Why WhatsApp Became a Hotbed for Rumors and Lies in Brazil

During the recent Brazilian presidential campaign, a group of wealthy supporters of eventual winner Jair Bolsonaro purportedly paid for an army of WhatsApp shills to spread disinformation about his opponent.

So even though WhatsApp is free of News Feed and ads, it contains the key functionality that reverts our brains to the heavily social and fragmented medium that predates the textual age of editors and encyclopedias.

As an old Facebook marketing saw put it, it’s “word of mouth at scale.” It’s this wiring of age-old human nature that evolved in a period of a few dozen social contacts to the instant, globe-spanning internet that’s the real problem.

He had to solve technical problems in moving from illuminated manuscripts and monks laboring in scriptoria to the typeset and scalable text whose digital echoes we see in our Kindles; this required new types of paper, new inks, the very notion of a typeface itself had to be invented.

Put bluntly, can the bounties of the Enlightenment—liberal democracy governing pluralistic nation-states, the primacy of empirical truth over folklore or “fake news”—co-exist with technology that takes us back to a pre-Enlightenment mode of discourse: us vs. them, feeling over reason, the ephemeral and fragmented over the fact-checked and continuous.

Perhaps the new generation, born into a world where global connectivity is a given—but the commanding position of Wired or The New York Times is not—will cobble together some way to maintain institutions like democracy while ones like newspaper editors expire.

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