August 27, 2019

The spread of fires in the Amazon region not only called the world’s attention to an important environmental issue but also revealed to a larger and international audience what the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is really like on a daily basis — a mimic of Donald Trump. 

Before a huge number of reporters trying to understand what he would do to protect the forest, Bolsonaro preferred to classify as fake news all data that had been gathered by the government and also by NASA on the Amazon fires. And he repeated that those numbers – showing a huge growth – were being used just to discredit him and the country. After all, in his opinion, he should be seen and treated as the only trustworthy source of information on that matter. That resembles somebody else. 

Last year, former New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani published “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.” It is a great book for those who are willing to understand data manipulation and the advent of fake news as a means to gain — and maintain — power. It’s also a must-read for those who once celebrated and now might be a little tired of that global connection fuzz.

A few days ago, the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, one of the greatest theorists around digital communication and the author of books like “The Rise of the Network Society” and “The Internet Galaxy”, gave a lecture in Rio de Janeiro. Before an auditorium, he said: “People don’t respond to information with reason, but with emotion, which only feeds the bubbles phenomenon and each other’s comfort zones. As we all know by now, these are not necessarily the temples of the truth.”

Kakutani and Castells live far away from each other, on different continents. But those who read both might have the feeling they whisper in each others’ ears. People living in Brazil may even consider both authors have deep knowledge of how the Bolsonaro operates these days. But the fact is that the Brazilian president just mimics what he sees elsewhere.   

Because of her long career as the chief reviewer in one of the most influential newspapers, Kakutani takes readers by the hand and patiently leads them through a list of authors such as Hannah Arendt, Nicholas Carr, Aldous Huxley, Primo Levi, Garry Kasparov and Umberto Eco. She emphasizes that it’s necessary to leave the comfort zone as soon as possible to face the facts with an adult attitude. 

“The Death of Truth” points out that, in times of uncertainty, misinformation serves as a strategy to promote someone or a cause. It is not a direct consequence of poverty or lack of education, as some people might think.

“Several theories have been developed to explain why people quickly accept information that supports their beliefs and reject those that challenge them. Simple. First impressions are hard to dismiss because there is a primitive instinct to defend territory itself, because people tend to produce emotional rather than intellectual responses when questioned and are averse to carefully examining the evidence. ” 

I could almost hear Castells’ voice here. Couldn’t you? And, if you are a Brazilian, doesn’t it sound really familiar?

Going further in Kakutani’s book, the reader finds her detailed and grounded explanation of how American president Donald Trump’s government manipulates facts – and it clearly resembles the strategy adopted by Bolsonaro lately, which is not a surprise. The Brazilian president is an assumed fan of the American.

“Trump’s attack on language is not limited to his torrent of lies, but extends to take words and principles intrinsic to the rule of law and contaminates them by personal issues and political partisanship,” wrote Kakutani. “By doing so, it replaces the language of democracy and its ideals with the language of autocracy. He demands allegiance not to the U.S. Constitution, but to himself; and expects members of Congress and the Judiciary to applaud their policies and wishes, regardless of what they believe best suits the interests of the American people.” 

Kakutani argues that playing with reality and weakening traditional forms of power, including the press, were the ways Trump found to win the vote. The same happened in my country. 

Kakutani also gets it right when she ties up studies and critiques about social networking and reveals their vulnerability toward misinformation and manipulation. She cites, for example, Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis’ article “The Online Radicalization We Are Not Talking About” to point out that one of the tactics used by the American right was to “dilute more extreme views in the form of introductory ideas to reach a broader audience,” thereby naturalizing  unacceptable phenomenons such as Nazism or misogyny. That’s totally comparable to the Brazilian, who call Nazism a leftist ideology and claimed global warming is a result of a “globalist” conspiracy.

On this topic, Kakutani quotes Renee DiResta, a specialist on network conspiracy theories, and her thesis of the “asymmetry of the passions.”

“Recommendation mechanisms help to connect conspiracy theorists to the point that we have already spent too much time on purely partisan bubbles and filters. We are now in the world of isolated communities that live their own reality and operate according to their own facts. The internet is no longer just reflecting reality but shaping it.” 

Has anyone ever heard about Olavo de Carvalho, Jair Bolsonaro’s “guru”? Well, that’s exactly the kind of isolation she was talking about — the bubble phenomenon and the comfort zone Castells pointed out a few days ago. Sitting in a chair and recording videos on Youtube, Carvalho feeds a bubble that promotes a specific person and his cause. And creates his own reality, which is considered the truth by the president. The truth of the president, please note, not of a country.  

Gilberto Scofield Jr. is the director of business and strategies at the Brazilian fact-checking organization Agência Lupa.

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