Last week I had the opportunity to write about the rise of the extreme right in Brazil, stressing the fact that it was only another example of a deeper dynamic all around the world. Today's communication and information systems and means are capable of taking an obscure figure and make out of them a perfectly acceptable candidate for any election in a few months time. A number of unknown political figures have been skyrocketed into public opinion by the extensive use of social media. A huge quantity of "fake news," consisting of fake or sometimes deeply transformed information is being conveyed to the public through carefully planned and prepared strategies.
This aims at discrediting the existing administration, through magnified and distorted information about so-called corruption and/or mismanagement and misdemeanor. It also aims at heralding any obscure and bigmouth loser as an "irreproachable knight to fight communist/cosmopolitan/liberal corruption." Due to difficult economic times in most countries, this strategy works beyond expectations. Mythic "golden eras" are brought to the agenda, in the purest style of "let us make whatever country great again," or worse "let us give our country back to its true citizens." The danger is that this fascist rhetoric may not be new nor very intelligent; it is brought to the opinion of a generation who has not known war or fascism. It appeals to the very primitive sentiments of humanity, fear against real or perceived insecurity, increased alienation within society and disdain of the "other."
From the Philippines to Italy, including several other major countries in the world, an oligarchy of press moguls, judiciary, private sector representatives, high-ranking officers, a number of independent churches join their forces to discredit the governments in place, to denounce "corruption" and either get power or join coalitions.
What was seen as unacceptable a few years ago has become perfectly useable political discourse.
The main instrument in the hands of this oligarchy has been social media, from Facebook to Twitter, from Instagram to WhatsApp. With considerable financial means, any political movement or oligarchy can use social media, through trolls, much more efficiently than any civil society gathering. There are over 2 billion users of Youtube, which has only very limited control possibilities. Facebook and WhatsApp do not have or do not want to exercise better controls over hate messages and their dissemination, despite Mark Zuckerberg's declarations.
Progressive representatives of civil society, of democratic rights and liberties have always been adamant to protect freedom of expression in social media. They have done it with the most laudable intentions, but their resistance and activities have given way to total degeneration of such media. WhatsApp is a major outlet where millions of dollars have been invested by political organisations, supported by huge financial backing, to create fake news without any control safeguards.
The European Court of Human Rights, established in Strasbourg, has been more and more involved in securing both the privacy and the "untouchability" of electronic correspondence. In its Article 8, the court stipulates:
l Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
l There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
So how to control social media outlets like Twitter or WhatsApp?
There are negative obligations regarding information distributed through this type of media. The European Court of Human Rights also says: "That any interference by a public authority with an individual's right to respect for private life and correspondence must be with in accordance with the law. This expression does not only necessitate compliance with domestic law but also relates to the quality of that law, requiring it to be compatible with the rule of law."
Therefore, we will soon be in need of a well-functioning, independent judicial system, whose legislation should be compatible with universally accepted principles of law. This is an important issue for any democratic regime, and this is now a survival issue for our democracies.