opinion | Brazil’s fake news problem rocks Sunday’s presidential runoff

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Mac Margolis, a Global Opinions columnist, is the author of Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier. Robert Muggah is co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank.

If Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro doesn’t win re-election this Sunday, it won’t be for lack of lies. With accusations of “Satanism,” teaching homosexuality in the classroom, and rigging voting machines, right-wing partisans are working overtime to keep the campaign in slander, magical thinking, and outright fake news.

Not that the left hasn’t tried the same. Indeed, supporters of Labor Party challenger former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have been spreading their share of fake news, linking Bolsonaro to cannibalism and pedophilia. But their efforts look amateurish in comparison to those of the Bolsonarista disinformation machine.

Digital security analysts at the Igarapé Institute, an independent think tank, found that Brazil’s far right is a much more prolific spreader of fake news. Pro-Bolsonaro posts on YouTube garnered more than 99 million views eight days before and after the first round of the Oct. 2 presidential election, compared to 28 million for left-wing channels.

How far the right will go to muddle the election became clear on Wednesday when Bolsonaro loyalists blamed local radio stations Dropping tens of thousands of his campaign spots, deliberately favoring Lula. While electoral authorities were quick to dismiss the claims, the maneuver gave a glimpse of the confusion and acrimony that would follow should Bolsonaro lose.

These untruths poison the prospects for decency and democratic coexistence in Brazil. They also undermine the basis of free and fair elections based on public trust, institutional integrity and agreement on the ground rules of engagement. But all too often, efforts to rid the web of untruths and other malicious content either fail or violate liberties.

For proof of the damage that can be done, look no further than last Sunday’s altercation between federal police and Roberto Jefferson, a former lawmaker and devoted Bolsonaro supporter who opened fire on agents who had come to arrest him. Two were treated for shrapnel wounds and Bolsonaro’s mark was hit squarely.

For months, Jefferson had relished his role as provocateur of far-right headlines. He built a following online by brandishing guns and snarling threats against the “godless” left and the “thought police” in the Brazilian judiciary. Getting jailed and banned from social media for such theatrics last year only reinforced Jefferson’s libertarian cachet. What better ally to ignite the right-wing insurgency and close Lula’s lead in the runoff?

Fifty gunshots and three grenades thrown up later, Jefferson was back behind bars and Bolsonaro was reeling off liability waivers. After all, his armed protégé had just brazenly attacked the federal police, which is one of Bolsonaro’s favorite constituencies, and sabotaged one of the incumbent’s favorite campaign trophies: that he was the victim of rogue justice. If that sounds far-fetched, take a closer look at the information wars that have engulfed Latin America’s largest democracy.

Of course, democratic representation is in trouble everywhere, but Brazil stands out. An insatiable demand for social media, ubiquitous bots and more than 80 smartphones for every 100 Brazilians help bad actors exploit gullibility at their fingertips. Employ an overzealous judiciary that traditionally meddles wherever political disputes break out, and you risk repeated clashes between branches of government and threats to fundamental constitutional liberties.

Brazil’s top electoral court, known as the TSE, has inadvertently exacerbated these tensions. Until last week, the court only intervened when a party filed a request for injury or redress for misinformation and lies. Now the seven-member panel is empowered to take the initiative to remove content it deems offensive, untrue or simply misleading. “The ordinary citizen, the ordinary voter,” said Ricardo Lewandowski, deputy chairman of the electoral tribunal, “is unprepared to process this type of information disorder.”

The challenge in Brazil, as in all democracies, is to determine what information is true or false – and who should decide. For all their legal expertise, Brazil’s top lawyers are greatly outstripped by digitally driven media. The Brazilian Supreme Court, which has been dealing with fake news for years, already hears around 80,000 cases of all kinds every year. “We are a society that tries to react to digital threats with analog procedures and a sluggish judicial system,” said Cláudio Lucena, Professor at Paraiba State University, who sits on the Brazilian National Council for the Protection of Personal Data and Privacy.

The disinformation war is too important to delegate to a few men and women in black, especially during Brazil’s most consequential election campaign since the return of democracy. Even laissez-faire is not an option in times of doxing, deepfakes, bots and troll farms. Brazil’s electoral bodies have set up special observatories to monitor disinformation, but they too are overwhelmed.

Most activists and governments agree that the only credible solution is a “whole of society” approach that calls for “shared responsibility” between the public sector, business and civil society. That means more targeted regulation and requirements that tech companies scrub their platforms, but that’s proven daunting in non-English speaking markets. While eight social media giants have promised to do better in Brazil, misinformation is still seeping through the cracks.

Working out the rules and red lines for the digital media market promises to be a long and arduous process considering how much operators can profit from tricks and hype. “The problem is that we still insist on stopgap solutions, even though we know that tomorrow’s technological threats may not be comparable to today’s,” Lucena said. There is no hack for this problem.



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