Disinformation is the theoretical basis of our racial prejudices

Disinformation is the theoretical basis of our racial prejudices

Racist disinformation directly affects our way of looking at reality and has never been as dangerous as during the pandemic

(photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images) We still can't take it completely for granted, but most of the inequalities present in our societies are not innate phenomena or inevitable system distortions, but the result of precise opinion campaigns, which over time have transformed blatant lies into the theoretical basis of our prejudices. This is a generally valid explanation for all discrimination, but it becomes all the more pertinent when we turn to racism.

It is no mystery that some of the most relevant events of recent years could also have happened thanks to the decisive contribution of manipulated news and large-scale disinformation operations: this was the case for the 2016 American elections, won by Donald Trump exploiting a public debate conditioned by Russian propaganda - as a report by the American Senate concluded - and it did not go better for the United Kingdom, which during the referendum campaign for Brexit had to face a climate of general media barbarism due to distorted information or manipulated.

In both scenarios, the main lever of discontent has been racially motivated fake news - African Americans have been targeted with a massive dose of subtly racist misinformation to fuel inter-ethnic conflict, brexiters have instead aimed on xenophobia towards immigrants from Eastern Europe - a toxic dynamic, which affects our lives much more than we think and which directly affects our way of conceiving reality.

A history of discrimination

The first step in understanding the real influence of racial prejudice in Western societies is to eliminate social platforms from the equation, because the problem is much more complex and rooted like this. This is supported by researchers from the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life (Citap) of the University of North Carolina, who in a recently published compendium have proposed a broader reading of racist disinformation.

According to the publication, entitled Critical Disinformation Studies syllabus, the dominant narrative in media studies today is the one that focuses on the period after 2016 and that considers the spread of fake news an exclusive responsibility of social platforms network. As the researchers point out, this approach seems to start from the assumption that before the emergence of echo chambers and social bubbles, there was a sort of general "collective understanding" on the concepts of true and false, which was subsequently swept away by the advent of the internet. This is of course a historical inaccuracy, and to correct it the authors of the project have decided to collect an extensive bibliography, which links the stereotypes conveyed in today's disinformation to their root causes, often attributable to mainstream media coverage.

Emblematic is, for example, the case of the "Central Park Five", the clamorous judicial error told in the Netflix miniseries "When They See Us", which in 1990 sentenced five black boys between 15 and 15 to unjust imprisonment. 16 years old, all accused of the murder of a woman who went out to run in Central Park and finally rehabilitated after a ten-year sentence. The story was at the center of a heated debate focused on the racial prejudices of the American judicial system - which also involved the former president of the United States Donald Trump, at the time one of the most ferocious accusers of the five alleged killers, to the point of hoping for the return of the death penalty - but less well known is the responsibility of newspapers (especially local ones) in feeding the racist mythology of the black man as genetically more prone to crime.

The manipulative contents that we face every day on social media are, from this point of view, nothing more than the result of a longer process, which reproduces the dynamics of power within a company, amplifying the prejudices of who can make their voices heard and marginalizing the positions and concerns of historically discriminated communities. A fundamental premise, without which it would be impossible to frame what researchers call the "political and ideological function" of fake news.

The perfect formula of hatred

If racist disinformation has well-documented historical roots, it is undeniable that its preferred channel of diffusion today is online. According to a research conducted by the University of Birmingham, the global health emergency has given rise to a prolific stream of Islamophobic fake news, spread on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp with the aim of attributing responsibility to the Islamic communities of the United Kingdom. for the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The results of the study also highlighted the existence of precise political instances behind the hate content - mostly memes and social posts, the researchers point out - which in most cases contained references to the "demolition of mosques ”And to migration policies considered too permissive. Similar evidence has been found at all latitudes and the most popular contents are those referring to immigrant Chinese communities, which quickly became the target of systematic disinformation aimed at indicating them as the "virus spreaders".

Italy, of course, is no exception and from the beginning of the pandemic to the present, disinformation content in Italian of a xenophobic nature has multiplied. Alongside the usual aggregators of "immigrant crimes" - a trend that in 2013 ended up at the center of a parliamentary question, but which still enjoys excellent health today - a galaxy of small sites dedicated to the denial of Covid-19 has arisen, which throughout 2020 they have conducted an intense campaign to link the spread of the infection to the landings of migrants. A subtle operation and repeatedly denied by scientists, but which is part of a narrative that is anything but marginal.

According to the latest report of the Carta di Roma Association - produced in collaboration with the Pavia Observatory - the pandemic "has made the worst aspect of the journalistic story nasty" and thus 13% of the 6,402 dedicated titles on the issue of migration (one for every 4 landings that took place, considering the period between January and October 2020) he dealt with migrants "in the context of a health alarm, attributable to the Covid-19 emergency". A responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of the mainstream press but not only, since the frame of "migrants as a vehicle of contagion" and of "Italians at home while migrants are free to disembark" has been largely ridden by politics and by trade unions. police.

Once again, racist disinformation leverages the fears and stereotypes that pollute public discourse (in this case the false myth of “migrants who carry diseases”) to fuel prejudices and polarize the debate. A manipulation exploited - when not directly produced - by a part of politics, which directly affects the lives of the people involved and our way of seeing the world.

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