RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian voters are being bombarded with misinformation online less than a week before choosing their next leader.
People on social media are saying, wrongly, that the left-wing Brazilian presidential candidate plans to shut down churches if elected. There are lies that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wants to let men use public school toilets next to little girls. And they falsely claim that right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro made comments confessing to cannibalism and pedophilia.
Baseless, politically motivated rumors are circulating on social media in Latin America’s largest democracy, shaking Brazilian politics just as American politics have been shaken. The onslaught of false rumors prompted Brazil last week to adopt what some experts call the toughest limits on free speech in the country’s young democracy.
It’s a conundrum posed by social media around the world, especially in countries grappling with the intersection between modern technology and free speech. Brazil has taken a particularly heavy-handed approach. Experts say that in doing so, authorities have raised questions about the country’s commitment to free speech.
“What is happening in Brazil, on Facebook, on YouTube and on other platforms is awfully similar to what was happening in the United States around the 2020 election,” said Vicky Wyatt, campaign manager for the activist group. American SumOfUs. “An individual message may not have as much reach, but cumulatively over time, having that constant drip has negative consequences.”
Overall, conservative channels produce more content – and also more fake and problematic content. According to a tally by the Igarape Institute, in the eight days leading up to and following the Oct. 2 first-round vote, far-right YouTube channels attracted 99 million views while left-wing channels recorded 28 million views. views. Political analysts and the opposition have expressed concern that Bolsonaro’s internet army could help him challenge the results if he loses, by spreading unfounded fraud allegations.
The Superior Electoral Court, the nation’s top electoral authority, announced Thursday that it would ban “false or seriously decontextualized” content that “damages the integrity of the electoral process.” No request from a prosecutor or plaintiff is necessary for the court to take action.
In the days leading up to and just after the October 30 election run-off, social media companies like YouTube and Meta – owners of Facebook and Instagram – will only have one hour, much less time than before, to remove problematic content. No companies have commented.
Platforms that fail to comply will be subject to fines of up to 150,000 reals ($28,000) per hour and possibly blocked on Brazilian servers for up to 24 hours.
The president of the electoral tribunal, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, said the “aggressiveness of this information and hate speech” justifies the measure. Attorney General Augusto Aras, a Bolsonaro appointee who is widely seen as a government ally, filed a petition with the Supreme Court to strike down measures he called unconstitutional. Aras said they amounted to “prior censorship”, violating freedom of expression and the right to inform and be informed in the Brazilian Constitution.
The Supreme Court sided with the Electoral Court in a hearing on Tuesday. The Brazilian Constitution’s view on freedom of expression is similar to that of the United States, said Luis Claudio Araujo, a law professor at IBMec University.
The court also banned paid election advertising on the Internet two days before and one day after the election.
The new measures have angered many Bolsonaro supporters. Others said they were justified by the scale of the dirty war online.
Disinformation has become more radical — and organized — since the 2018 presidential campaign, when far-right groups were accused of spreading mass disinformation in favor of Bolsonaro.
“In 2018 it was kind of a playground. It was more honest, in the sense that they believed ideologically in what was going on and just created channels to be part of the conversation,” Guilherme Felitti said. , founder of Novelo Data, which monitors more than 500 conservative YouTube channels.
Some of them have since turned their online activism into businesses, relying on ad revenue and donations from their growing following. Some ran for office themselves this year.
Enzo Leonardo Suzin, better known by his YouTube alias Enzuh, was one of them. He launched his channels in 2015.
When Bolsonaro started his campaign, Suzin used his own YouTube channel and created several WhatsApp groups – including one he called a “meme factory” – to target Bolsonaro’s perceived rivals – mayors, governors and even deputies. Moraes, the Supreme Court Justice.
He was found guilty and fined up to 50,000 reais (just under $10,000) in five different libel and libel suits. He is also the target of a Supreme Court investigation into spreading false information online, which also includes Bolsonaro and political allies.
With each legal proceeding, Suzin gained a few more followers.
“I thought of YouTube as a game,” Suzin told The Associated Press. “It was my plan from the start: to be a provocateur, to curse the corrupt gangsters, they were chasing me and I was growing up on the back of that.”
His Facebook and Twitter accounts were blocked – but not his YouTube channel, where he still posts daily. He lost his bid to become state legislator this month.
Bolsonaro has long claimed that the country’s electronic voting system has been used to commit fraud – although he has repeatedly failed to produce evidence. He cited the fact that hackers had once penetrated the electoral commission’s computer system. The Electoral Tribunal said the hackers had no access to any vote count data.
As a result, false or misleading information about the reliability of the country’s electronic machines has also spread widely on social media.
Ordem Dourada do Brasil, a far-right group nostalgic for the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, posted videos vowing to wage war “if we need to”, questioning Brazil’s electoral system and calling on Brazilians to take to the streets in support of Bolsonaro.
The Supreme Court and some of its justices have also been victims of the disinformation war, with a post threatening violence against the daughters of justices. Many others have called for the establishment to be closed.
Last year, the court opened an investigation into an online network it accused of spreading defamatory information and threats against its judges, with police executing more than two dozen search and seizure warrants.
Both campaigns this year filed complaints with the electoral tribunal alleging misinformation – and won court orders to block or remove it. Complaints filed by the electoral tribunal with online platforms have increased by 1,671% compared to the 2020 local elections, the electoral tribunal said last week.
A local treasurer of da Silva’s Workers’ Party was shot and killed in July. Since then, Brazilian authorities have reported politically motivated attacks almost weekly.
Tai Nalon, founder of fact-checking agency AosFatos, said the big challenge in tackling misinformation online is making the right decisions. “There is no legislation regulating (online) platforms or indicating how the judiciary should act against them,” she said.