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Facebook remains Brazil’s leading political battleground

. Oct 25, 2020
Facebook remains Brazil's leading political battleground Photo: Kovop58/Shutterstock

It has been nearly a decade since experts began to suggest that the end might be near for Facebook.

Teens are dropping the app for Snapchat and YouTube, big brands are boycotting it, and Facebook’s role in the spread of disinformation around the world has tainted the image of the world’s largest social network.

But while you and your social bubble might be finished with Facebook, the platform has never been used as much as it is today — including in Brazil.

Facebook has over 130 million monthly users in Brazil

— almost ten times as many as Twitter. This number is projected to reach 160 million in 2025, which would mean over 70 percent of the Brazilian population would have a Facebook profile. Meanwhile, on the financial side, Facebook Inc saw profits rise 11 percent in H1 2020 from one year ago.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/4111225"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>While it is true that Facebook is losing ground among Gen Z users — which make up a small fraction of its total user base — it continues strong and steady despite its worsening reputation. And one key element helps to understand this discrepancy between perception and reality: private Facebook groups.</p> <p>According to Facebook&#8217;s own data, there are 10 million-plus active groups, used by 1.4 billion people every month. In the latest edition of F8 — a mostly-annual conference held by Facebook, intended for developers and entrepreneurs who build products and services around the website — CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg indicated that groups are the new heart of the platform.</p> <p>&#8220;Groups restrict the reach of conversations and give the impression that lots of people are abandoning the social network,&#8221; says Amanda Jurno, a Ph.D. in communication studies from the Federal University of Minas Gerais. &#8220;However, users are getting closer and closer to others who think like they do.&#8221;</p> <p>In other words: people are still sharing thoughts and content —&nbsp;they are just doing so within their own echo chambers, away from public scrutiny and scourge. More and more, Facebook is operating like another of the group&#8217;s social media products: WhatsApp Messenger.</p> <p>That process is not random. From its coding to its design, Facebook was crafted to stimulate people to leave the public agora in favor of private channels.&nbsp;</p> <p>The changes began in 2016, when the tech giant was called out for not acting sufficiently to curb the spread of falsehoods —&nbsp;especially during election seasons. In the following year, Mr. Zuckerberg published a manifesto saying the company&#8217;s new ethos would be helping people <a href="https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/building-global-community/10154544292806634">create safe communities</a>. And earlier this year, the company paid USD 10 million to air an ad during the Super Bowl just to talk about the platform&#8217;s group feature.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-youtube wp-block-embed is-type-video is-provider-youtube wp-embed-aspect-16-9 wp-has-aspect-ratio"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <iframe title="Facebook: Groups - Ready to Rock? - 2020 Super Bowl Commercial" width="1200" height="675" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Rpxqja0zD5Y?feature=oembed" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe> </div></figure> <h2>Behind Brazil&#8217;s Facebook groups</h2> <p>As an example of the heightened activity on Brazil&#8217;s Facebook groups, we can look at the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/10/24/against-vaccine-bolsonaro-son-reactivates-office-of-hate/">pro-Bolsonaro community</a> <em>&#8220;Aliança pelo Brasil &#8211; Presidente Jair Bolsonaro&#8221;</em> (Alliance for Brazil &#8211; President Jair Bolsonaro), which has over 100,000 members and almost 3,000 posts and comments per day. There is also the anti-Bolsonaro group <em>&#8220;Somos 75 Por Cento Contra Bolsonaro&#8221;</em> (We are 75 percent against Bolsonaro), which has 18,000 members and a stunning average of 5,700 posts and comments every day — adding up to over 170,000 per month.</p> <p>The biggest groups in Brazil all contain the term &#8220;Bolsonaro&#8221; in their titles, with many of them boasting tens of thousands of users.</p> <p>And the volume of publicity that this creates is huge, especially for President Bolsonaro. The word &#8220;Bolsonaro&#8221; was mentioned in 5.13 million posts on public Facebook groups in Portuguese between January 1, 2018 and October 12, 2020 — resulting in 418.2 million interactions.</p> <p>When we add fan pages and verified profiles into the mix, this number rises to 8 million posts and 3.2 billion interactions in less than two years. On Instagram, there were 493,000 public posts including the term &#8220;Bolsonaro,&#8221; generating 1.48 billion interactions.</p> <p>In this respect, President Bolsonaro is pipped by posts containing the word &#8220;Trump&#8221; or &#8220;coronavirus,&#8221; but surpasses &#8220;Obama&#8221; and &#8220;Biden,&#8221; which could suggest a certain disposition of Facebook users to discuss the political right-wing.</p> <h2>What about Twitter?</h2> <p>Despite having a considerably smaller user base, with just 15.7 million, Twitter often dictates the tone of political debates in Brazil and other countries, as if it were a thermometer of the public mood.</p> <p>Twitter is also widely used by politicians and authorities to communicate directly with their base, slowly morphing into a tool for decision making and a never-ending barrel of stories for the press. Many of the debates that begin on Twitter end up spilling over onto other social media platforms.</p> <p>But when we look at absolute data, Twitter loses heavily to Facebook. As an example, the chart below shows the number of interactions with posts from Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s official accounts on both networks.</p> <p>While Twitter is most likely to have more interaction per user, it is this discrepancy in absolute numbers that keeps Facebook alive.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="729" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Screen-Shot-2020-10-25-at-10.37.58-1024x729.png" alt="facebook jair bolsonaro" class="wp-image-51752" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Screen-Shot-2020-10-25-at-10.37.58-1024x729.png 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Screen-Shot-2020-10-25-at-10.37.58-300x214.png 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Screen-Shot-2020-10-25-at-10.37.58-768x547.png 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Screen-Shot-2020-10-25-at-10.37.58-600x427.png 600w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Screen-Shot-2020-10-25-at-10.37.58.png 1396w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></figure> <h2>Hate leads to engagement</h2> <p>In order to understand the polarized behavior and extent of risk of the conversations within Facebook&#8217;s groups, we must return to 2009 and the creation of Facebook&#8217;s algorithm, when users began being recommended content in accordance with their behavior online.</p> <p>In 2016, this mechanism was adjusted to reduce the power of likes and eradicate &#8220;likebait&#8221; posts. In 2018, the algorithm began prioritizing comments and conversations, rewarding posts that created &#8220;relationships between users,&#8221; as Facebook claimed in an official statement.</p> <p>But the result was perhaps unexpected: the content that created the highest volume of engagement was often based on misinformation. This shift catapulted U.S. television network Fox News to the top of the list of brands with the most participation from members.</p> <p>The legacy of this familiar story spread to other social networks and remains present in Facebook&#8217;s groups, away from public scrutiny, similar to what occurs on WhatsApp Messenger.</p> <p>In groups such as Coronavírus Brasil Covid-19 (89,000 members) or one entitled &#8220;I Had Covid-19&#8221; (9,000), emotive and radical tones with abundant confirmation bias are often used to boost conspiracy theories, homemade remedies for the disease, support for hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19, as well as the spreading of personal information such as x-rays, medical reports, and prescriptions.</p> <h2>What&#8217;s on the horizon?</h2> <p>For the future, Mark Zuckerberg plans to connect people via virtual reality headsets. His thinking is that, instead of being restricted to screens, networks may be applied as layers on top of what you see in the world around you, with people interacting through realistic avatars.</p> <p>“[Virtual reality] will be the most social platform of all, we are just scratching the surface,&#8221; he said, during a live broadcast in September. While it sounds like a far-off reality, Facebook is already planning to launch its own line of smartglasses, in partnership with Ray-Ban, as early as next year.

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Alexandre Orrico

Alexandre Orrico is a community manager at ICFJ (International Center for Journalists) and an editor at Núcleo Jornalismo.

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