“Mark Antony is a womanizer, a drunkard and a mere puppet of Cleopatra.” The campaign of discredit launched by Octavian to end Mark Antony’s political career, in which he minted coins with messages against his political adversary, is one of the first examples of systematized propaganda that served, three decades before the birth of Jesus Christ, to stimulate the fourth civil war of the Republic and elevate Octavian, under the name of Augustus, as the first Roman emperor in history.
The use of propaganda and disinformation is as old as the written word. The political and warlike conflict has always been accompanied by its own story, either to encourage the like-minded group or to demoralize the rival. As The Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède explains, “the use of propaganda is ancient, but we have never had technology so effective in disseminating it.
In January 2020, the world population was around 7.75 billion, with more than 4.5 billion internet users, 3.8 billion on social networks, and 5.19 billion devices capable of broadcasting content from anywhere on the planet.
In the last two decades the traditional communication schemes have been fractured with the appearance of millions of transmitters, the disintermediation of information, the appearance of the big platforms that have eroded the advertising model on which the media business was based, and the proliferation of fake contents.
In this context, the most extensive research on misinformation that has been carried out in Spain offers worrying conclusions: more than half of the population is vulnerable to this phenomenon. The study, which was published this week by the Fundación Luca de Tena’s Journalism Laboratory with the support of Facebook, involved a group of 16 interdisciplinary researchers from the universities of San Pablo CEU and Rey Juan Carlos, who worked on the basis of 4,351 surveys and a qualitative analysis that lasted two months through a virtual community with a wide range of profiles.
Broadly speaking, young people – especially adolescents – and older people are more vulnerable to misinformation. Income or education level also plays a role: the greater the wealth or education, the less exposure. As for the channels, a media’s track record or reputation stands out as a guarantee of the credibility of its information. In general, more credibility is given to media with a more moderate editorial line than to those that adopt a more ideological position.
In any case, the greater or lesser credibility of a news item “is a multivariate phenomenon in which the most relevant factor is the way in which it is discovered”, according to the researchers. The study reveals that when the information content comes from family, friends or references of the receiver, it acquires greater credibility; and it highlights the role of cognitive dissonance, by underlining the propensity to assume as valid the information aligned with the beliefs of the subject.
We are moving towards a new stage of disinformation, an environment in which new formulas for promoting misleading content will be consolidated. The technology based on artificial intelligence already facilitates the manipulation of videos in which the voice, the semblant or the action of any character can be distorted. The problem is that it is increasingly easy to construct this type of content and there are already experts who are dedicated to marketing it. The deep fakes will have more and more capacity to sow or take advantage of chaos in alarm situations.
For this reason it is essential to go deeper into the search for solutions. The experts who have carried out the research propose three main lines of action: to guarantee greater transparency in the digital ecosystem, to promote greater responsibility on the part of technological actors and to encourage the promotion of media literacy in order to foster a critical spirit.
Ignacio Jiménez Soler, author of La nueva desinformación: veinte ensayos breves contra la manipulación, adds one more: personal responsibility. “The solution lies in a personal effort to ask questions, to confront concepts, to stress the context (…) to strive to investigate in order to transcend opinion and to forge criteria that nestle above it. More criteria and less opinion”.
Although post-truth is a recent phenomenon, described by the Royal Spanish Academy of Language for the first time in 2017 as the “deliberate distortion of a reality, which manipulates beliefs and emotions in order to influence public opinion and social attitudes”, the truth is that this formula is not new and it is enough to observe the political scene to understand the phenomenon in all its breadth. The pretext of Cleopatra is still in vogue.
José Suárez de Lezo
Journalist and expert in political and corporate communication.
Journalist and expert in political and corporate communication. He began his professional career in the newspaper ABC in 1999 and in 2004 he continued as head of communications in different central government bodies and the Community of Madrid. In 2007, he was appointed head of communications at Vocento and in 2009 he was appointed head of the Online Media Association (MediosOn), where he would subsequently take on the role of general manager. In 2015, he joined the Media Association and, in parallel, in 2016, he participated in the creation of the Journalism Laboratory of the Luca de Tena Foundation, which he currently heads.