Member of the Board and Columnist at Folha de São Paulo, Brazil, said the media has been under attack and reporting has sometimes become a risky activity in the age of fake news. “Our job is more important than ever. I believe professional media have criteria that can appeal to people. We have to protect our credibility.”
Being able to make a distinction between fake news and distorted news is not just a concern for voters, but starts even younger with children. Fake news and misinformation shape people’s perception and world view, especially in children, said Yuhyun Park, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the DQ Institute, Singapore. “Children and youth are bad at distinguishing what is news and advertisement and what are credible sources,” she said, noting that the impact of social media and fake news on youth will affect them as voters later on. “We have to be aware how this misinformation has been groomed … and do a fast intervention through education to make sure kids get the right critical analytical skills.”
Technology companies, particularly leading social media platforms, have a role to play. “Fake news on Facebook and elsewhere is an amplifier. We need to work with these technology companies on fighting misinformation,” stressed Frias, while Machado said that, with all this false news and misinformation, another responsibility is fact-checking. Park went one step further and called on governments to partner with technology companies to improve transparency.
But, at the end of the day, it is all about the people, said Bullrich. “I trust that people know what’s going on. We need to partner more with the truth.”
The World Economic Forum on Latin America is taking place in São Paulo on 13-15 March. The meeting is convening more than 700 regional and global leaders under the theme, Latin America at a Turning Point: Shaping the New Narrative.
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