In this edition of the Campus Gutenberg Cosmocaixa, Mario Viciosa has been one of the guests at the round table of the opening session under the title “The lie-hunters: Fake News and fact checkers”. He is a producer and has been a professor for years on the Master of El Mundo and other courses at the Escuela Unidad Editorial. Currently, he is responsible for Ciencia de Newtral y ‘El Objetivo’ de La Sexta, ‘Al Rojo Vivo’ y ‘La Sexta Noche’. He has developed different formats for radio and television in media such as Canal Norte, TVE, Canal 9, or Onda Cero. Mario talks about fact checking in the field of scientific communication and gives some clues to understand how rumours circulate.
What do you think of the Gutenberg Cosmocaixa Campus?
This type of initiative has now become very interesting, especially due to the role of universalization of work that there are of many professionals behind a crisis like this. That there is such a great interest of people connected from so many different places is something that has to make us reflect. The interest that the problems arouse and how to reach the public sphere is something that we always have to consider from the academy and journalists. Beyond the level of content, which is high and interesting according to a successful experience such as this campus, I find it very interesting, and not only this but because of other meetings in which I myself have participated and in which we have managed to break barriers to access audiences and speakers and people with a very high level and also to be able to debate.
The opening session dealt with the subject of fact checking, which is exactly in the field in which you are working now. Where does the fake news come from? Who wins by spreading rumours?
I know who loses. Citizenship lose, democracies lose and health also lose in this pandemic. Depending on the interest that there may be in this false information that circulates through networks, we can also identify who is the winner. From beach bars, companies, I no longer call them beach bars because of the law, because they can be legal, but playing with deception, when it comes to selling false therapies, for example. I think I remember that three quarters, around 75 or 77% of the rumours that are spread have had to do with this health crisis with pseudo-therapies, and already before, more than half of them came from the field of food, which they always have someone interested in selling some kind of product. This is not new, it has always happened, only now there has been the amplification that certain social networks allow. It is the first pandemic that we are experiencing with WhatsApp and this is the main channel of entry and spread.
But for something to spread, someone has to decide to share it. Right?
Evidently. I usually say that, in these things, affection and trust with our loved ones are the breeding ground for the spread of rumours and viruses. Regardless of who generates the rumours in an interested way. This is the same as with the virus: we lower our guard with our close beings and there both lies and the virus sneak in, then it begins to circulate. Since April 16 times more queries have been made to our Newtral WhatsApp service, and this is just the tip of the iceberg, where people already ask themselves before hitting the share button. Therefore, there has also been people’s concern to know if what they were about to share is true or not. It’s starting to sound weird to us and having the instinct to ask a verifier is important. The rumours really stop there.
What is it that makes us believe in lies? Is it the subject of COVID19, that we associate it with death and therefore we are very interested in it, or is it perhaps that as a society we do not have the necessary training to distinguish the truthful from the false? Or is it that the rumours are very well done?
It is probably a mixture of all things. I remember a study from years ago that said that lies were shared even when they knew they were a lie. It must give us some reward mechanism, of pleasure, feeling at some point the protagonists of some information, not because we are the subjects of it, but because we are the revelers in the face of a perverse system. This connects me with a few words I had with the virologist and immunologist Margarita del Val in April. Del Val said that, in general in health matters and in particular with vaccines that are her area of expertise, lies were almost always linked to fear. In the pandemic, it has been revealed that the person who most assiduously invents lies is because he is very afraid. This is a huge factor, along with propagation, which is affection. We all want to protect ourselves from fear and what better way than to share pseudo-therapy or pseudo-information with our loved ones. Even knowing the danger that may or may not exist, or sharing information that gives us a remedy. We try to hold on to anything, even if we suspect that it is a lie, even knowing it is. Because somehow we find immediate satisfaction.
And what is it that makes us believe false information?
We need alternative speeches to immediately quell fear. Science has different times than public health policy to give immediate answers. And different from those of the journalistic information itself, the shortcuts are usually very comforting. If I say that tomorrow we are going to have a vaccine and that I can get it at the health center, what a rush, right? Also the opposite, if I say that this vaccine is going to kill me, I am the best informed ahead of time to prevent the community and I will somehow be the hero. Therefore, I think that there are two elements that are usually the breeding ground for generating and spreading this type of sensation beyond another parallel, which is permanent, which is the crisis of confidence in the traditional media system . That is not new, it has been cyclical and that is a reflection that the media also have to make. I, who am halfway between fact checking and am responsible for science of a medium, detect that the impact of the messages in the media continues to be tremendously important despite the recurring crisis. But now we must take into account the impact that there is information that we cannot see. In conventional media everything is in sight. In a WhatsApp chain we have a tip of the iceberg where verification journalists have to be on the radar and see what is moving and how it really is.
How can you bridge the gap between the pace at which science and journalism go?
This is the fundamental part of disclosure. It is not enough to count the last hour, you have to create critical citizenship, that is not just the responsibility of the media, it covers more. It is a more complex system, but there we have a responsibility. That is why I really like basic dissemination, sometimes because it can be fascinating, exciting, and far from being boring, it is proving successful among almost all audiences. But you have to know how to do it. In addition, we have to do it on the fly, as progress and results are presented, some good and others bad. It must be explained that this usually goes like this. I am not a scientist, I am a journalist, I know perfectly what the body asks of me as a spectator and as a storyteller, I want to keep that story current. By contrast, scientific research in peer-reviewed journals is in a radically different orbit. And nothing happens because that’s the way it has to be. On the other hand, from fact checking, curiously, a series of protocols are followed to determine if something is true or not that are quite similar to the scientific method.
What is it like to dedicate yourself to this area of journalism? You still talk about the covid, space, climate emergency, or basic disclosure. And not only that, but you write a lot of in-depth articles on these broad topics. How is all this approached on a day-to-day basis?
I guess like any other journalist. With curiosity and the ability to ask questions of myself and people I know. You also have to study a lot. I have probably never studied that much. But I think it is exploiting curiosity and in that it is not very different. I am not an expert per se, but I know who I have to ask the doubts that I think society has. Framing the evolution of a pandemic or climate or technology emergency. It is as simple and complex at the same time as that. Besides, as my profile is more linked to audiovisual dissemination, I need to find a code, a language, an adequate metaphor to transfer more or less complex ideas to a visual field that is easily understandable. That can be remembered by the audience and last over time. We are in a pandemic in which it is very difficult to develop a message that lasts beyond a few weeks. Information changes from one moment to the next because we have made a mistake. But even so I continue with the vocation that that piece that tries to explain something has a journey and continues to be consistent enough to explain a piece of reality months later.
Interview conducted by Ana Iglesias, student of the Master in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication at UPF Barcelona School of Management.
Este blog cuenta con la financiación de la Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología (FECYT) y el Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación