Network Noise
Disruption Takes the Lead ahead of Courteous Disagreement

Project Colônia Juliano Moreira, Jacarapaguá, Brazil 2019. The photo was taken during an artistic residency of the programme CASA B at the Museum Bispo do Rosério for Contemporary Art, Rio de Janeiro.
Project Colônia Juliano Moreira, Brazil 2019. | Photo (detail): © Marlon de Paula

Throughout the world, especially in Brazil, social media algorithms have contributed to the rise in political radicalism, polarisation, and eroding human relationships. Why are networks keeping people away from each other when they could be bringing them closer together?

By Juliana Vaz

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social networks became the primary window to the exterior world, allowing for the exchange of information and reconnecting people whom social distancing had separated. At the same time, with the increase in hours on the screens, conspiracy theories, hate speech, and fake news circulated around digital media like never before - starting with Brazilians president’s Twitter profile, which belittled the seriousness of the illness, denied the vaccine, and disseminated lies about inefficient medications and treatments.

18 months into the pandemic with a death toll at nearly 600,000 people, there are indications that the Brazilian population is more cautious about consuming information found on the internet. Based on extensive research carried out by Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, 82 percent of Brazilians are concerned about the circulation of fake news in 2021, and the use of Whatsapp and other apps as a source of information fell compared to 2019. The uncertainty brought about by the health crisis has apparently strengthened the pursuit of actual news coverage. After all, during the pandemic, rumors, denialism, and misinformation can not only cause virtual squabbles, misunderstandings, and political polarisation, but they also bring graver consequences like death.

Recent initiatives led by Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook to exclude denialist publications caused the Brazilian government to react, and it is still trying unsuccessfully to reduce moderating power on the platforms. Though, it is worth asking if they in fact still have the potential to become less-toxic spaces that are free of violent speech and which can stimulate dialogue and strengthen democracy, as was the utopian view in the early days of the internet.

Echo Chambers

Ana Regina Rêgo, coordinator of the National Network to Combat Disinformation and professor at the Federal University of Piauí, explains that part of the architecture of social networks is the creation of spaces of common belief, called “echo chambers”. It is the opposite of what occurs in the offline experience, where we are constantly confronted with divergent ideas - and we develop strategies to deal with them. 

“Facebook is a data vulture. The algorithm works for you to have a good experience and to avoid stress inside the network. The idea was to create a clean experience on the timeline, where the contradictory does not exist. But this ended up generating bubbles and ‘echo chambers’, where you only socialise with people who think the same,” Rêgo asserts. On social media in general, “people are persuaded to evaluate and take a position on everything and feel powerful to choose whatever news they consume and whichever version of reality to believe. Such a sensation is important to the networks’ commercial strategy of simulating the internet user as the centre of the world and his or her values the measure for everything,” Richard Miskolci, sociologist at Universidade Federal de São Paulo, posits.

Emotional Engagement

Fake information, conspiracy theories, and hate speech are content that mixes with emotions and have the capacity to mobilise users. At the beginning of the pandemic, images of caskets that had supposedly been buried empty in Manaus went viral, causing immense repercussion. The “news” was soon debunked by agencies specialised in journalistic fact-checking. However, many people who received the false information believed it and revolted, which generated likes, comments, shares - in addition to clashes, provocations, and name-calling.

When our personal relationships are mediated by virtual platforms, they are affected by a business model that depends upon the extraction of our data, Anna Bentes explains, a researcher at MediaLab at the Federal University Rio de Janeiro. Thus, polarisation, division, and even disinformation can be of interest to these platforms, because they generate engagement.

“Platforms need people to spend the maximum amount of time possible connected. They are seeking persuasive psychological mechanisms that are capable of engaging people’s attention, in a way that keeps them interacting, because that is how they produce a greater quantity of data and direct their advertisements,” Bentes says. For this, the users’ vulnerabilities, emotions, and cognitive vices are exploited through various resources, such as notifications, which function as psychological triggers so that the user returns to use the platform. “This is certainly good for the platforms, but not so much for the users. Even more so after the pandemic, when we all are feeling screen fatigue and information overload,” the researcher says.

Cancel Culture

It is true that digital technologies have offered a space for groups historically excluded from public debate in Brazil, like the Black, feminist, and LGBTIQ+ movements, and amplified their voices in the struggle for rights. However, one of the practices of activism that has become common in this context is that of “cancelling”. A kind of virtual shaming that involves boycotting, generally of a public figure who has spoken about a prickly issue, cancelling can cause fear and hesitation, reducing active participation in virtual debates. Fearful of being “cancelled,” we end up retreating and withdrawing from discussions, since our first misstep can immediately get us punished, ruin our reputation. 

For Miskolci, on social media, legitimate demands for social justice can be misconstrued as a refusal to dialogue, where “one speaks and the other listens, one commands and the other obeys.” “In a way that is revealing, identity politics come close to the antidemocratic ways of its adversaries, showing that demands for social justice can end up sustaining the authoritarian characteristics of our society,” Miskolci argues. “Online activism - whether from the right or the left - functions in a market logic where ideas are evaluated based on their capacity to resonate collectively through likes and shares. Media tend to give visibility to those which are capable of communicating ideas in way that demands no reflection on the part of their followers, spectators, or readers,” the sociologist observes.

Although they are officially there to bring people together and create ties, social networks, in practice, are very often responsible for establishing distances: “Network communication makes us wait for everyone to accept what we say, substituting dialogue and courteous disagreement for conflict and disruption,” Miskolci concludes.