How decisive will social media be in Brazil’s 2018 election?

. Jul 14, 2018
social media Will this finally be the social media election in Brazil?
social media

Will this finally be the social media election in Brazil?

Ever since Barack Obama completed his amazing journey from the Illinois State Senate to the White House in 12 years by tapping into the power of social media, political pundits have said that the upcoming election “will be the social media election in Brazil.” They said it in 2010, when members of Obama’s 2008 campaign were hired by Dilma Rousseff, and in 2014, when bots first made an appearance in trying to tamper with debates on social media.

TV and radio, though, played a larger role in the 2010 and 2014 presidential races. After all, 97.2 percent of Brazilian homes are equipped with a TV set, while 36.4 percent of homes still don’t have a fixed-broadband connection. But the prophecy could finally be fulfilled in 2018, ten years after the first Obama campaign. As a matter of fact, social media is already setting the tone of the presidential race.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;The leader in all polls, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was wrought by social media platforms. He won&#8217;t have much time on TV and radio during the campaign, has little partisan structure, and, so far, no large coalition. He lives exclusively off his own media ecosystem,&#8221; says Fabio Malini, coordinator of the Research Laboratory on Internet and Cyberculture (Labic).</span></p> <h2>A different way of campaigning</h2> <p>The &#8220;real campaign&#8221; starts on August 15, with radio and TV ads. On every campaigning day, parties split 70 minutes among them, based on how many seats each party holds in Parliament (for states and municipalities, it’s about the seats in local legislatures). For Mr. Malini, though, the impact of TV and radio will depend on their repercussions on social media. &#8220;Party ads will not be so important this time around. <span style="font-weight: 400;">Debates and interviews with the candidates on TV will be more influential, as they incite reactions on social media, and therefore, set the political agenda,&#8221; he says.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This change in dynamics reflects a transformation of how Brazilian society connects. Right now, 84 million </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazilians own a smartphone</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> &#8211; which represents 54 percent of the country&#8217;s adult population. In 2013, that rate was at only 15 percent. Roughly 70 percent of Brazilians are connected to the internet (even if not from their own homes) and the majority of voters also are on at least one social media platform. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">ComScore</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, a media analytics company, Brazilians spend 25 percent of their online time on Facebook, and 49 percent of the population get their news from the internet.</span></p> <h2>The most engaging candidates on social media</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Social media has become known for creating echo chambers and fueling political radicalism. Therefore, it is no wonder that the two strongest candidates in Brazil on social media are also the most polarizing ones: former President Lula and far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro shot to the top of the polls (in scenarios without Lula, who is currently in jail) thanks to a continuous, aggressive social media strategy. He is the presidential hopeful with most followers on Facebook (5.4 million) and Instagram (1.2 million). On Twitter, his 1.2 million followers put him in second place among presidential candidates.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to a survey made by CrowdTangle, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s official Facebook page got 2.78 million interactions with netizens &#8211; only trailing behind Lula. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The former president has been at the center of the political debate lately, thanks to his corruption conviction, arrest, and recent </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">legal controversy</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> surrounding an unsuccessful release order in his favor. While mentions of other presidential hopefuls remained stable over the past week, posts about Lula spiked.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-large wp-image-5950" src="" alt="social media debate" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <h2>&#8220;Fake engagement&#8221;</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">A recent study conducted by the InternetLab Institute, a Brazilian research center, pointed about that one-third of Twitter accounts following presidential candidates are actually social media bots &#8211; and not real people. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The leader in this category is Álvaro Dias, a center-right candidate polling at roughly 4 percent. Sixty-four percent of his Twitter followers are bots, according to the study. No wonder Mr. Dias is the candidate, among the ten main names, with the lowest engagement rate: only 0.18 percent of his followers interact with his social media posts.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-large wp-image-5951" src="" alt="social media fake engagement" width="1024" height="491" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1096w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <h2>The risks of social media campaigns</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Campaigns in Brazil have become obscenely expensive, leading to corruption scandals and rules to limit the influence of money in politics. Candidates can no longer raise money from companies, but they can increase the reach of their proposals by sponsoring posts on social media platforms. The Superior Electoral Court, however, demands that these posts come with a disclaimer explaining that the post is an electoral ad.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But what is set to be one of the biggest novelties of Brazil&#8217;s 2018 election may also become a cause for concern. Mr. Malini believes that the established rules have many loopholes. &#8220;What if other Facebook pages and regular users decide to promote a candidate’s idea without mentioning him or her? Or to attack an opponent? How will Facebook deal with it?&#8221; he wonders.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Another issue would arise if rivals decide to sponsor content for the same target audience in the same time period, i.e., the last week of the campaign. Facebook has the power to decide which post gains more relevance based on the engagement rate, making one of them more visible. “Facebook has to rule many things that, in my point of view, should be regulated by our institutions,” says Mr. Malini.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-large wp-image-5952" src="" alt="social media users brazil" width="1024" height="573" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But the biggest problem might be on another of Mark Zuckerberg&#8217;s social networks: WhatsApp Messenger. The most popular app in Brazil has become one of the country&#8217;s main communication channels &#8211; and could also be a great tool for </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">spreading</span></a> <a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">fake news</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. Its end-to-end encryption means it is impossible to trace where information comes from or how many people it has reached.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">A recently launched collaborative project called </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Comprova</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (a local version of France’s </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Crosscheck</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">) aims to tackle the problem with an unprecedented solution: to open the platform’s API (application programming interface). This is a sort of program skeleton which allows coders and experts to see it from the inside and to adapt it to various needs. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Access to the API came as the result of pressure from 24 major news outlets in Brazil which have managed to bend Facebook, WhatsApp&#8217;s parent company. Comprova will crosscheck fake news disseminated in the app, and send the verified information back to users. For now, it is unknown whether messages will be tracked and if metrics will be provided to measure the engagement of the damage and the efficiency of the repair. The access to this information, however, could jeopardize users’ privacy. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“If WhatsApp allows the project access to the chats, it means the app encryption is actually not working,” Mr. Malini alerts.

Maria Martha Bruno

Maria Martha is a journalist with 14 years of experience in politics, arts, and breaking news. She has already collaborated with Al Jazeera, NBC, and CNN, among others. She has also worked as an international correspondent in Buenos Aires.

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