Brazilians bombarded with misinformation before election
Brazilian voters are being bombarded by online misinformation less than a week before they pick their next leader.
Posts on social media say, wrongly, that the leftist candidate in Brazil’s presidential election plans to close down churches if elected. There are lies that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wants to let men use public-school restrooms next to little girls. And they’re falsely alleging that right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has made comments confessing to cannibalism and pedophilia.
Baseless rumors are whipping through Brazilian social media, roiling politics in Latin America’s largest democracy. The onslaught of fake rumors helped prompt Brazil last week to enact what some experts call the strictest limits on speech in the country’s young democracy.
It’s a conundrum posed across the world, especially in countries wrangling with the intersection between modern technology and free speech. Brazil has adopted a particularly heavy-handed approach; in doing so, authorities have raised questions about their commitment to free speech.
“What is happening in Brazil, on Facebook, on YouTube and other platforms looks awfully similar to what was happening in the U.S. around the 2020 election,” said Vicky Wyatt, a campaign director at the U.S.-based activist group SumOfUs. “An individual post might not have that much reach, but cumulatively, over time, having this constant drip, drip has negative consequences.”
Overall, conservative channels produce more content — and more false, problematic content. According to a tally by the Brazilian think tank Igarapé Institute, in the eight days before and after the Oct. 2 first-round vote, far-right YouTube channels attracted 99 million views, while leftist channels had 28 million. Political analysts and the opposition have expressed fears that Bolsonaro’s internet army may help him challenge the election results if he loses by spreading unfounded allegations of fraud.
Brazil is days from an historic presidential election featuring two political titans and bitter rivals that could usher in another four years of far-right politics or return a leftist to the nation’s top job.
The Superior Electoral Court, the country’s top election authority, announced Thursday that it would be banning “false or seriously decontextualized” content that “affects the integrity of the electoral process.” No request from a prosecutor or complainant is necessary for the court to take action.
In the days leading up to, and just after, the final round of the election Sunday, YouTube, Meta (the owner of Facebook and Instagram) and other platforms will be given one hour to remove problematic content. Platforms that do not comply will face fines of up to 150,000 reals ($28,000) per hour and will possibly be blocked on Brazilian servers for up to 24 hours. No company has commented.
The electoral tribunal’s president, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, said “the aggressiveness of this information and of hate speech” merits the measure. Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras, a Bolsonaro appointee who is widely considered a government ally, filed a motion with the Supreme Court to reverse measures that he said were unconstitutional. Aras said they amounted to “prior censorship,” infringing on the freedom of expression and the right to inform and to be informed in the Brazilian Constitution.
Ten months before the next presidential election, Brazil is more polarized than at any point in recent memory.
The Supreme Court sided with the electoral court in a hearing Tuesday. The Brazilian Constitution’s take on freedom of expression is similar to that of the U.S., said Luis Claudio Araujo, a law professor at Ibmec University in Rio de Janeiro.
The tribunal also banned paid electoral advertising on the internet two days before, and one day after, the election.
The measures angered many Bolsonaro supporters; others said the moves were justified by the scale of the online dirty war.
Misinformation has become more radical — and organized — since the 2018 presidential campaign, when far-right groups were accused of spreading false claims in support of Bolsonaro.
“In 2018 it was a kind of playground thing. It was more honest, in the sense that they ideologically believed in what was happening and simply created channels as a way to be part of the conversation,” said Guilherme Felitti, founder of Novelo Data, which monitors more than 500 conservative YouTube channels.
Some of those who spread the misinformation have since turned their online activism into businesses, relying on ad revenue and donations from their growing audiences. Some ran for office themselves this year.
The surprise result of Sunday’s presidential election shows a Brazil that remains highly polarized as it heads into an Oct. 30 runoff.
Enzo Leonardo Suzin, better known under his YouTube alias Enzuh, was one of them. He launched his channels in 2015.
When Bolsonaro began his campaign, Suzin used his YouTube channel and created several WhatsApp groups — including one he called “memes factory” — to target the candidate’s perceived rivals: mayors, governors and even de Moraes, the Supreme Court Justice.
Suzin has been found guilty and fined as much as 50,000 reals (nearly $10,000) in five separate defamation and libel lawsuits. He is a target of a Supreme Court investigation, which also includes Bolsonaro and political allies, into the spread of fake news online.
With each legal process, Suzin gained followers.
“I thought of YouTube like a game,” Suzin told the Associated Press. “It was my plan from the start: to be a provocateur, cursing about corrupt mobsters, them suing me, and me growing on the back of that.”
His Facebook and Twitter accounts have been blocked, but he still posts daily to his YouTube channel. This month, he lost his bid to become a state lawmaker.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s comeback attests to concerns about inequality that have helped bring a new wave of leftists to power across Latin America.
Bolsonaro has long claimed that Brazil’s electronic voting system has been used to commit fraud — though he has repeatedly failed to produce proof. He has cited the fact that hackers once penetrated the electoral commission’s computer system; the electoral court has said the hackers didn’t gain access to vote-counting data.
As a result, false or misleading information on the reliability of electronic voting machines has spread widely on social media.
Ordem Dourada do Brasil, a far-right group displaying nostalgia for the 1964-85 military dictatorship, has posted videos vowing to go to war “if we need to,” questioning the voting system and calling for Brazilians to take to the streets in support of Bolsonaro.
The Supreme Court has also been a victim of the misinformation war, with one post threatening violence against the daughters of justices. Many others have asked that the institution be shut down. Last year, the court opened an inquiry into an online network that it accused of spreading defamatory news and threats against its justices, with police executing more than two dozen searches and seizure warrants.
Both campaigns this year have filed complaints with the electoral tribunal alleging misinformation — and have won court orders to have the false posts blocked or removed. Complaints filed by the electoral court with online platforms are up 1,671% from the 2020 local elections, the tribunal said last week.
A local treasurer in da Silva’s Workers’ Party was fatally shot in July. Since then, Brazilian authorities have made near-weekly reports of politically motivated attacks.
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