September 30, 2022

The scourge of fake news in Brazil’s presidential election


Just a few weeks ahead of the presidential elections, authorities in Brazil are trying to limit the flood of disinformation circulating online. Although the country is better prepared to deal with fake news than it was during the 2018 campaign, which saw Jair Bolsonaro win the presidency, certain types of content and platforms continue to evade control.

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro turned out in large numbers on September 7 to mark the bicentennial anniversary of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. On Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, a sea of individuals clad in green and yellow clutched smartphones as they frantically took, shared and reposted photographs.

Sonia, a 50-year-old from Rio, is one of them. “I share everything I receive, with WhatsApp groups it’s instant,” she says, typing furiously. She has already sent the day’s videos and photos to all her contacts, even though she only knows a fraction of them personally.

These messaging groups are the primary vehicle for fake news in Brazil and consist of an endless flow of menacing messages written in all-caps. “Urgent, Lula is planning Bolsonaro’s assassination,” reads one. “A pro-Lula enthusiast criticises Brazil’s flag,” says another. Fake polls predicting Bolsonaro’s victory circulate widely: “These voting intentions are updated every four hours. To guarantee a non-fraudulent vote, share this with five friends!”

Since 2018, social media has been Bolsonaro’s favourite means of communicating with his support base, while traditional media is portrayed as an enemy that must be defeated. “Journalists are all corrupt, they’re Leninists, Trotskyists,” say some of the president’s supporters in Copacabana.

A huge banner has been hoisted above the beachside promenade. “The real press,” read the words emblazoned above headshots of pro-Bolsonaro bloggers and influencers. Some of them have over one million followers on social media and readily use their online platform to attack journalists from Brazil’s mainstream media. “You’re an embarrassment to the country,” is a recurrent slur.

A Brazilian protester takes a picture with his smartphone in Rio de Janeiro on September 7, 2022. © Julia Courtois, France 24 WhatsApp, a news sourceBrazil is the second-largest market in the world for WhatsApp, behind India – and the app is one of the main channels for receiving fake news. Six out of every 10 Brazilians use the messaging app daily. A 2019 study commissioned by the Brazilian Congress found that 79 percent of Brazilians get their news primarily from WhatsApp.

Bolsonaro successfully exploited this during his 2018 campaign. A former paratrooper, he was on the political fringes at the time, a member of a small party with little influence and few resources – so he bet everything on instant messaging services. Photos, memes, video clips, all shared through millions of messages on WhatsApp, served as his campaign ads.

A year after Bolsonaro’s victory, WhatsApp – which belongs to Facebook’s parent company Meta – conceded that some companies had violated the messaging platform’s terms of services and used fake numbers to mass message political content. Following a backlash, WhatsApp set limits on how many times a message can be forwarded and caps on the number of participants in a group.

A Brazilian man checks his smartphone during a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on September 7, 2022. © Julia Courtois, France 24 Four out of 10 Brazilians receive disinformation dailyDespite this, the messaging app continues to play an important role in Brazilian politics – and has fundamentally changed how election campaigns are run in the country. As the first round of the presidential election approaches, more and more disinformation is spreading. “The amount of fake news circulating is so prevalent and concerning, it’s hard to quantify,” says Fernanda Bruno, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and coordinator of MediaLab UFRJ.

A Poynter Institute study found that four out of 10 Brazilians receive disinformation daily, and that some topics crop up again and again. One of the most widely spread pieces of fake news questions the Superior Electoral Court’s role and the reliability of Brazil’s electronic ballot boxes.

“This questioning of the reliability of the electoral process is similar to the 2020 election campaign in the United States,” says Bruno, who is an expert on the effects of social media. “Several studies see similarities between the disinformation strategies used in the United States and Brazil.”  

In Brazil, a federal police investigation suggests that the president’s family itself is behind this disinformation strategy. In 2020, the investigation uncovered the existence of a “hate bureau”, supposedly run by Bolsonaro’s politician sons. Its objective is allegedly to spread fake news and attack the traditional media and journalists.

Bolsonaro’s sons have always denied the existence of such a bureau. However, they regularly share fake news on their personal Instagram accounts. Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker, recently posted videos in which he said that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers’ Party encourage their supporters to invade churches and persecute Christians in the country.

In this year’s presidential campaign, both sides have resorted to disinformation as part of their communication strategy. More than 30 complaints for spreading fake news have been filed with the electoral authorities since January of this year. Of these, 26 were filed by Lula’s Workers’ Party, against Bolsonaro supporters and even the president himself. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party has filed seven complaints against Lula, notably accusing him of hate speech for describing Bolsonaro as “genocidal”.

Fertile ground for disinformationSome observers see this hyper-connected Brazil as a country that is “addicted to the internet”, which is something of a regional trend. According to the Kantar Institute, Latin America has one of the highest social media penetration rates in the world – and one of the lowest levels of trust in institutions.

News organisations, social media and government institutions in Brazil have all tried to take steps to tackle this tsunami of disinformation. In 2020, the Superior Electoral Court launched a fact-checking platform called “Fato ou Boato” (Fact or Rumour). Information about the elections and electronic ballot boxes can be found on this website, as well as fact-checked articles and educational content.

Bruno, however, does not think these efforts are enough. “Social media platforms are not yet able to fight all this false information, especially that coming from the Meta group,” she says. Although Facebook had pledged to address the problem of fake news, the international NGO Global Witness recently laid bare the inadequate moderation on the platform by publishing dozens of fake news items that had been taken down. 

Bruno adds that the Bolsonaro camp has turned to a new tool. “Telegram is now a new actor for disinformation in this campaign,” she says. Less closely monitored than WhatsApp, the Telegram app has become a new channel to disseminate hate speech and calls to violence – thus adding fuel to the fire of political tensions as the October 2 vote draws nearer.  

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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