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Brazil Fell for Fake News: What to Do About It Now?

Brazil Fell for Fake News: What to Do About It Now?

In Brazil, a country of 209 million, roughly 60 percent of the population regularly uses Facebook and WhatsApp. Nearly 70 percent of the electorate has an active social media account. The internet is now the most common vehicle for news consumption, ahead of television, printed newspapers, and radio. President Jair Bolsonaro surprised many by overcoming his relatively miniscule time allotment for televised campaign advertising—historically a determining factor for electoral success—by effectively wielding his social media presence during his 2018 campaign. However, the rise of online news and social media has been accompanied by a rise in digital misinformation. While only an estimated 70 percent of Brazilians used the internet in 2018, research indicated that at least 86 percent of voters encountered fake news during the 2018 election cycle. That figure rose to 98 percent among Bolsonaro supporters, 90 percent of whom believed at least one piece of fake news. This increased reliance on social media for information combined with high levels of trust in online content have made many Brazilians vulnerable to false information. In Brazil—as in many countries around the world—this remains a serious challenge despite ongoing efforts to address it.

The Rise of Fake News in Brazilian Politics

The 2018 elections in Brazil were marked by rising political polarization and an increasing reliance on social media as a source of news and political information. This trend is not limited to electoral politics, but rather is part of a broader strategy signaling a new form of political interaction between Brazilians and those seeking to influence policy, both on and off the ballots. However, the elections marked a clear turning point. Social media-savvy candidates dominated the political races: seven YouTubers won seats in the Brazilian Congress, including São Paulo state’s second-most-voted federal deputy, Joice Hasselmann. Notably, Bolsonaro’s successful campaign was openly hostile to the “fake news” media establishment, echoing the rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump (even in the use of the English term “fake news”) and is reported to have benefited from illegal, corporate-funded WhatsApp messaging blasts containing disinformation against his opponent, Fernando Haddad.

Although its impact on the electoral outcome is still being debated, misinformation and disinformation had an unquestionably extensive reach. One of the most widely distributed pieces of fake news claimed that Haddad had created a “gay kit” for school curricula to encourage homosexuality. Roughly 75 percent of the electorate was exposed to the story and, although it was untrue, 84 percent of Bolsonaro voters believed it. We can attribute this wide reach in part to the use of bots, but the high percentage of voters who accepted the story shows that many Brazilians found it worth sharing. Another popular piece of fake news attacked Bolsonaro, claiming that he faked the assassination attempt he suffered during the elections in order to win sympathy and skip presidential debates. And on Election Day, 86 percent of all voters heard claims that voting machines had been rigged in favor of Fernando Haddad; more than half of Bolsonaro voters believed the story. These were not isolated cases: a study of several hundred political WhatsApp groups found that among the fifty most shared images, more than half contained false information.

Brazilian voters are susceptible to this kind of informational manipulation due largely to entrenched and deepening pessimism and distrust in politics and institutions, combined with underlying social factors. Nearly eight in ten Brazilians distrust the government and view it as corrupt.  Seven in ten say their country is “in decline.” Moreover, only 14 percent of the population anticipated that the 2018 elections would be “fair.” This apparent alienation from elected officials and political processes has made rumors and fake news that might once have seemed absurd increasingly convincing. Further strengthening the appeal of otherwise dubious news sources, a poll of urban Brazilians showed that only one-third consider traditional media to operate freely from undue political and business interests.

In addition to general skepticism and distrust, nearly one-third of Brazilians between fifteen and sixty-four years of age are “functionally illiterate,” meaning they struggle to read more than keywords in most written texts. Like the country as a whole, these Brazilians are overwhelmingly active on social media, with 86 percent using WhatsApp and 72 percent Facebook. Yet this segment of the population is particularly vulnerable to believing and spreading fake news, given their preference for the images, videos, audio messages, and simple, brief texts common on social media—and mostly absent from newspapers. Members of this group are also less likely to fact-check the information they consume, to spot embedded irony or satire, or to question unfounded and exaggerated claims and sources.

Growing Concerns Over the Impact of Social Media on Political Discourse

With election season now over, the conversation about social media and news consumption has shifted to focus on the longer-term impact for society and politics. While the proliferation of fake news is more rampant during election cycles, evidence suggests that the relationship between news and the internet is changing the way people interact with politics on a day-to-day basis, with significant implications for governance and public policy. Since the massive 2013 protests in Brazil, political polarization between the left and right on social media has continually increased. One study showed that before 2013, Brazilian Facebook users participated in many of the same political discussions and liked and shared similar posts and pages regardless of political orientation. Since then, however, users have gradually diverged in terms of the discussions in which they participate as well as in their content engagement. Brazilians are increasingly dividing themselves between right and left and identifying with one of several broad political ideologies—e.g., progressivism, conservatism, libertarianism—rather than with specific issues—e.g., criminal justice, human rights, environmentalism—as was the case prior to 2013. This also indicates that the online information channels Brazilians frequent are becoming isolated and, therefore, that the perspectives Brazilians consume are becoming more and more one-sided, in a positive feedback loop.

Research conducted in the United States offers evidence that political polarization can lead to greater discomfort in discussing politics with those who have differing or opposing political beliefs. A Pew study from late 2018 showed that in the United States, two years after Donald Trump’s election, having political conversations with people of opposing viewpoints had become more stressful and, in the eyes of the poll’s participants, less productive. Many in Brazil seem to feel similarly: there are numerous reports of families and friends ceasing contact over disagreeable social media posts. However, if voters avoid political debate and subscribe to separate and often conflicting information channels online, polarization is likely to deepen.

The Fight Against Fake News

Several efforts to mitigate the influence of misinformation are already underway, providing insight into the strategies for managing this twenty-first-century threat. Drawing on research from academia and the policy world, governments and social media platforms have implemented new measures to try to stem the spread of fake news in Brazil and beyond.

Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE) was active throughout the election season, monitoring fake news blasts on social media and maintaining contact with leadership at major social media companies. The Court notably ordered Facebook to remove thirty-three pieces of fake news about Fernando Haddad’s running mate, Manuela D’Ávila, during the campaign. The Court also launched its own multimedia fact-checking page based on research findings showing that providing new, correct information is more productive than simply labeling claims as false.

Facebook and Google both contributed to a fact-checking project in Brazil called Comprova (roughly, “Prove It”), which convened journalists from twenty-four different newsrooms to expose and counter fake news during the election cycle. Facebook also added fact-checkers to its Brazil team to sift out misinformation on the platform.

WhatsApp limited the number of forwards for a single message to twenty contacts to deter the practice of sharing messages up to several hundred times, arguing that the further a message travels away from the source, the less users should trust it. However, this becomes complicated by WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption—the source of a message is not trackable beyond the most recent sender—leading to the company’s effort to limit the rate at which messages can spread through social networks. WhatsApp’s efforts have continued even after the elections: the platform banned users associated with companies it found to be sending pro-Bolsonaro political messages en masse to users that had not subscribed to any such list, and notified electoral authorities. As a result, the TSE opened an investigation into the matter.

Yet these challenges are not easily resolved. Despite the combined efforts of a range of actors—from government institutions and social media giants to individual users and journalists—politically charged misinformation continues to influence political debates in Brazil. Although the TSE claimed its response was effective, others (including former election officials) criticized its efforts as insufficient. Social media can and does serve to increase popular participation, but it seems that societies are experiencing digital era “growing pains” as they struggle to adapt to a plurality of information and define credibility amid growing avenues for personal expression. And there is little reason to believe that the volume of fake news will diminish.

The struggles of government entities and the social media platforms themselves to regulate the spread of fake news during the 2018 Brazilian elections suggest that supply-side interventions alone are not enough: policies must also address news consumption habits. Brazilian experts have suggested that promoting critical thinking and digital literacy education is the only plausible long-term solution to this information quandary, in Brazil and around the world. Voters will increasingly need to learn to sift and vet the information they consume. Credibility in journalistic, well-sourced news outlets will have to be aggressively reestablished through sustained awareness campaigns and expanded digital literacy efforts in all places and mediums of learning. Public figures must be expected to condemn unproven accusations and refrain from spreading misinformation, and they must be held to account by a more digitally-literate and informed citizenry. This will not be easy. Many politicians have benefited from the confusion and will continue feeding it, and many Brazilians will continue to shy away from genuine, open political debate in favor of political echo chambers. Still, with broad investment in promoting new information consumption habits, Brazil can shake its digital growing pains and reach a point where social media serves direct democracy, constructive debate, and the dissemination of more reliable information.

About the Author

Christopher Harden

Staff Intern (Fall 2018)
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Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more