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In Brazil, History and Story Are the Same and Fake News Isn’t Fake

Brazilians often can't distinguish between fact and fiction

Fake news is the big news these days. We are being warned how pernicious and pervasive fake news is in our daily lives. It’s altering the outcome of elections, and is so destructive it’s forcing us to feel guilty about our dependence on technology, as if it were possible to exist today without a cellphone.

On the other hand, scholars point out that every story has multiple angles. It’s difficult to argue with that logic, which is why it’s often hard to tell the difference between real news and fake news.

South Americans have always been suspicious of the news media. The continent is grounded in the oral culture. News generally travels via friendly gossip and rumor. People trust a story from their neighbor more than a TV journalist or newspaper.

In Curitiba, Brazil, a state capital, the largest daily newspaper, Gazeta do Povo, has gone out of business. (It still exists online.) When a friend posts a video on Instagram or WhatsApp, the immediate reaction is to believe whatever’s being touted, assuming we can differentiate between a real story and an advertisement. Social media reigns.

Globo News, the largest TV news source in Brazil, sometimes changes a story. A few days after the story initially airs, they will uncover additional sources that completely alter the original feature; meanwhile, they never apologize for getting it wrong the first time.

Another popular Brazilian news source boasts, “Never wrong for long” in their self-promotions. It’s no wonder people question the veracity of journalism.

Two thirds of North Americans say the government knows more than it’s saying about UFOs. We don’t all live in the same reality. Your news may be my garbage. “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,” as songwriter Paul Simon put it.

A survey revealed one third of Americans rely on news sources they know are unreliable. If you expect your news source to be unreliable, like the propaganda on the Breitbart News Network, being accurately informed is not a priority.

Similarly, if Facebook is your main source of news, then news is not your game. Facebook and Instagram are the repository for the fun stories they leave out of The New York Times. However, it’s understandable that some people want to avoid the ‘hard’ news. Do we really need more information in our lives, especially when most of it is sad?

A few years ago, the Portuguese words for history and story were different. However, they were so similar in pronunciation people gave up distinguishing the difference. Today, “história” means both history and a story, blurring the distinction between reality and fiction.

A Brazilian woman once said to me in English, “I heard a history about a man; I don’t know if it’s true.” Ask a Brazilian if the movie or TV series she watched is true, and she won’t know. The difference between fact and fiction isn’t important so it’s not something she’ll notice.

I mentioned to a university professor in Brazil that I was confused about the meaning of the word história. I asked him if people using the same word for history and story was symbolic of the merging of fact with fantasy. He replied, “Yes. They merge. But why is that a problem? Isn’t history just a collection of everyone’s stories?”

The professor makes an interesting point. There is a philosophical basis for the blending of fact and fiction. Oral history has been around since the dawn of humanity, long before there was written language. Stories and myths gather a culture’s collective knowledge and are passed down through generations.

If a culture’s collective stories are its oral history, it’s not surprising there is no clear demarcation between fiction and reality. Myths merge into facts when they are accepted by an entire culture.

A literary genre – magic realism – originated from Latin American writers in the 1960s as a way of describing this merging. In magic realism, spirits guide the living in times of distress. For North Americans spirits are magical, but for Latin Americans they are real.

At first, this genre was difficult for North Americans to accept as realistic, but today it is widely accepted and has morphed into millennial tales in English of everyday vampires. Whereas readers in English were once entertained by the fictional adventures of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Hobbits, today we are actively preparing for post-apocalypse zombies.

Myths are full of exaggeration just as rumors and gossip are. People believe what they choose because they hear what they want to hear. My proposition is fake news isn’t fake. It’s real because it covers the entire spectrum of reality, believable and unbelievable.

Thanks to the internet and advanced filmmaking technology such as the Star Wars movies, the merging of fact with fiction, reality and imagination, is pervasive today. Whether it’s news or entertainment, the merging reflects the way our minds view the universe.

This raises another question. Is the boundary between fiction and reality less clear today than in the past? I think not. A thousand years ago, doctors were called witch doctors and relied on the assistance of the spirit gods. The average person was illiterate. A mere hundred years ago, people believed illnesses could be cured through blood-letting, and Franz Kafka’s genius turned a man into a bug.

B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil and a frequent contributor to Brazzil.com. His website is www.bmichaelrubin.com

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