The arduous battle against electoral misinformation in a Brazil hooked on the Internet | International

The falsehoods about the Brazilian elections that circulate on social networks almost four months before the vote are more sophisticated than in the 2018 elections. So they caught almost everyone off guard. And Brazil is fertile ground because few countries are so hooked on the Internet. Therefore, there are various initiatives to prevent a repeat of that scenario. The Superior Electoral Court has allied itself with WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube… and even with the initially reluctant Telegram to stop the circulation of disinformation, half-truths and lies that could interfere with the elections.

The enemy to beat is formidable because the networks, in addition to being omnipresent, are for many Brazilians the main channel through which they get information. And now, as in 2018, disinformation has the active complicity of Jair Bolsonaro, who caused a surprise when he became president thanks to popular weariness and a skillful digital communication strategy (infested with falsehoods).

A female Lula Da Silva supporter uses her cell phone during a protest in support of the former president.
A female Lula Da Silva supporter uses her cell phone during a protest in support of the former president.Silvia Left (AP)

The journalist and digital content analyst Marlos Ápyus explains over the phone that “the fake news they are now more sophisticated and harder to debunk (than in 2018). How do you prove that a highway full of motorcyclists is actually 3,000 people, which is a small number?” he says, referring to the biker marches that Bolsonaro has turned into political acts. “There is a duel between reality and the reality portrayed (by Bolsonaro) in the digital sphere to contest the results if he loses the elections,” he adds. Sowing doubts about the electronic ballot boxes and the polls is a pillar of the strategy, although the voting system has just overcome the assault hacker to which he has been subjected as part of the tests, according to the electoral court. The twenty hackers hired failed in the attempt to infiltrate the system.

Misinformation abounds. A recent example, reported by Facebook users. The news checking agency Lupa labeled with a FALSE a message that said that voting for the president and leaving the rest of the options blank (governor and parliamentarians) invalidated the vote, which would go to null. To give it credibility, the anonymous emissary started like this: “A warning, colleagues, yesterday I took a course to work with electoral justice and…”. Much cruder was the lie that triumphed in the final stretch of the previous general election. The far-right Bolsonaro, supported by evangelical pastors, said that if he won the leftist Workers’ Party he was going to implement a gay kit in schools to teach children to be homosexual. Hundreds of thousands of voters shared the falsehood with those close to them. Now another is circulating in which the hook is that Lula confesses that she is possessed by the devil.

A study pointed out last year that, between work and pleasure, Brazilians spend more than ten hours a day connected, only behind Filipinos and Colombians. That includes four long hours surfing networks, especially YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, or using WhatsApp instant messaging. The last three belong to Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta.

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro displays messages on his cell phone during a conference at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro displays messages on his cell phone during a conference at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil.Eraldo Peres (AP)

The public policy manager of Meta in Brazil, Monica Guise, explains the strategy regarding Facebook and Instagram. “The company eliminates fake news that discourages or interferes with voting or could harm people around the world offline. But our approach to misinformation is to mark content as false and reduce its distribution. We understand that we should not be arbiters of the truth, ”she says in a video call interview.

Guise explains that in Brazil they collaborate with four verification agencies that analyze the post suspicious, reported by users, electoral authorities or detected by artificial intelligence. If content is found to be fake by fact checkers, Meta takes action: it reduces its reach, prevents it from being paid to promote it, and puts a graphical filter on it that alerts it to be fake. The user decides whether to click or not.

The messaging application WhatsApp is considered the main way in which fake news went viral in 2018. That was a trauma for the company, which took note. He created a team in Brazilian territory. “In 2018 they considered us the villains,” recalls the director for Public Policies of WhatsApp in Brazil, Dario Durigan, during an interview at its headquarters in São Paulo.

Durigan explains that several initiatives launched in the 2020 municipal elections “laid the foundations for the strategy that is now being reinforced.” He adds that, at the suggestion of the technology company, the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court prohibited the sending of mass messages. They have undertaken “the battle against the mass shooting companies, we have asked the candidates not to hire them because it is against the law and against democracy.” They denounced Yacows and other companies, and so far they have won all the sentenced cases. WhatsApp has also decided to delay “as a precautionary measure” the implementation in Brazil of one of its world novelties: the extension to 512 users of the maximum size of the groups, twice as much as now, a change that will come here after the elections.

One of the great attractions of Telegram is that it allows really gigantic groups. The other is that its rules are more lax than those of its American competitors. As the specialist Ápyus explains, “it has fewer users than WhatsApp but it is a more committed public. And you can share messages with a million people.” This network created in Russia and based in the United Arab Emirates has finally agreed to collaborate with the Brazilian authorities after receiving a notice in the form of a blocking order. Recently, it suspended for a few days the official super group B38, which with 67,000 members presents itself as “the largest support group for Bolsonaro in Brazil.” Days before the closing, in the avalanche of messages there were several that falsely warned that not voting for governor or deputy invalidated the vote for president. This Wednesday, conspiracy theories about covid and monkeypox continued to circulate while comments on Lula’s channel were suspended because someone had published pornography.

Beyond the electoral impact—always difficult to measure—spreading fake news is lucrative. The number of videos on YouTube that echo Bolsonaro’s campaign questioning the security of electronic ballot boxes has skyrocketed. With 60 million views, its creators have billed $200,000, according to the newspaper Or Balloon.

Nobody in Brazil denies the effectiveness of the digital communication strategy of Bolsonaro and his people. Directed by his son Carlos, a councilor in Rio de Janeiro, it is a field in which the president has a great advantage over Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the favorite in the vote polls. The president’s accounts have been suspended several times. And Bolsonarism is not disgusted by lies if they serve its objectives.

Ápyus highlights that Bolsonaro is no longer the deputy of 2018 but a president with enormous federal funds and with a government in which the Armed Forces are very present. “Although his speech is more fragile, his pen (his power) is much stronger. He has managed to eliminate his competitors from his field (the right) with the spread of a distorted version of reality and digital attacks that amplify the rejection towards them”. Judge Sérgio Moro fell first, who imprisoned Lula, and then former governor João Doria.

Also on the radar is the possible purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk, who wants to reinstate Donald Trump and met with Bolsonaro in São Paulo last week, and possible Russian interference in the campaign. It was striking that when the Brazilian president visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the eve of the war in Ukraine, to talk about fertilizers and peace, his son Carlos, the digital strategist and mayor from Rio de Janeiro, was in the procession.

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