7 questions for Isabel Meira

Isabel Meira is a journalist at Antena 2, where she makes news reports and audio-documentaries. She has worked on several radio news channels and 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 to 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 done: providing information. But now in a much more challenging context.

I don’t think the internet holds everything. Companies like Google and Amazon have managed to plant that idea within our minds (which is something very different). The speed with which results appear when we search for something, the number 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’re presented with whatever appears 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 producing information — doing journalism — involves research, weighing up, observing, comparing, analysing,… There’s such a thing as 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 the internet should serve as a tool — perhaps the most powerful of all, these days — but it’s currently not only that.

Is fake news really news?

No, fake news isn’t news. The expression is perhaps dangerous, because it makes it seem like news can be true or false. And it can’t, or it shouldn’t be. According to journalistic technique, to be considered news, the facts need to be verified before they’re published, and only then can they be taken as true. That’s why I prefer saying “disinformation”. It seems to give a more concrete idea of the fact that there’s a certain movement which goes against the flow of information and which doesn’t happen innocently. It has specific goals. Whether it’s about earning money or tackling a political opponent, it’s much more than just an internet joke.

We’ve stopped caring about the truth. True or false?

I don’t know. On one hand, generalisations such as this are complex; on the other, some facts show us that lies can be very effective and have real consequences for 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 found a place for themselves through 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 to look the other way, right?

What is ‘critical thinking’ about?

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

Researcher Joana Sá explains that really well in the book’s preface. Our brain has a 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 is made up of many layers and can be much more complex than it looks.

Do you think the internet needs brakes? If so, what would they look like?

It depends on what those brakes 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 aeronautical 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 — which also have a huge impact on the lives of billions of people, and base their business on their users’ data — work practically without any rules?

What’s the use of being truly informed?

I think the best answer to that question is a little imagination exercise which I propose in the book: imagine would it would be like to wake up one day and to have no information, to have no access to information or to have access to information which is all fake. This Covid-19 pandemic is also a good opportunity to reflect on this. What would we do?

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 such choices), so being informed is like having a sort of invisible muscle that helps us to make more solid, conscious decisions. Not necessarily better ones, it’s not about that, but at least more conscious ones.

And how can we do that? Give us three important tips.

I could say by “checking information before you share it”, by “being suspicious of highly viral content” and by “flagging those contents when they’re fake”. Three tips. But I truly believe that above all we need to have that “click”. First, you need to stop and think, to become aware of the fact that we’ve been numb and that we’re being manipulated by things such as the number of likes on our social media or the notification system that keeps us always alert. Therefore I think that the most important tip at this point is: stop and think. Burst your bubble.