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The inner workings of pro-Bolsonaro misinformation networks

Facebook removed dozens of profiles and pages used to spread misinformation. They were connected to Brazil's First Family Photo: Wachiwit/Shutterstock

On July 8, Facebook Inc. announced it had taken down a network of social media profiles owned by figures linked to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and two of his sons, who are also in politics. The justification for the removal was that these profiles engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which violates the company’s terms of use. Combined, the pages and profiles in question had an audience of more than two million accounts.

The network comprised 14 Facebook pages, 35 personal accounts, 38 Instagram pages, and one Facebook group. Beyond being linked to advisors of the First Family, the accounts acted to spread positive information about this political group, promoting themselves and the Bolsonaro administration. The problem is that they did so illegally.

</p> <p>Facebook explained the network as &#8220;consisting of several clusters of connected activity that relied on a combination of <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/US/ways-spot-disinformation-social-media-feeds/story?id=67784438">duplicate and fake accounts</a> — some of which had been detected and disabled by our automated systems — to evade enforcement, create fictitious personas posing as reporters, post content, and manage pages masquerading as news outlets.”</p> <p>The social network defines inauthentic behavior as when &#8220;people misrepresent themselves, use fake accounts, artificially boost the popularity of content, or engage in behaviors designed to enable other violations under our Community Standards”.&nbsp;</p> <p>In partnership with Facebook, the Atlantic Council&#8217;s <a href="https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/programs/digital-forensic-research-lab/">Digital Forensic Research Lab</a> had the chance to analyze the content and behavior of these accounts before they were taken down. Luiza Bandeira, research associate and Latin America head of the lab, points out that the network had been in operation since at least the presidential campaign of 2018.</p> <p>“According to Facebook, this network engaged in non-authentic behavior, using fake or duplicate accounts. People who do not exist, pictures of Twitter users in Turkey, profiles that pretended to be ordinary citizens and posted messages of support to Bolsonaro in countless groups,” Ms. Bandeira told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Beyond the “fake or duplicate accounts,” she also emphasizes that some pages presented themselves as journalism outlets, despite being propaganda mouthpieces created by political advisors linked to the Bolsonaro family. It is this aspect that was adjudged to be &#8220;misleading,&#8221; as it planned to shape the debate in a coordinated manner while masquerading as a journalistic company.</p> <p>Therefore, despite the structure often being used to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/30/good-brazil-biggest-newspaper-pro-democracy-stand/">spread hate speech and misinformation</a>, the removal of the pages and profiles was not related to their content, rather it was linked to their so-called &#8216;inauthentic behavior.&#8217;</p> <h2>The main link</h2> <p>Investigations made by Facebook tie the network to at least five former or current assistants of the president, two of his sons, and other members of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) — Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s former political party.&nbsp;</p> <p>The most prominent target is Tercio Arnaud Tomaz, who works in the presidential palace as a special advisor to the President&#8217;s Office. While Mr. Tomaz had no public participation in the scheme, according to Facebook, one of the main offending pages was created using the email address terciotomaz@gmail.com.</p> <p>Also belonging to Mr. Tomaz was Instagram account @bolsonaronewsss, which had over 429,000 followers and 11,469 posts before being taken down.</p> <p>Ms. Bandeira classifies the content published by these pages as “a mix of half-truths to arrive at false conclusions.” In her analysis, she mentioned one example of the account classifying the media reaction to Covid-19 as <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/07/07/bolsonaro-tests-positive-for-the-coronavirus/">exaggerated</a>, in line with President Bolsonaro&#8217;s message. They had also been promoting the use of antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, of which Mr. Bolsonaro is a huge fan, despite having no scientific evidence suggesting its efficacy in treating Covid-19.&nbsp;</p> <p>Another example cited by the analysis was a post that quoted the World Health Organization saying contagion from asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus is “very rare,” without mentioning the clarification made by the institution the following day, amending this information.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Government in hot water</h2> <p>Facebook&#8217;s actions will serve to strengthen inquiries currently underway in the <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/05/28/supreme-court-fake-news-probe-brazil-unemployment-pandemic/">Supreme Court</a>, Superior Electoral Court, and a hearings committee in Congress, all concerning the matter of spreading fake news and which have their sights firmly set on the First Family and their cronies. These probes may result in punishments in civil and criminal courts and could see elected officials lose their offices — including <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/05/23/way-oust-bolsonaro-not-impeachment-electoral-court/">President Bolsonaro</a>.</p> <p>The social media company stated that the owners of the banned accounts were linked to advisors of the president and his sons Eduardo Bolsonaro — a federal congressman — and Senator Flávio Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Since before his <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/06/18/covid-19-pandemic-brazilian-elections-more-exposed-fake-news/">election</a> in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro and his close allies have been linked to the spreading of misinformation and harassment on social media.</p> <p>In fact, some of those linked to the network engaging in &#8216;inauthentic behavior&#8217; had already been mentioned <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/cpi-das-fake-news-mira-grupo-que-integraria-gabinete-do-odio-no-planalto-1-24045101">in previous investigations</a>, as the parliamentary hearings committee in Congress targeting the so-called &#8220;Office of Hate&#8221; operating out of the presidential palace. The alleged Office of Hate consists of a group of political agents and advisors working within the president&#8217;s office who orchestrate and rile up President Bolsonaro&#8217;s digital militancy, operating largely on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp Messenger.</p> <p>The rapporteur of the fake news hearings committee, Congresswoman Lídice da Mata said the investigations indicate that misinformation may have had an influence on the general elections of 2018. &#8220;Now we will make an official request to obtain a copy of [the investigation] and bring this to the committee.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;It&#8217;s extremely serious,&#8221; said Senator Humberto Costa, another member of the committee. &#8220;It proves what we have been investigating (&#8230;) that there is a criminal organization operating within the Bolsonaro government.&#8221;</p> <p>On his official social media pages, former Justice Minister Sergio Moro <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/04/24/could-sergio-moro-bring-down-second-president/">celebrated Facebook&#8217;s actions</a>, saying he was one of the targets of the targeted misinformation project organized by the network. Requests have been made for the data of the investigation to be included in a Supreme Court probe on fake news.</p> <h2>Facebook networks taken down in other countries</h2> <p>Facebook removed the Bolsonarist social media pages amid rising pressure to police the use of its platforms. Hundreds of advertisers joined a boycott intended to force the company to clamp down on hate speech, and many Facebook employees walked out last month when CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided not to question inflammatory posts made by U.S. President Donald Trump.&nbsp;</p> <p>The move to remove problematic pages and profiles was not restricted to Brazil. In Latin America, 41 profiles and 77 Facebook pages were taken down, along with 56 Instagram accounts. The network was managed from Canada and Ecuador, but targeted countries such as El Salvador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Chile.</p> <p>In Ukraine, 72 accounts and 35 pages focused on local politics were also removed. Another 13 Instagram profiles were banned. This particular network was, according to Facebook, particularly active during the Ukrainian elections of 2019.</p> <p>Another action took place in the U.S., where over 100 Facebook pages and profiles were taken down, along with four Instagram accounts. In this case, the network appeared to have been largely deactivated, being used mainly in 2015 and 2016 to publish content about <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/07/08/facebook-roger-stone?utm_source=meio&amp;utm_medium=email">Republican political consultant Roger Stone</a>. In November, Mr. Stone became a convicted felon due to obstructing the course of justice and lying under oath. He could be sent to prison later this month, though President Trump — his friend and former advisor — is expected to grant him clemency.

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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