RIO DE JANEIRO – 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 leftist candidate in Brazil's presidential election plans to close down churches if elected. There are lies that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wants to let men use public-school restrooms next to little girls. And they're falsely alleging that right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has made comments confessing to cannibalism and pedophilia.
Baseless and politically motivated rumors are whipping through social media in Latin America’s largest democracy, roiling Brazilian politics much as U.S. politics has been roiled. The onslaught of fake rumors helped prompt Brazil last week to enact what some experts call the strictest limits on speech in the country's young democracy.
It's 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 U.S. around the 2020 election,” said Vicky Wyatt, a campaign director at the U.S.-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.”
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 Oct. 2 first-round vote, far-right YouTube channels attracted 99 million views while leftist 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 Thursday that it would be banning "false or seriously decontextualized" 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 Oct. 30, social media companies like YouTube and Meta – 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 reals ($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 Tuesday. The Brazilian Constitution's take on freedom of expression is similar to that of the U.S. 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 fresh measures angered many Bolsonaro supporters. Others said they were justified by the scale of the online dirty war.
Misinformation has become more radical — and organized — 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 ad 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 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 as much as 50,000 reais (just under $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. “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.
Bolsonaro has long claimed the country’s electronic voting system has been used to commit fraud — though he has repeatedly failed to produce proof. He has cited the fact that hackers once penetrated the electoral commission's computer system. The electoral court has said the hackers didn't gain access to any vote-counting data.
As a result, false or misleading information on the reliability of the country's electronic machines have also spread widely on social media.
Ordem Dourada do Brasil, a far-right group displaying nostalgia for the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, has posted videos vowing to go to war “if we need to,” questioning Brazil's voting system and calling for Brazilians to take the streets in support of Bolsonaro.
The Supreme Court and some of its justices have also been victims of the disinformation war, with one post threatening violence against the daughters of justices. Many others have asked that the institution be shut down.
Last year, the court opened an inquiry into an online network that it accused of spreading defamatory news and threats against its justices, with police executing more than two dozen searches and seizure warrants.
Both campaigns this year have filed complaints with the electoral tribunal alleging disinformation — and have won court orders to have it blocked or removed. Complaints filed by the electoral court with online platforms have gone up 1,671% compared to the 2020 local elections, the electoral tribunal said last week.
A local treasurer in da Silva’s Workers’ Party was fatally shot in July. Since then, there have been near-weekly reports by Brazilian authorities of politically motivated attacks.
Tai Nalon, founder of the AosFatos fact-checking agency, said that the great challenge in fighting online disinformation is making the right decisions. “There is no legislation regulating (online) platforms, or saying how the judiciary should act against them," she said.