September 3, 2020

Take a minute and try to answer this: What do Donald Trump (USA), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), Recep Erdoğan (Turkey), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Viktor Órban (Hungary), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) and Narendra Modi (India) have in common?

It ain’t their political view – for sure. Some politicians in this list say they are on the right, attached to conservatives. Others emphasize they are on the left, with progressists.

These men do not represent an economic or geopolitical elite. Their countries aren’t on the same continent or even in the same hemisphere. They don’t speak the same language, have the same ancestors nor follow the same religion.

Then, what do they have in common?

They are “techno-populists”. They all fit perfectly into the definition settled by the Italian writer Giuliano da Empoli and let me show you how. They are all politicians who have weaponized social media. They use algorithms to control narratives. They usually attack the press. All of them are polarizing figures. And they are not bothered if their actions result in reputations being destroyed.

This is the clear conclusion in “A Máquina do Ódio” (The Hate Machine), a book newly published by the Brazilian journalist Patrícia Campos Mello, a reporter for Folha de S.Paulo who won this year’s María Moors Cabot Award.

Throughout 196 pages (that haven’t been translated to English yet), Campos Mello introduces the concept of techno-populists and makes it absolutely clear to her readers how the disinformation scenarios are similar in these eight countries: United States, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Nicaragua, Hungary, the Philippines and India. For those who are interested in having a broader view of the disinformation disorder through the hands of major politicians, this is definitely a must-read.

But “A Maquina do Ódio” also offers Campos Mello’s personal point of view. On its first page, the author recounts the day her 7-year-old son found on Youtube a video with a man calling her a “shameless bitch.”

In more than 25 years as a reporter, Campos Mello specialized in writing about refugees and wars. She went several times to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Libya, Lebanon and Kenya. In 2014, when Sierra Leone suffered a terrible Ebola outbreak, she reported from there, with an award-winning perspective.

But, since 2018, when she began to write articles about the use of social media by political mis/disinformers, she began to fear not only for her life – but also for her son’s.

In 2018, Campos Mello published the most relevant investigative article about the alleged illegal use of WhatsApp by the electoral campaign of today’s President Jair Bolsonaro. The case is under investigation in the Supreme Electoral Court, in Brazil (TSE). Campos Mello, however, is harassed daily by the government supporters – and sometimes by the president himself and his sons. She usually sees her face superimposed on photos of naked women and receives messages calling her a “whore.” The decision to write the book comes from this extreme experience.

“For those disinformation campaigns to succeed, it is necessary to discredit and delegitimize the professional press – and it is quite common to see how these digital populists are getting used to attack female journalists,” Campos Mello told me.

In “A Maquina do Ódio”, she draws special attention to the way techno-populists target women. Campos Mello writes about Maria Ressa’s case (Rappler’s CEO, in the Philippines, has been arrested several times and was recently declared guilty for cyber libel) and stresses that digital hate is leading women to a dangerous level of self-censorship.

“A study by the International Women’s Media Foundation and TrollBusters shows that 63% of female journalists have already been threatened or harassed online, 58% have already been personally threatened and, unbelievable, 26% have already been physically attacked. 40% of them say they have started to avoid certain topics due to harassment and violence.”

As a woman and fact-checker, I asked Campos Mello how we could confront the techno-populists. She  suggested collaboration:

“We need to get the platforms and the society to help us spreading correct information – data that is capable of dealing not only with disinformation but also with the systematic harassment that journalists suffer from digital populists and their virtual militias.”

Read the Spanish version in Univision.

* Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org. Full disclosure: Tardáguila has been quoted in the book “A Máquina do Ódio”.

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Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
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