Brazilian voters are being bombarded by online misinformation less than a week before they pick their next leader.
People on social media say, wrongly, that the left-wing candidate in Brazil’s presidential election plans to close down churches if elected. There are lies that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wants to let men use public school toilets next to little girls. And they are falsely alleging that right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has made comments confessing to cannibalism and paedophilia.
Baseless and politically motivated rumours are whipping through social media in Latin America’s largest democracy, roiling Brazilian politics much as US politics has been roiled. The onslaught of rumours helped prompt Brazil last week to enact what some experts call the strictest limits on speech in the country’s young democracy.
It is a conundrum posed by social media across the world, especially in countries wrangling with the intersection between modern technology and free speech. Brazil has adopted a particularly heavy-handed approach. Experts say that in doing so, authorities have raised questions about the country’s commitment to free speech.
“What is happening in Brazil, on Facebook, on YouTube and other platforms looks awfully similar to what was happening in the US around the 2020 election,” said Vicky Wyatt, a campaign director at the US-based activist group SumOfUs.
“An individual post might not have that much reach, but cumulatively over time, having this constant drip-drip has negative consequences.”
Top electoral court intervenes
Overall, conservative channels produce more content – and more false, problematic content, too.
According to a tally by the Igarape Institute, in the eight days before and after the October 2 first-round vote, far-right YouTube channels attracted 99 million views while left-wing channels had 28 million views.
Political analysts and the opposition have expressed fears that Bolsonaro’s internet army may help him challenge the results if he loses by spreading unfounded allegations of fraud.
The Superior Electoral Court, the country’s top electoral authority, announced on Thursday that it would be banning “false or seriously decontextualised” content that “affects the integrity of the electoral process”. No request from a prosecutor or complainant is necessary for the court to take action.
In the days leading up to, and just after, the second round of the election on October 30, social media companies like YouTube and Meta – the owner of Facebook and Instagram – will be given just an hour, far less time than before, to remove problematic content. No company has commented.
Platforms that do not comply will face fines of up to 150,000 reis ($28,000) per hour and possibly be blocked on Brazilian servers for up to 24 hours.
The electoral tribunal’s president, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, said “the aggressiveness of this information and of hate speech” merits the measure.
Prosecutor General Augusto Aras, a Bolsonaro appointee who is widely considered a government ally, filed a motion with the Supreme Court to reverse measures that he said were unconstitutional. Aras said they amounted to “prior censorship”, infringing on the freedom of expression and the right to inform and to be informed in the Brazilian Constitution.
The Supreme Court sided with the electoral court in a hearing on Tuesday. The Brazilian Constitution’s take on freedom of expression is similar to that of the US one, said Luis Claudio Araujo, a law professor at Ibmec University.
The tribunal also banned paid electoral advertising on the internet two days before, and a day after, the election.
The new measures angered many Bolsonaro supporters. Others said they were justified by the scale of the online dirty war.
Misinformation has become more radical — and organised — since the 2018 presidential campaign, when far-right groups were accused of spreading mass disinformation in support of Bolsonaro.
“In 2018, it was a kind of playground thing. It was more honest, in the sense that they ideologically believed in what was happening and simply created channels as a way to be part of the conversation,” said Guilherme Felitti, founder of Novelo Data, which monitors more than 500 conservative YouTube channels.
Some of those have since turned their online activism into businesses, relying on advertisement revenues and donations from their growing audience. Some ran for office themselves this year.
Enzo Leonardo Suzin, better known under his YouTube alias Enzuh, was one of them. He launched his channels in 2015.
When Bolsonaro began his campaign, Suzin used his own YouTube channel and created several WhatsApp groups — including the one he named “memes factory” — to target Bolsonaro’s perceived rivals: mayors, governors and even de Moraes, the Supreme Court justice.
He has been found guilty and fined just less than 50,000 reis ($10,000) in five different defamation and libel lawsuits. He is also a target of a Supreme Court investigation into the spread of fake news online, which also include Bolsonaro and political allies.
With each legal process, Suzin gained a few more followers.
“I thought of YouTube like a game,” Suzin told The Associated Press news agency. “It was my plan from the start: to be a provocateur, cursing about corrupt mobsters, them suing me and me growing on the back of that.”
His Facebook and Twitter accounts have been blocked – but not his YouTube channel, where he still posts every day. He lost his bid to become a state lawmaker this month.