Fake News in Brazil: A Battle Was Won, But the War Continues
While fake news continued to play a major role in the 2022 Brazilian elections, efforts to combat it’s influence have demonstrated remarkable results.
Fake news is a growing phenomenon on a global scale, especially in election years. This discussion has become central to daily life, especially after the referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (Brexit) in June 2016, and the United States elections in November 2016, which culminated in the victory of Donald Trump’s controversial campaign. In 2018, the Brazilian Elections added to the growing case studies regarding misinformation.
Jair Bolsonaro, elected president in 2018, took fake news as a part of his communication while in government. During the past four years while in office Bolsonaro behaved as an autocrat inciting antidemocratic demonstrations, which resulted in new fronts of investigation in the Federal Supreme Court (STF) on digital militias, fake news, and investigation into anti-democratic acts.
Even though there were already measures to combat fake news in the 2018 elections, the overwhelming volume of attacks, especially on the electoral system, was not expected by the Superior Electoral Court – responsible for the conduct of the electoral process. In this sense, not only the Superior Court and other branches of government, but also academics, politicians, the media, and society more broadly joined forces to counteract disinformation during these years.
Efforts to counteract misinformation
We can point out three main sectors that acted on misinformation during this time. The first is the permanent program on countering misinformation celebrated in 2017 by the Superior Electoral Court. This program sought to disseminate official, reliable, and quality information; empower the whole of society through media literacy to understand the phenomenon of disinformation and the functioning of the electoral process; and respond to disinformation and adopt strategies, both preventive and repressive, to contain its negative effects. In this sense, the Federal Electoral Court Program on Misinformation celebrated a partnership with 154 key players that made commitments to fast-track misinformation claims on their platforms.
There was also great investment in communication with the public to dismantle misinformation surrounding the electoral process. One example is the “Pardal app” – an Electoral court app to whistle blow irregularities, such as misinformation, political harassment, and illegal campaigning. The court also developed a chatbot in WhatsApp – the main messaging app in Brazil – to provide information on the electoral processes and carry out consultations on disinformation in partnership with verification agencies.
The second sector concerned the Brazilian Congress, which formed a Mixed Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on fake news (CPMI). This Commission held several meetings to investigate the misinformation of the 2018 elections, casting light on the scandals regarding the mass messages sent via WhatsApp and sponsored by Bolsonarist entrepreneurs. Also, they shone light on the organization of the “hate cabinet” – digital militia strategy employed by Bolsonaro and his allies to use bots to instigate large-scale attacks on political opponents and journalists. Both findings are under investigation and have already led to the blockage of social media profiles that were responsible for the spread of misinformation and antidemocratic content.
The third sector includes NGOs, academics, and media and fact-checking agencies. The infodemia surrounding COVID-19, as well as the continuous attacks and fake news spread by the Bolsonaro government, played a huge part in the increased investments in programs by NGOs on misinformation and media literacy. The third sector, as well as other democratic progressive forces such as influencers, YouTubers, and politicians took on a major role in politicizing Brazilian society against the dangers of misinformation. In this sense, the production of counter-information to stop disinformation congregated around joint efforts from different spectrums of the Brazilian political landscape.
2022 Brazilian Elections and Fake News
In 2022 Brazilians went to vote not only for their representatives at the federal and state level but also for civility and the type of democracy they desired. Even though the misinformation climate has improved, attacks on the polls and the Electoral Justice as well as false allegations of fraud were some of the themes that marked the first round of elections on all the main social media platforms and messaging apps. Research showed that disinformation increased in the second turn by at least 23 percent on Telegram, 36 percent on WhatsApp, 9 percent on Facebook, and 5 percent on Twitter. Also, according to the Superior Court, there was a 1,671 percent increase in the volume of disinformation complaints sent to digital platforms (such as the Pardal App) compared to the 2020 Elections. Spiked by the high-level of polarisation, fake news focused not only on the electoral system but also on moral panic, economic terrorism, and communist propaganda. Fake news outlets claimed that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (WP) would close churches, place unisex bathrooms in public schools, and that Brazil would have a major economic crisis much like in Venezuela – even forcing people to eat their puppies.
With this increasing chaos of misinformation the Superior Court took action and ruled on 20 October – 10 days before the second round – a state of emergency, setting new norms to fast-track the removal of misinformation during elections. These included requiring social platforms to take down posts within two hours of them being ruled prejudicial by the Court and prohibited the boosting of posts 48 hours before elections campaigns. These measures were largely criticized, especially by Bolsonarists that claimed they were being censored.
Despite the efforts of the Bolsonarist campaign, which had mobilized public funding and had the highest expenditure on advertising, Lula got elected on the second turn by 50.9 percent of valid votes (more than 60,345000 votes), being the first candidate to have overthrown a president seeking for re-election. Even before the final results were cast, Bolsonarists were already claiming that the elections were fraudulent and since the 1 November have been taking to the streets to protest against a fraud that has not been proven, even asking for intervention by the Armed Forces
Overall, despite the continuous spread of misinformation since 2018, confidence in the electronic voting system has increased in Brazil. According to one poll by Datafolha, people registered 79 percent trust in the electoral system. This shows the high-level commitment of the Superior Electoral Court and their coordinated action on media and democratic political mitigation to reinforce the democratic values and importance of fair and transparent elections.
While more thorough research is yet needed to truly understand the impacts of misinformation in these elections, recent studies show that despite efforts on combating misinformation, it continued to increase during the 2022 elections. This points to three main conclusions: 1) social platforms aren’t doing enough to counteract misinformation; 2) the Bolsonarist movement maintains a high level of misinformation organization and 3) despite the increased level of misinformation people are more aware of the dangers of fake news, so adherence to such views actually decreased compared to 2018.
This battle has been won but the war on misinformation and fake news will continue as there is still a large percentage of the population that voted for Bolsonarist deputies, reinforcing the movement that, such as Trumpism in the United States, has become something larger than Bolsonarism and Bolsonaro. Even though the antidemocratic protests – the ones claiming electoral fraud in Brazil – are slowing down two weeks after the election results, there is still an ongoing fear that an event such as the capitol invasion that took place in the United States might occur in Brazil. As for today, despite all the attempts by Bolsonaro to retain the presidency, democracy in Brazil has prevailed and the majority of Brazilians are looking forward to a brighter and more conciliatory future.
Ana Julia Bonzanini Bernardi is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the School of Sociology and Politics Foundation of São Paulo (FESPSP-Brazil) and Researcher at the Latin America Research Center (NUPESAL/UFRGS). Ana Julia holds a PhD and Master in Political Science at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Porto Alegre, Brazil. E-mail: email@example.com
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