Freedom of the press is considered almost unanimously by political scientists and theorists as crucial for a healthy democracy. Freedom of speech, assembly, and press create an environment with many diverse sources of information. An independent press fosters accountability in government, revealing wrongdoing and helping hold those in power to account.
Worryingly, many supposedly democratic political leaders do not share this respect for the press. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has followed a similar playbook to President Donald Trump in the United States with regard to the press. Both have ridiculed and questioned the credibility and good intentions of the press on many occasions. The strength of democracy in Brazil is being threatened by possible constraints on the media as well as by misinformation campaigns.
Some authoritarian leaders seem to have almost perfected the strategy of restricting the press, such as in Russia under Vladimir Putin. Putin’s approach allows a marginal amount of independent press, but overall the government controls this freedom carefully and exerts pressure through restrictive laws on freedom of expression. Over the years, the government taken control of the most popular TV news outlets and independent outlets have been dropped by cable providers. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has constrained the press through regulation, and his wealthy allies have taken control of and consolidated news outlets. Orbán has instituted and used vague laws on freedom of expression that the government enforces selectively to harass opponents and critics. Studies show that access to independent media in Russia has an impact on voters, making them less likely to support the government party (1). It is important to note that Russia goes much further than Hungary in constraining the rights of journalists, and more repressive actions bring more international condemnation.
Misinformation and propaganda pose threats to democracy as well. In Russia and Hungary, misinformation and propaganda are widely disseminated by government-controlled or friendly media. Studies have found that that biased media can have real impacts on political preferences (2). More alarming, studies have found that even after voters are shown errors in information they believe, this does not alter voting preferences or support for policies (3). So there are two dangers. First, restrictions on media freedom and the press, and second, the rise of misinformation and distrust in traditional media.
Trump and Bolsonaro have often demonized the media, and both have at times banned certain journalists or outlets from press conferences. Trump has raised the possibility of revising libel laws to make media more vulnerable to libel lawsuits, a classic tool of stealth authoritarians to constrain the press.
In Brazil, public sector advertising has a substantial budget, which Bolsonaro has threatened to channel to favorable news outlets only. Bolsonaro has smeared reporters on social media, causing real danger to journalists: threats and attacks on journalists have become a major issue in Brazil, and watchdog organizations believe the increase in incidents is in part due to the polarized environment and some have claimed the majority of attacks have been by Bolsonaro supporters.
The type of tactics used in countries like Russia and Hungary seem unlikely to be used in the US, where the media landscape is more diverse and there are stronger institutions, but in Brazil, journalists have fewer legal protections and the media industry is very concentrated. There are already cases of loyal supporters who hold outsize media influence using their position to help Bolsonaro.
While traditional media outlets tend to be held to a certain standard, on social media, unverified sources and stories are very prevalent and popular. Social media creates “echo chambers” in which users are likely to see information that reflect their own views, which tends to reinforce previously held views and increase polarization. Misinformation on social media surrounded Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil this past fall. This was done primarily through WhatsApp, by various political supporters and by coordinated and well funded campaigns. This presents a major challenge to democracy in Brazil, where almost half of the voting public use WhatsApp to “discover political information”. Controlling misinformation on WhatsApp is nearly impossible since it is sent through group messages which are encrypted. It is crucial for Brazil to take action to reduce the flow of misinformation and restore the credibility of news media in order to preserve the health of its democracy.
(1). Enikolopov, Ruben, Maria Petrova, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. 2011. “Me- dia and Political Persuasion: Evidence from Russia.” American Economic Re- view, 101 (7): 3253-85.
(2). Martin, Gregory J., and Ali Yurukoglu. 2017. “Bias in Cable News: Per- suasion and Polarization.” American Economic Review, 107 (9): 2565-99.
(3). Barrera Rodriguez, Oscar David et al. 2018. “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics.” Working paper.
Gehlbach, Scott. 2010. “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs 26(1): pp. 77-87.
Greene, Joshua. 2013. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. New York: The Penguin Press. Introduction and Part 1.
Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Iden- tity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Chapters 1 and 3.
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