02 Aug 2021 Public communication in Latin America: Obstacles and overcoming experiences
By María Soledad Segura
In addition to the old problems of public communication in Latin America, such as media systems concentration, limited access to public information, attacks on press workers, etc., today there is the massive, networked and instantaneous dissemination of fake news, alternative facts, disinformation and hate speech; harassment through social networks; and polarization.
Knowledge-producing institutions – such as science and journalism grounded on the collection and the analysis of objective and verifiable facts – are confronted by and coexist with anti-scientific discourses, alternative facts, and false or misleading news (Waisbord, 2018a). Also, reactionary discourses have continued to attack human rights in general and particularly subaltern people (lower classes, women, sexual dissidents, victims of genocides such as dictatorships, civil wars, etc.) (Segura, 2015; Waisbord, 2018b).
Moreover, they have targeted political correctness as false, deceptive, and hypocritical (Waisbord, 2019b). These issues are articulated: alternative facts about history and fake news about current events are usually linked to anti-scientific and anti-human rights discourses as well as to stigmatization and discrimination of vulnerable social groups.
I argue that the challenges to democratic communication in Latin America are multi-faceted, and that these issues are part of a general problem. Based on Habermas (1994) theory about validity claims and normative grounds of public dialogue, they can be grouped in three types of threats to democratic communication: threats that challenge the notion of truth grounded on empirical demonstration and logical argumentation which underpin science and journalism; challenges against the normative consensus on human rights and democracy; and the reactionary critique of speeches that recognize rights and criticize forms of stigmatizing – so-called political correctness. It is a moment of crisis in democratic communication with no clear solutions.
Collective agreement on procedures to define the truth or on respect for human rights as the ground for democratic communication is stable and durable, but it is not unchangeable. The dominant paradigm in a certain historical period and in a specific society is a result of political and social struggles, and it is always challenged by alternative discourses (Angenot, 1989; Foucault, 1992; Williams, 2000; Mozejko y Costa, 2007). Nevertheless, this situation does not necessarily imply a crisis. The paradigm crisis, as the present one, occurs when it is not clear which is the dominant option.
This constitutes a problem for democracy insofar as its radicalization is based on the expansion of equality and social justice, so that national and popular aspirations coincide with the affirmation of human rights, the division of powers, and political pluralism (Mouffe, 2011). From this perspective, democracy is an unfinished, inclusive, continuous, and reflexive process, which demands that democratic communication enables the real participation of all social sectors for their demands and aspirations be heard and taken into account (Fraser, 2006).
Thus, strong and free public debate is necessary to control power, articulate and express demands, claim rights, and propose policies reforms, for public presentation of different social sectors, and for democratizing subjectivities.
Extreme social, economic, and cultural segregation
What are the chances of these deliberately misleading or false speeches, hate and discriminatory discourses being accepted based on? Why are these counter-values so widespread in our societies? Which are the levels of violence and inequality that make these discourses attractive?
The rupture of the normative consensus on the definition of objective truth, personal sincerity and social rectitude is linked to extreme social, economic, and cultural segregation. An increasingly segregated society does not facilitate democratic, constructive, and high quality debate. Therefore, these problems are particularly acute in societies, such as Latin American ones, characterized by deep historical and structural social and economic inequality; unemployment; dependent national economies; weak welfare policies; significant authoritarianism both in governments and society (Araujo, 2016); “delegative democracies” (O’Donnell, 1997); and longstanding political polarization that have led to genocidal policies and human rights violations.
These problems have deepened in the region since 2015 with the new wave of right-wing governments and the growing public presence of cultural conservative movements (Segura, 2015; Waisbord, 2018), and even more with the Covid-19 pandemic and the isolation measures implemented in almost all countries in 2020 (Segura, 2020c).
Various social actors have developed practices not only to provide different kinds of solutions to the above-mentioned problems but also to find different ways of telling fact-based truths, debate the acceptability of derogatory expressions, and extend the respect and recognition of stigmatized, invisible and subaltern people. These alternative ways of overcoming such problems can also be grouped in three sets whose limits – as well as those of the problems they address – are not strict nor fixed because there are relationships among them.
Regarding the challenges to social consensus on the definition of truth: To limit misinformation, harassment and hate speech, states reform communication policies to regulate Internet intermediaries. Some NGOs, journalists’ associations and research institutions do fact-checking and data-verification of public speech to unveil fake news and disinformation. Professional journalists collaborate to do investigative journalism and data journalism to strengthen their fact and logical bases, while others develop new forms of narrative journalism to tell stories also well documented but narrated with a more literary, subjective, and touching style.
Some media corporations and social network platforms self-regulate. Some organizations foster critical training of social network users. To promote a more popular and public approach to science and to challenge ant-scientific speech, academics work on public science practices, and make alliances with journalists to do more and better scientific dissemination; moreover, there are hybrid experiences between journalist and academic research and discourse. Most of these experiences focuses on rational responses to the challenges to objective truth grounded in facts and argumentation, but some explore new ways of telling.
Regarding the challenges to pro-human rights and democracy speeches: States make public policies and regulations to protect democratic debate; and, along with civil society organizations, promote public institutions of democratic dialogue, truth, peace, and human rights to foster democratic dialogue after genocides, civil wars, or dictatorships. Besides, I argue that social movements – like feminists movements, human rights organizations and others – are actors that contribute to building a new normative consensus on truth, sincerity, and rectitude, because they produce and disseminate alternative concepts, values and meanings (Escobar, Alvarez & Dagnino, 2001); contribute to changing entrenched habits; influence the ways of relationship (Margulis, Urresti, Lewin & others, 2014; Botelho, 2001); perform other possible forms of community and can help build alternative ways of living together (Mercadal, Coppari & Maccioni, 2018). Most of these strategies emphasize both rational and emotional aspects of communication and politics, oriented to building historical truth and collective memory, and common and new democratic values and practices.
Regarding the challenges to political correctness: There are social movement initiatives to expand respectful ways of expression about diverse social sectors and to avoid hate speech and harassment of racist, sexist, homophobic and discriminatory discourse in general. The alternative concepts, values and meanings that feminist and LGTTBQI movements, trade unionism, movements against racism, and others produce and disseminate interpret different issues of social life, and destabilize the predominant cultural meanings of machismo, misogyny, homophobia, heteronormativity, racism, classism.
These actions foster a new consensus re-defining the limits of what is and is not acceptable in public speech in regard to recognition, categorization, and characterization. Moreover, diverse public actors call on the responsibility of political, religious, social, and media leaders in the use of communication strategies. Besides, some of the above mentioned strategies also research impact to debate new ways of political correctness: states communication policy reforms to regulate Internet intermediaries; self-regulation among media corporations and social network platforms; and critical training of social network users. All these demands and proposals raise concerns about both the rational and emotional dimensions of public speech and its reception.
I argue that these three groups of proposals and experiences contribute in different but complementary and articulated ways to the goals of democratizing public communication, promoting democratic reasons and emotions, and building democratic people and societies. These efforts are attempts not to restore the old social consensus on truth about the facts, on human rights and democracy respect, and on political correctness, but to build a new and stronger one. Thus, these interventions contribute to democratize and strengthen public debate expanding discourses of respect, inclusiveness, rationalities, solidarity and empathy. The challenges they face are huge, but they show virtuous ways to overcome them.
The alternative initiatives analysed from the theoretical and normative approach proposed, show limitations and potential.
The punitive responses by states as well as by media and platforms to deliberative misleading, false, hate and harassment speech should be limited because of their political, strategic, and practical consequences. Regarding politics, freedom of expression is at the heart of democracy and is essential for the protection, expansion and defence of other rights, social, economic, political, cultural. Strategically, the prohibition or limitation may be counterproductive, because what is intended to combat is highlighted, enhanced, and in some way the self-victimization of the hater is promoted because the perpetrators usually combine aggressiveness with susceptibility, and punishment has a boomerang effect: it further circulates the violence and lies speech that were intended to be silenced.
Finally, from a pragmatic point of view, limiting would not be of much use, insofar as such speech circulates very quickly on social networks and achieves high ratings in traditional media, which shows that they are expressing something that is important for a part of the audience. A part of society is adhering to anti-science, anti-human rights, and hate speech, so these discourses partly promote and partly reinforce what already exists. In state, civil or criminal responses and also in commercial restrictions, the principle of non-censorship should be non-negotiable. In summary, these punitive responses show enormous limitations, because hate speech is a social problem that drags public debate down to the most elementary and rudimentary social levels (Segura, 2020b).
The self-regulation of corporations finds a strong limit in the private and commercial interests of corporations, which do not usually coincide with the public interest or with a myriad of citizen interests, nor do they have as their main objective to guarantee human rights and the right to communicate. Furthermore, most of these corporations are transnational, so they have serious limitations when considering the cultural and social particularities of each regional and national population. Therefore, it is risky to allow private regulation without state and civil society participation in a multi-stakeholder approach.
The self-regulation of political, media, religious and other social leaders also reveals serious restrictions on power abuses by these actors and their interest in increasing their adherence (rating, followers, affiliations, etc.).
Responding on social networks or traditional media to discriminatory or hate speech with strictly rational counter-discourses (such as fact-check, investigative and data journalism, etc.), with information based on facts and logical argumentation, can have the adverse effect of enhancing the reach of such speech. Furthermore, given the nature of adherence to hatred and discrimination, which is essentially emotional, they are difficult to combat rationally. This type of intervention does reinforce the adherence and arguments of those who are already convinced and impacts highly informed elites such as politicians, academics and journalists in some way under specific conditions. (Segura, 2020b)
As literacy efforts in the reception of mass media in other historical periods taught, the critical training of social network users can be a good ally to improve the individual action of users and audiences, but it has no impact if it is not accompanied by structural and macro-level reforms of public communication.
Strengthening of public debate: From the right to communicate approach, bad public speech should be fought with more and better public speech. The quality of public confrontation of ideas is promoted by the increased participation of other voices and topics and when these new options are respected, legitimized, disseminated. Education in the broad sense – not only formal education but informal educational instances promoted by social organizations, and also awareness campaigns by states or non-governmental organizations – contributes to this process. In this sense, participatory public institutions of communication and human rights and social movements also play a relevant role in promoting democratic reason and emotions of respect, solidarity and empathy (Segura, 2020b).
Thus, all the measures analysed and developed by states, corporations and civil society organizations – even when they have limitations and face serious restrictions – contribute to the democratisation of communication and, in doing so, to societies and subjectivities. Among them, the social movements and participatory institutions of human rights, peace, and truth are the more complex and the ones that have greatest potential not only to offer solutions to the current problems, but also to put forward a new social consensus. Their construction of political power with broad and ambitious alliances helps them to promote the recreation of normative parameters to strengthen public debate.
Innovative strategies to strengthen public debate imply adversarial dialogue that assumes that social harmony is not easy to reach in a complex and massive society, and accept confrontation and power relations in public debate, but also recognize and respect the opponent and do not consider him/her an enemy (Mouffe, 2011). They also place the emphasis not just on data and logical argumentation of abstract ideas, but also on the construction of values, the practical experience and mobilization of democratic emotions.
Besides, if the conditions for acceptability of false, misleading, discriminatory, and harassing speech are high levels of violence and social inequality, one of the main ways to deal with them is to solve inequities and injustices and promote social integration. If the problems of public dialogue are based on structural inequalities and extreme economic, social, and cultural segregation, policies to reduce these inequalities are necessary. Even so public debate is essential to bringing new public matters into social and political consideration, and to extending the limits of justice and rights.
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María Soledad Segura is professor at Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and researcher at Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, in Argentina. She holds a PhD in Social Sciences. One of her books is De la resistencia a la incidencia. Sociedad civil y derecho a la comunicación en Argentina (Ediciones UNGS, 2018).