A Nobel Laureate considers the future

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Mario Vargas Llosa, defender of free speech, takes on fakes and fake news.


Mario Vargas Llosa. Photo courtesy of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

No one hates fake news more than Mario Vargas Llosa, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” When he turned 80 in March last year, someone was thoughtful enough to offer the Peruvian novelist a surprise gift: an impostor account on Twitter. 

Immediately after it went live, the account (@OfficialMVL) posted updates about Mr. Llosa’s writing and his celebrated romance with Spanish-Filipina socialite Isabel Preysler, gaining a following of more than 2,000 Twitter users in the process.

The party didn’t last long.

The account was shut down; the handle has since been taken over by a Malaysian shipping company. Several fake Llosa Twitter accounts remain, but none are as “successful” as the one created by Tommaso Debenedetti, an Italian journalist infamous for foisting hoaxes on an unsuspecting public. “I do it as a game, so that people understand that social networks are conducive to deception and fraudulent communication,” Debenedetti said in a report posted on the Web site of El Periódico, a Spanish daily, in March 2016. “It is important to demonstrate that personalities are easy to supplant.” 

During a visit to Manila months after the Debenedetti fiasco, the Nobel Prize winner addressed the fake Twitter account as well as three essays mistakenly attributed to him. “This is a problem that can produce real catastrophes in all kinds of activities,” Mr. Llosa said in English during a briefing at the Instituto Cervantes’ offices in Makati City.

The author was obviously upset by these events. Known for the sobriety of his works, Mr. Llosa has tackled irrational human behavior in The War of The End of The World, a dark novel about an armed cult holding off a military siege in 19th-century Brazil. Like a few of his characters, Mr. Llosa has had to fight his own battles.

“We are not able to put priorities in the way information surrounds us… It comes to us from very different media and this has contributed in a way to make things more confusing,” he said at the same briefing.

The Peruvian novelist didn’t propose any extreme solutions to curb the rise of hoaxes — he is, after all, famous for defending free speech — but he nevertheless said that the future remains “subject to change,” hopefully without fake news. “We can construct our future in the direction that we choose,” he said during his lecture at the University of Sto. Tomas in October. 

Mr. Llosa still doesn’t care enough to join Twitter. Somebody else — probably a big fan — is behind the account bearing the novelist’s name (@Mariovargasllo). With more than 4,000 followers, the said Twitter feed has lain dormant since it was opened in January 2012.

Decades ago, Mr. Vargas wrote that “Science is still only a candle glimmering in a great pitch-dark cavern.” The candle still burns and Mr. Llosa’s fans are drawn to the light of his words, whether in print, online, or — yes — social media.