7 questions to Isabel Meira

Isabel Meira is a journalist at Antena 2, where she makes news reports and audio-documentaries. She’s worked on several radio news channels and her has won many awards for her work.

She has recently published her first book with Planeta Tangerina, “I like, therefore I am“, where she writes about social media, journalism and fake news. We spoke with Isabel about some of the ideas in this book.

If the internet holds everything, what are journalists doing?

Journalists are doing what they’ve always been doing: information. But now in a much more challenging context.

I don’t think the internet holds everything. Companies like Google and Amazone have managed to plant that sensation in us (which is something very different). The speed of the answers when we search for something, the amount of links… it’s insane! It seems like a place where you can find all the information about everything that exists in the world. It’s overwhelming, and it’s always with us (our phones are always in our pockets), so we can easily become passive. We get what we get and that’s it.

So it’s fundamental to be aware of this, if we want to understand the role of journalism in our society. Because making information — making journalism — involves research, counting, observing, comparing, analysing,… There is a journalistic technique: rules that define how a news report is made. And if we need that information to make decisions in our lives, to guide our choices through life, we must understand that society also needs journalism and that internet should be a tool — perhaps the most powerful of all, these days — but it’s currently not only that.

Can fake news be news at all?

No, fake news aren’t news. This expression can be dangerous, because it may seem that news can be true or false. And they can’t, or they shouldn’t. According to the journalistic technique, to be considered news, the facts need to be verified before they’re publish, therefore they are always true. That’s why I prefer saying “disinformation”. It seems to be more concrete to show that there’s a movement, which goes against the flow of information and it doesn’t happen innocently. It has specific goals. Whether it’s earning money or facing a political opponent, in any case it’s not just an internet joke.

We stopped caring about the truth. True or false?

I don’t know. On one hand, these are complex generalisations; on the other, some facts show us that lies can be very effective and have real consequences in our societies. Facts like the election of Donald Trump for the United States Presidency, in 2016, or the Brexit referendum, that started the process of removing the United Kingdom from the European Union — these are examples of how lies have shaped the manipulation of information through fake news. I don’t know whether that happens because we stopped caring or because the internet has become a very powerful tool for lie-makers. So powerful that it can lead us into looking the other way, right?

What is ‘critical thinking’ about?

It’s mainly our ability to resist the temptation of swift unfounded judgements — and that takes a lot of training. It requires observation, comparisons, questioning, mistrusting.

The investigator Joana Sá explains that really well in the book’s preface. Our brain has the tendency to form opinions first, and then look for facts that confirm these opinions. If we don’t stay alert, that’s what’s going to happen. We risk seeing the world through a huge filter of prejudice and making uninformed decisions. Critical thinking is the ability to overcome those filters, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand that reality can have many layers and be much more complex than it looks.

Do you think the internet needs breaks? How so?

It depends on what those breaks mean. Internet, tech companies, digital platforms… we’re talking about an industry — one that should follow rules, just like all other industries. For example, it wouldn’t cross our minds to have the airplane industry working without any rules or only with unknown internal codes, because that could be dangerous for the billions of people that use planes around the world. Therefore, how can it be possible that these companies — that also have a huge impact in the lives of billions of people and base their business with their users’ data — how can they work without practically any rules?

What’s the use of being truly informed?

I think the best answer to that question is a little imagination exercise I proposed in the book: imagine how it would be to wake up one day and not having any information, not having access to information or all information being fake. This Covid-19 pandemic is also a good opportunity to reflect about this. How would we react?

We spend our lives making decisions and choices (especially if we’re lucky to live in a democratic society where it’s possible to make those choices), so being informed is like having a sort of invisible muscle that helps us making more solid, conscious decisions. Not necessarily more correct, it’s not about that, but at least more conscious.

And how can we be it? Give us three important clues.

I could say “checking information before you share it”, “be suspicious of highly viral content” and “flag those contents when they’re fake”. Three clues. But I truly believe that first you need to have that “click”. First, you need to stop and think, be aware that we’ve been numb and that we’re being manipulated by things such as the amount of likes in our social media or the notification system that keeps us always alert. Therefore I think the most important clue at this point is: stop and think. Break your bubble.