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Uncertainties in times of disaster encourage misinformation | Brazil

The spread of fake news harms aid to victims of the rains in Rio Grande do SulFabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom/Agência Brasil

Published 14/05/2024 12:35

The breakdown of normality, momentary disorder and uncertainties generated by disasters provide a favorable environment for the dissemination of so-called fake news. And social networks are fertile ground for misinformation, according to researcher at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES) Fabio Malini.

Malini coordinates the Image and Cyberculture Studies Laboratory (Labic) at UFES, whose team has analyzed the content of messages broadcast on these networks about the climate disaster in Rio Grande do Sul.

“There is a process of informational disorder that occurs because this is an event that produces disorder in our social balance. People used to live on a street, they stopped living there and now they are in the shelter. The person doesn’t know where to go, for example. These things happen until they become organized over time”, says Malini. “This is a common pattern in disasters, terrorism, extreme weather events, when the degree of uncertainty increases in the field of opinion.”

In a survey carried out on posts from the social network state. And that is positive.

On the other hand, however, there are many posts that spread fake news, creating confusion and harming efforts to help the population of Rio Grande do Sul generated on the social network itself.

“There is no doubt that the field of mobilization is much larger (than that of disinformation). The tone of the network is much more intense in the sense of calling for donations, political action, etc. The problem is that one thing (fake news) can reduce the other (positive mobilization). There may be hesitation in making the donation. People don’t know if they should donate because they don’t know if it will reach the end (to those who need it)”, highlights Malini.

The researcher uses as an example the case of fake news about the alleged retention, by government authorities, of trucks with donations until taxes on the cargo were paid. The rumor that the vehicles were prevented from traveling through the state spread across the networks through digital influencers.

According to Malini, disinformation can take the form of a rumor, pure and simple, but can also appear in a more subtle way, as in the case of generalizations. “This has also been very common in these situations. Sometimes there is a case of sexual violence in a private shelter and this is widespread, as if it occurs everywhere. And (there is a risk that) people will not seek shelter in these places. Or the generalization that they are robbing all the houses and people want to go back to their homes, when they still can’t go back. This can result in harm and even death.”

The Labic survey also shows that fake news can be shaped through the lens of political radicalization. In other words, influencers and politicians opposing the state and federal governments create disinformation in order to discredit government authorities.

“In moments of great emotional stress, it is standard in these events for authorities to be blamed”, says Malini. “(And disinformation against governments) often articulates, and this is the danger, the disauthorization of state action, that is, as if the State was hindering the movement of people to organize themselves,” she added.

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