Media, National Politics, Society

Confirmation bias and the impeachment: How social media in Brazil helped alienate public opinion


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by Fernanda Nogueira, Co-Editor and Writer at Brazil Talk

Over 90% of Brazilians use social media to read the news, and 70% of them have Facebook as their main source[1]. It is a global trend, and it presents serious risks to public participation in politics, for the simple fact that one can select exactly what type of news one wishes to see. Even worse, based on your profile information, social media instruments now develop algorithms that determine what reaches your newsfeed, tailored to your tastes and beliefs[2].  This allows people to avoid opinions with which one would otherwise disagree. This conduct has led to an alienation of public opinion in Brazil and abroad and has divided people into very distant groups in face of recent events, such as the president’s impeachment, hindering real civic participation in such an important time.

This type of behavior is very common and it is called confirmation bias. In simple terms, you choose to be in contact only with what is in accordance and confirms your prior thoughts and opinions. In social media such as Facebook it is very easy to do that. You can carefully select which sources you wish to follow, targeting specific journalists or opinion makers, and exclude the people who might present a different view of things.

With traditional information sources (newspapers and magazines, physical or online), while they usually have a main defined position, one still has access to a whole set of journalists who might bring different perspectives over the same topic, and in the majority of cases you will have at least one person who has a contrary opinion from the source’s declared one, maintaining a balance. The same logic can be applied to groups of friends’ debates. With relationships becoming more and more virtual, we have the option to simply exclude people from our feed – and even “terminate” our virtual friendship.

We deliberately disconnect ourselves from different viewpoints. Not only do we refuse to listen to – or read – diverse standpoints, we refuse to engage in conversation. We have become so strongly attached to our own ideas that we spontaneously decline the opportunity to be convinced otherwise. For reasons not to be discussed here, as it is a deep enough topic that deserves an article of its own, we lost the ability to argue, to understand different standpoints and not to rush into conclusions, taking weak assumptions as true.

The impeachment process was a clear confirmation of this point. Being called “stupid” or “ignorant” for having a diverse view happened on a daily basis. Countless Facebook pages were created with the sole purpose of ridiculing or even threatening the opposing side[3]. The whole process was treated with mockery and disrespect, incentivizing people even more to simply exclude themselves from conversations. I did that more times than I would like to acknowledge. The Brazilian society found itself divided in two groups that refused to talk to each other, weakened and with little possibility of demanding real and effective improvements in the political scene.

I cannot refrain from drawing a parallel with the elections in the United States. Hillary supporters were trapped in a bubble where all the “open-minded” thought alike, and for them it was obvious that the Democrats were winning. Trump’s election would not have been a surprise if people actually talked to each other, and tried to understand what was moving these voters. Perhaps underneath the surface of anger, one could find rightful, cogent arguments about needed changes in the system. But again, how would the open-minded know, if they were not willing to listen?

The solution here is simple, although probably painful: open ourselves to the debate. Embrace the sources we so disagree with and engage in genuine discussions. Make an effort to understand what is being said, read between the lines and clear away the anger embedded on some of the speeches. There might be something in there that will make you reconsider your own thoughts – and that is what most people are afraid of. If we are really the open-minded people we think we are, we should at least try to outgrow that fear and build connections instead of destroying them.

We often complain about the lack of seriousness in Brazilian politics and institutions, but our own actions are not exemplary. A society so gravely divided will hardly achieve meaningful progress. It is important to understand that there is no need to agree on everything – people solely have to be able to converse, and when possible, propose solutions. One can begin by adding an opinion-maker who is clearly divergent from one’s opinion to their newsfeed on Facebook.

Allowing ourselves to open our minds is not only a demonstration of wisdom, but a crucial feature to surpass such turmoil times, in Brazil and in the rest of the world.

 

Works Cited

CORNILS, P. (2014). Facebook um mapa das redes de odio. Retrieved October 2016, from http://www.cartacapital.com.br: http://www.cartacapital.com.br/blogs/outras-palavras/facebook-um-mapa-das-redes-de-odio-327.html

NEWMAN, N., & al. (2016). Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/big-data-cambridge-analytica-brexit-trump