On the limit of the paradox of tolerance, journalistic ethics is critical

Disclaimer: This article was originally published on TAB UOL, in Portuguese.

Remember when 2020 started with Trump sending bombs to Iran and we were sharing memes about a Third World War? Nobody imagined 2020 would be what it happened to be and, now that it’s gone, we try to believe that nothing can’t get worse. But, hold on, January already began with the US capitol being invaded by pro-Trump rioters who didn’t accept the defeat of the current president. With long beards, horned hats, hoodies with Nazi messages, and videogame tattoos, these rioters didn’t only cause a mess but also casualties.

The incident made Donald Trump publish a video on his social media, asking these gentlemen to kindly leave the facility, but, in any case, he still loved them. And after four years of impunity to so many other more or less controversial posts, the president had his Twitter and Facebook accounts suspended, an event that nevertheless also caused commotion between his supporters and the so-called defender of the freedom of speech.

Around here, in Brazil, we started January with exciting news that the CoronaVac, produced by the Butantan Institute in partnership with SinoVac lab, reached the mark of 78 percent of efficacy in light cases of Covid-19 infection and 100 percent of efficacy in average and aggravated cases. This gave hope to people on social media, with users celebrating not only the scientific discovery but also the fact that it was something achieved by Brazilian scientists.

But since all good things come to an end, we still faced reprisal from the government with the publication of a weird interim measure and the approval of an ironic, to say the least, 100-year long secrecy protocol granted to the president. As if it wasn’t enough for us to be watching digital influencers partying hard during this new wave of Covid-19 while thousands of deaths tolls are being accounted every day, we are still surprised by the ungrateful news that the singer Elba Ramalho said that the Covid-19 was created by communists who aim to destroy christians.

Even though this testimony may sound something isolated, with no importance, and that it was only amplified for its comic value, unfortunately, Elba is not alone in this and she’s no newbie. Back in 2001, the magazine Veja published an article in which the singer declared she believed that she was chipped by extraterrestrial beings. Since the journalist couldn’t avoid the joke, Elba decided to sue him, although the judge denied the claim, opening the report text with the quote “all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have,” attributed to Albert Einstein. Point for the judge.

Websites such as Questão de Ciência and the YouTube channel Física e Afins are two examples of people working on scientific divulgation with precision and solidity. I stress the latter characteristic because, very often, there is this argument that everything is relative, that we still don’t know for sure if certain methods and theories are really false or if we are being prejudiced, and so on. But that’s the catch in the quote used by the judge. Science might not explain all things, but it is still the most effective, replicable, and testable way to do so. This however doesn’t mean that throughout the history of humanity, especially in the West, pseudosciences, religion, and mysticism ceased to exist.

In an article written by Marisa Peryer for the website Questão de Ciência, we see that particularly during pandemics, misinformation and politics are always a side effect. This was already observed even during the epidemics of cholera, by the beginning of the 19th century. Just like today, some hoaxes were created back then so people wouldn’t trust their authorities and health professionals anymore. Currently, what we see, however, is the potentialization of these hoaxes being spread through a broader and faster medium, which is the internet and, by its part, social media.

Right, so how can we mitigate these effects? The suspension of Trump’s accounts on Twitter and Facebook is an example of the attempts done by both companies to reduce the spread of fake news and hate speech. More than intensifying the verification of all content reported by users or by implementing algorithms that may automate the removal of pernicious content, now we receive messages that question whether we really want to share certain links before checking them or new subtitles point that the content featured in a tweet is a debatable fact. Last year, journalist Carlos Orsi wrote an essay about this topic, where he addressed possible measures to be taken in order to regulate social media.

Briefly, what Orsi stresses is that you can’t exempt social media companies from certain responsibilities like other utility services such as energy or gas providers. In case a murderer uses electricity to commit a crime, it’s not the energy provider that is going to respond to the occurrence. However, in the case of social media companies, they are not just providers of a service/platform for publication of messages coming from any user, but their business model is based on the content of these messages. In other words, the more a content is shared, the more likes and views it receives, the more advantageous it is from a commercial point of view, and so its format will be replicated.

This is the reason why, for some time, we got used to publications like that: “Check the most X things of the world. You won’t believe the third.” Clickbaits thus became the norm. Since social media algorithms are not so clear, too often communicators (influencers or not) and media businesses tend to opt for these questionable business strategies. But that’s nothing new. Journalism and advertisement is practically inseparable these days, to the point that people really get confused about what is what. As bloodier as it gets, the more controversial the content, the more it will be consumed.

TV shows covering police news, talk shows, and even content created by people who are not professionally trained to be journalists have this history of giving space for people who are, to say the least, questionable opinionators. Examples range from Gentili receiving Flat Earth supporters in his show The Noite and the many other controversies featured on the podcast Flow. It has become so absurd that the hosts were criticized by their very guest, singer Rogério Skylab, who may seem a bit crazy for some people, but in face of our reality, it’s the wisest we can get. But it’s not always like that. It’s easier to be turned into a meme or a Trending Topic on Twitter than actually taking a real action.

This was the case of a Chilean TV show in which one of the guests said that the military dictatorship didn’t happen in the country. He wasn’t a random person, but actually a lawyer and economist who published a book about this same historical incident, although he addresses it as a “military revolution.” Moreover, he is also an activist of the extreme right party Fuerza Nacional. In face of such claims, the hostess Tonka Tomicic was brave enough to ask the guest to leave since the TV show wouldn’t accept someone promoting false information.

It’s not always like that. An obvious example is the case of the humor TV show CQC, which frequently interviewed the current Brazilian president when he was a deputy, but already an interviewee with a lot of controversial things to say and thus maximize their rates. But what used to be a joke has actually turned into the president and, today, one of the former reporters of the TV show says that she regrets giving him space for commentary, but she did so because she “would never imagine that other people agreed with him.”

I don’t want to address the fact that the reporter had no diploma in journalism because the issue here is not in the absence of a title but rather the lack of journalistic ethics, a critical element that too often is ignored depending on the way the content is featured — and this has nothing to do with opinion. The ethics in journalism is much more related to the responsibility of the professionals, to the point that we have the expression “Fourth Estate” precisely to express the dimension of the influence exerted by the media over society. So when we invite Flat Earth supporters and anti-vaxxers to casually chat on the couch at the studio, we are rather committing a serious mistake by exposing these topics and not educating people on that.

So the question is whether we should stop inviting these people to speak? Yes and no. As another article on TAB already mentioned, all conspiracy theory is harmful right because it uneducated people to be rational and think critically. At some point, we lost the tone when presenting topics such as pseudosciences without taking enough care to make it clear enough that it is not verifiable, functional or, more than that, that these methods could actually harm people. Carlos Orsi quotes the philosopher Stuart Mill in his article, saying that “even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are articulated are so that expression constitutes a right instigation to a harmful act.” And, again, we fall into the trap of the paradox of tolerance argued by Karl Popper:

“Unlimited tolerance will culminate in the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, so the tolerant ones will be destroyed and with them, tolerance itself. (…) In this formulation I don’t suggest that we should always suppress discourses from intolerant philosophies, provided that it is possible to counter them with a logic argument and provided that public opinion may keep them quiet, suppressing them would be unwise.”

We already know that we can’t repress certain feelings and subjects because they invariably may “explode” and make things even worse. Freud addressed this issue long ago when psychoanalysis was still being developed, whereas Byung-Chul Han argues nowadays that the excess of positivity and “luxury” in our society has actually made us fall into this paradox of tolerance. If we already reached a point in which post-truth became the word of the year 2016, the capitol is invaded by members of conspiracy groups that, by the way, has already arrived in Brazil, when we have robots being programmed to fight in social media and so many other strategies to turn information into warfare, it is clear that we have crossed the line of tolerance and, with that, we rather destroyed tolerance itself.

In other words, it is past time for us to recover our responsibility as communicators and understand that it doesn’t “depend on the point of view” and it is not about freedom of speech. We already saw that these theories are not innocent, since, in some cases, people may one day say they were chipped by aliens and, on the other, they will be saying that Covid-19 was created by communists to destroy all Christians. Maybe one day, when more people become media literate, this could change, but, for now, we cannot have the luxury of simply believing that people are reasonable.

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.

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