2021 Reuters Memorial Lecture: How to rescue journalism in an age of lies
Brazilian journalist Patrícia Campos Mello delivered the annual Reuters Memorial Lecture on 8 June 2021. Campos Mello has published a series of investigative pieces on the rise of disinformation in Brazil and has been the target of a vicious harassment campaign by Jair Bolsonaro's allies. Below is a transcript of her talk.
At this exact moment, millions of Brazilians are getting most of their information about COVID-19 through Facebook, Telegram, YouTube, and WhatsApp. They are learning how to cure and prevent this deadly disease with hydroxychloroquine, vitamins and ivermectin, a medication that combats lice. As science has shown, none of that works.
The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro and his main allies tell these same people, every single day, that there is no need to do social distancing, that masks are for sissies, that people should take those miracle medications, stop whining and get back to work. After all, his reasoning goes, "if the economy sinks, my administration goes under."
We know where all this leads. Over 470,000 people died of COVID-19 in Brazil, the second-highest death toll in the world, after the United States. And no, Brazil is not the second-most populous country in the world – it's the sixth.
Watch Patrícia's lecture
From COVID-19 to voting
At this precise moment, millions of Brazilians are also getting most of their information about next year's presidential election through Facebook, Telegram, and WhatsApp groups. They are reading that the last elections in Brazil were rigged, that there was widespread ballot fraud, that electronic voting machines can easily be hacked.
Since Brazil implemented electronic voting in 1996, there has never been credible evidence of any significant fraud in elections. Not once. And yet, Bolsonaro, his main allies, and extreme right-wing bloggers tell these same people, day in and day out, that the 2022 elections will be rigged unless an amendment to the Constitution is approved and all the electronic voting machines are equipped with printers that guarantee a paper trail.
There's nothing wrong with discussing ways to improve the security of voting. However, even if there were changes in legislation, there is not enough time to adapt all the voting machines by the 2022 election and Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that the only reason why he will lose is because of the fraud in electronic voting. He is preemptively disputing the results in case he loses.
We know where all that leads. In the US, after a massive disinformation campaign led by Donald Trump, his supporters invaded the Capitol on 6 January 2021 to confront lawmakers and protest against the results. Five people were killed. According to recent polls, 60% of Republican voters believe here was widespread fraud and Joe Biden is not the legitimate President – even though dozens of judicial rulings have stated the opposite.
A young democracy under pressure
Today the US is a fractured country. But it has managed to survive a massive attack against its institutions.
I'm not sure whether a young democracy like Brazil will be able to resist these massive attacks against its electoral integrity and democratic institutions. Lies are the foundation of the health tragedy we are going through and lies are the cornerstone of our incoming political disaster.
Professional journalism is one of the last barriers against the collapse of democracy in Brazil and in many other countries struggling with an avalanche of lies. Meticulously checked information, careful and balanced reporting, and in-depth investigations are the only hope to bring back reality to many countries where facts became malleable and often secondary to opinions and beliefs.
That is why journalists and media outlets are under attack in so many countries. Attacking professional media and discrediting journalists is part of the strategy of populist leaders to establish a direct channel with supporters, with no fact-checking, no questioning, no accountability. With the help of social networks and pliant traditional media, these leaders are trying to bypass the filter of critical and independent journalism.
Censorship by noise (and defamation)
Censorship, in this new world, doesn't require the suppression of information.
On the one hand, populist leaders flood social media, messaging apps, and the internet in general with the version of facts they want to prevail – so that it drowns out investigations and negative news. It’s the so-called censorship by noise.
Then, for that manipulation of public opinion to succeed, these digital populist leaders need to delegitimise professional journalism. To neutralise journalism, leaders deploy virtual militias that engage in character assassination and defamation campaigns against journalists and media outlets that keep the government in check. It's a new form of censorship, outsourced to trolls, bloggers, and influencers, amplified by bots and cyborgs on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, YouTube, and TikTok – and embraced by real people, eager to see their beliefs validated.
These aggressions have nothing to do with fair and welcome criticism. Journalists make mistakes, and we should correct them and be accountable for them. Nor is it the traditional animosity between governments and watchdogs.
A hate machine
To be a journalist in Brazil today is to be the target of a hate machine. The Brazilian president has already told more than one journalist to shut up. Once, he told a reporter that he had "the terrible look of a homosexual." A few months ago, asked by a reporter about a corruption investigation, he said he wanted to "punch" him in the mouth. These aggressions are widely shared on social media, as part of an offensive to portray the media as the enemy of the people and inflame the population against journalists. The same is happening in the Philippines, India, Hungary, Turkey, the US and many other countries.
Sadly, it works. The main media outlets in Brazil no longer send journalists to cover the impromptu press briefings of the president outside Alvorada Palace because it is not safe. Reporters were constantly threatened by government supporters, who yelled things like: "Rats! Rats! Bolsonaro until 2050! Rotten press! Communists!" Last May a photojournalist got pushed, kicked, and punched in the stomach during a protest in favor of the government and the closing of Congress and the Supreme Court.
On top of the digital onslaught, the government resorts to the National Security Act to silence critical journalists, scholars, political cartoonists, and the opposition. The National Security Act is a rarely used piece of legislation and a remnant of the military dictatorship. Journalists are also under systematic judicial harassment, being sued by the president’s supporters demanding huge sums. Media outlets are targets as well: the president himself and his ministers put pressure (in private and on social media) on businesses to stop advertising in critical news organisations and on TV.
Women are often the target
The situation is especially critical for female journalists. We are the target of defamation campaigns stimulated and amplified by the government. Much more frequently than our male colleagues, we have our parents and our children intimidated, our appearance mocked, our addresses and phone numbers exposed, and we are subject to violent threats both online and in the real world.
I have been the target of this hate machine since 2018, when I started writing about the political use of WhatsApp and other disinformation tools to manipulate public opinion. In the beginning, I got threatening messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In one of those messages on Facebook, a guy said: "If you want your son to be safe, leave the country. This is not a threat; it's a warning." My son was 6 then.
Trolls then started sending messages to WhatsApp groups of Bolsonaro supporters, telling them the address, date, and time of events I would participate in. They urged Bolsonaro followers to go to the events and confront me. They started to call my cell phone. "You're a communist slut; I'm heading to your house now to punch you in the face," they said.
We gathered the most extreme threats and sent them to the police. My newspaper decided I should have a bodyguard for a while, just in case. I covered the conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and I never considered hiring a security consultant. I was in São Paulo, covering the elections, and I needed one.
In February last year, the hate machine started a massive online sexual harassment campaign. Thousands of memes circulated on the internet in which my face appears in pornographic montages, calling me a prostitute and alluding to sexual organs. I get messages from people saying that I offer sex in exchange for scoops and that I should be raped.
I recently won lawsuits for moral damages against president Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo Bolsonaro, a lawmaker, for repeatedly stating or implying that I offer sex in exchange for scoops. They are appealing the verdict.
I am not alone. Many respected female journalists in Brazil, like Míriam Leitão, Vera Magalhães, Talita Fernandes, Constança Rezende, Juliana Dal Piva, Daniela Lima, have also been the target of misogynistic attacks. And around the world, great journalists like Maria Ressa in the Philippines and Neha Dixit in India are being attacked with sexist slurs and threats just because they are doing their job.
How to defend journalism
Amid these intimidation campaigns, it is tempting for us, journalists, to see the government as the enemy. But that is precisely what we should not do. We should fight intimidation with our best weapon - fair and balanced reporting.
The pandemic and the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world have shown that journalism is necessary. In the middle of a health disaster and an avalanche of disinformation, accurate information is precious.
Reporters are the ones going to hospitals to show what the situation is there. We are the ones revealing that ICUs are running out of oxygen and pain medication necessary to intubate patients. We obtain diplomatic cables showing how the government mobilised its structure to import unproven medicines against COVID-19 and neglected vaccines. Journalists are parsing budgets and exposing how the government is cutting funding for combating deforestation and is tolerating massive operations of illegal logging while telling the world that it is defending the Amazon. Fact-checkers are the ones verifying claims that could lead people to dangerous behaviour regarding their health or democracy.
Who else is going to do that? Not opinion writers, partisan bloggers, activists, digital influencers or government officials.
We can't rely on the owners of the modern public square, the internet platforms, to prevent disinformation from creating or exacerbating health and political crises. We have seen how they enforce their own rules arbitrarily.
Professional journalists are the ones who are capable of uncovering the truth and getting it out there. It won't be easy, because we face unfair competition. Disinformation goes viral – accurate information does not.
Still, we have an invaluable opportunity to prove the relevance of journalism in a world of lies. How can we do that?
We shouldn’t mix journalism with activism. We can't take sides, even when what we see is outrageous and is causing a massive number of preventable deaths.
But we don’t need to. It’s not necessary to tell people how we feel or what they should think. Simply showing evidence, exposing hidden information, finding original documents, and getting to primary sources, carefully investigating in order not to make mistakes, and correcting errors – that is the best we can do to spread quality information. That’s how we can fight injustice, without compromising journalistic values.
With luck, our newly regained relevance will help us break the shell of some of the people who became impervious to news that does not endorse their beliefs or political leanings.