Elections throughout the world have historically been a stage for rumors and misleading information to destabilize leading political personalities. But in 2018, a combination of high levels of dissatisfaction, political polarization, and new technology could spell even higher levels of trouble.
In 1989, when presidential hopefuls Lula da Silva and Fernando Collor took to the stage to debate in the second round of elections, Lula unexpectedly lost traction. Rumors had surfaced, accusing the Workers’ Party candidate of trying to force a woman to abort an illegitimate child of his. Despite the accusations later being revealed as baseless, many still believe that Lula’s loss that year was linked to that misinformation’s feverish grip on the country.
Today, information and ideas can spread even faster. Approximately 68 percent of Brazilians have access to the internet, according to the 2017 report from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. Brazilians are among the world’s most dedicated users of social networks, with serious engagement across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; 64 percent of Brazilians will share news via social media on a weekly basis.
But Brazil’s social media tendencies mirror a global picture. While the Reuters Institute found that social media engagement is diminishing across the world, messaging is on the rise. WhatsApp has more than 100 million users in Brazil and is beginning to rival Facebook in terms of active user numbers.
While this is part of a broader shift towards encrypted messaging and communication, and means that are not algorithm-centered, it presents its own risks. Experts are worried by the impossibility of knowing where news spread via WhatsApp first originated, or how many people have seen it.
Both private and public efforts are being put in place to combat this. Brazil-based news fact-checking agency Aos Fatos, founded by journalist Tai Nalon, announced a collaborative effort with Facebook in early January to stem the flow of fake news, alongside a series of educational measures to help users distinguish between real and fake news. Additionally, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE) announced that it would criminalize creating and spreading fake news.