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.
Fact-checking with Facebook
Bot Fátima is the result of the partnership between Aos Fatos and Facebook, announced in early January and due to launch in June. Fátima will be able to speak with users via Messenger and assist them in their own fact-checking processes, as well as offering tips to help users in the future. The bot will be able to offer tips on separating news from opinion, as well as finding reliable data and sources.
“It’s automation entering into the field of debate on disinformation on social networks, trying to resolve it in a scalable way,” Nalon told The Brazilian Report by phone. “There will never be enough fact-checkers or journalists or specialists to take care of the quantity of information that exists on social networks.”
Nalon hopes that this will help create conscious news consumers in Brazil, and add a pinch of “cynicism” to news they pick up from social networks. While she doesn’t expect that people will want to check everything they read, she believes they will be vigilant in using the bot to verify information before they share articles.
However, she remains concerned about the potential of apps like WhatsApp, whose content is often difficult to trace. “It’s really very worrying to think about the power that this type of communicator could have if used irresponsibly,” she said.
A lack of infrastructure means that Brazil’s internet penetration is low compared to other countries. Yaso Cordova, an HKS fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, told The Brazilian Report by phone that social media can often be the only source of information for those in rural locations.
“For someone in a rural area, who uses WhatsApp, who doesn’t have access to the internet, who only uses a pre-paid plan with WhatsApp for free, it’s difficult for this person to find a more trustworthy version of news they see,” she said.
However, Cordova remains critical of efforts to stop fake news from spreading on social media. She says that it will merely discourage people from using the platform to publicly air their views, and will restrict genuine discussion and debate. “It’s like you are creating a super-policed environment, as if it were a shopping mall on the internet,” she said.
TSE’s efforts prompt censorship fears
Based on the demands of the TSE’s next president, Justice Luiz Fux of the Federal Supreme Court, electoral courts will create and implement their own working group to tackle fake news in Brazil as the elections approach. The group will be made up of Federal Police members, the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the Federal Public Ministry. According to reports in Brazilian media, the group was fully operational by December 2017.
Justice Fux announced the measure to press, saying that it was necessary to “curb damaging, illegitimate behaviors” from contenders who would abuse the internet’s reach to spread fake news. The group’s task will consist of researching and producing information regarding the internet’s influence on elections, with a special focus on the effects of fake news and bots. Those found circulating information that the TSE finds to be ‘fake news’ will be subject to hefty fines.
However, its reception has been a little frosty among a public wary of the potential for censorship. The group’s proposal to criminalize both the creation and dissemination of deliberately misleading content has sparked controversy, with some warning that the move risks being labeled as censorship.
The TSE refuted ideas that measures taken by its special counsel could amount to censorship, and said that fears that the council could undermine genuine independent media are unwarranted. “The intention is to combat fake news that circulates on the internet (and circulates even more during elections), and to promote the full exercise of democracy,” a TSE representative told The Brazilian Report by email.
Francisco Brito Cruz, director of the internet research organization Internetlabs, criticized the efficiency of the TSE’s move. “The idea to create new regulation, like creating a new law, isn’t necessarily a good idea,” he said. “I think that to say that a law will resolve the problem of fake news in Brazil is the fruit of an incorrect perception.”
Cordova, too, agrees with Cruz. “Imposing old legal frameworks to a new application doesn’t work,” she said. “Our justice systems need to catch up.”
However, with executives from Facebook, Twitter, Google and WhatsApp meeting with the TSE, the court argues that its measures are necessary to address the problem. “Because of the power of the internet to disseminate such false information, it is necessary to find ways of doing a kind of dialogical, cooperative justice,” TSE representatives said by email, adding that the proposed rules are still being defined and will be “in perfect harmony with the present.”