After winning the first-round vote by a narrower margin than expected, former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is facing off against current far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. Brazilians will cast their ballots in the presidential runoff this Sunday, October 30.
In the lead up to the second round, the race has been plagued by a rabid disinformation campaign over social media unlike anything the country has seen. The daily barrage of fake news has been disproportionately pushed by supporters of President Bolsonaro. But the Left has also pushed back in unprecedented ways.
According to the country’s elections court, complaints of disinformation ahead of the runoff are up 1,600 percent compared to the 2018 election, with an average of 500 complaints per day. Last week, the Supreme Electoral Court banned “false or seriously decontextualized information” and announced that social media platforms will have only two hours to take down content identified for removal. The court has also banned broadcasters from using words like “corrupt” and “thief” to describe Lula, as the charges that jailed him in 2018 were ultimately annulled. The Bolsonaro camp has decried these measures as an attack on free speech.
To get a sense of the magnitude of the impact that these social media fake news campaigns are having in the current election, I sat down with Rogério Christofoletti in Florianópolis, Brazil, on Friday, October 21. Christofoletti is a journalism professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Florianópolis and a researcher at Objethos, the Observatory of Ethic Journalism. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Michael Fox: Rogério, talk about the fake news campaign currently underway in this election. It seems like it is much more active and developed than anything we’ve ever seen before. Do you have the same impression?
Rogério Christofoletti: Yes, it’s much more sophisticated. The amount of lying—I think the gloves have been taken off. What Donald Trump carried out in electoral campaigns, in terms of fake news, is much less than what we’re seeing today within messaging groups and over social media. And the social media platforms have been incapable of moderating the disinformation.
The electoral court has also had a hard time trying to curb what’s happening. Based on what we’ve seen in recent days, it seems like the electoral court is going to act much more strongly against fake news, but if they do not take much more extreme measures we will have a very troubling scenario going forward.
MF: Where do the disinformation and fake news campaigns come from? It’s a tool used during wars, right?
RC: Yes, it's a tactic used during war. An electoral campaign is a situation where campaigns are trying to convince people. And right now that means convincing them at any cost. Which means lying, falsifying, distorting information, or highlighting some information over other information.
So, the campaign is a war environment. The metaphor for war is appropriate, because it seems like everything is permitted. But we know that even in wars there are limits. There are conventions that determine how truces are made. That establish that you can't just use certain types of weapons and that you can't bomb hospitals with civilians. This does not stop war crimes from happening. Even in wars we can classify certain things as crimes. And also in elections.
Electoral campaigns have become very expensive. They involve a lot of people. And they have used instruments that are not legal—very technological instruments, guerrilla tactics over social media. For example, one of the candidates gave an interview to a famous podcast last week. And less than an hour later, the opposing campaign was using excerpts taken out of context of that interview.
In Brazil, the messaging application WhatsApp is really important. According to the owners themselves, it has end-to-end encryption, which means they can’t moderate content, which means you have an environment where anything can be done and content cannot be removed. I know that content removal is a controversial issue. It’s drastic and it must not be used disproportionately. So it needs to be used as a punishment. Not the first punishment, but a type of punishment for users who are repeat offenders.
MF: This year the messaging application Telegram is becoming even more important, right?
RC: Yes, for sure. In Brazil, the top electoral court and the electoral officials met with representatives of the other platforms and there was no Telegram representative—until the electoral court threatened to cut the app’s service. And then they got a lawyer to speak on behalf of the company. The big platforms have enormous power. Their power doesn’t conform to local legislation, and they do far less than they could do to curb misinformation.
And I’m not the one saying this. These are the words of Frances Haugen, a former employee of Facebook. She came to Brazil and met with internet activists and congressional representatives. She said that the products of Meta—Facebook and Instagram—have moderation practices in the United States that aren’t applied in Brazil. For example, they don’t have automated moderation of posts in the Portuguese language. They only do automated moderation in English.
WhatsApp introduced a measure recently to pause creating large communities until after the elections. So, there is a limit for how many people you can have in chat groups, which puts a limit on the number of people that can share results and content at one time. This helps to tame the beast a little, but it's still very little.
MF: Talk about this censorship rhetoric we are hearing now, particularly from sectors of the Right that are responding to attempts to stop fake news by the electoral court and saying that this is a type of censorship.
RC: In the last few days, the electoral court has implemented tough measures, especially against the far-right campaign of Jair Bolsonaro, which has really abused the system with a lot of fake news and disinformation. The center-left campaign has been reacting. It has been producing things, but not at the same level and volume. Some experts are describing the Left’s campaign as an attempt at slowing down the strategy of the extreme right, and putting them on the defensive.
I don't see the ruling by the electoral court over Jovem Pan and Brasil Paralelo [media outlets ordered to remove or abstain from publishing misleading content about Lula] as censorship. Press freedom and the freedom of expression are very important. But these values are not absolute. They are rights, and there is no absolute right. The freedom of expression cannot become a right to be aggressive, to lie, to manipulate, to falsify, or to deceive others.
If we open the doors to that kind of conception of freedom of expression, soon we'll have scammers on the internet saying, "Hey, I have the right to deceive other people so that I can steal money from their bank account." So we need to establish rules. The rules need to be clear, they need to be balanced, fair, and predictable.
The way the electoral court has been acting tough in recent days is causing this reaction from these sectors, because there were no brakes on these people. So, it's natural that they would respond by making political statements against the court, also try to reduce the legitimacy of these decisions, at least in the public perception.
MF: I think it's been interesting how the campaign in support of Lula this year, compared to 2018, has been much more actively attacking Bolsonaro. Not necessarily with lies or fake news, but posting things like the video of Bolsonaro campaigning in a Masonic lodge, or the video of him saying he would eat human flesh. These measures seem to have put Bolsonaro on the defensive, at times. How do you see the social media war between these two campaigns and how is the Left trying to participate?
RC: This is very new. It's new as of this election and, in particular, the second round of this election. We did not see this before. There is a general critique of the Left that it does not dominate social media networks enough and doesn’t naturally carry out robust action over social media. And this seems to be the response to this critique.
I do not believe this is something emanating from the Lula campaign itself. It seems to be something from sectors of society that have aligned themselves with Lula. It seems to be more spontaneous. That doesn't mean it's legitimate. I'm not even going to get into a discussion about if it's right or wrong. But it seems to be a new and important reaction that is altering the pieces on the chessboard a little.
MF: Is this the new way of doing politics in Brazil? What does this mean for the future, not only for Brazil, but, also, for example, the midterms that are coming up in the United States? What is the role of this type of campaign—war over social media, fake news, and disinformation—going forward?
RC: This will continue to be on the horizon of our concerns. Because, like I said, lying has increased several degrees in electoral campaigns. That’s what happens when you have mechanisms that allow you to scale up in a massive way with very large volume.
These platforms give access to very large audiences. For instance, last week, Lula was interviewed on a podcast with a huge audience. Viewership broke records, with more than a million people watching it in real time. Even in countries like the United States, this is a tremendous audience, even for traditional broadcasting.
So, fake news—and its ability to reach people—is a concern. As society and voters, we have to pay attention to what’s happening, to participate in political processes, considering these issues. The countries that have electoral courts need to prepare for this, seek allies, and call the parties to do their own self-regulation so they can seek to contain the amount of fake news. It is necessary for parties and campaigns to be able to contain fake news and for candidates to guide their followers to be more restrained. This can help ensure clearer rules for democracy.
This can help us to reinvigorate democracy. Democracy is at risk in an environment of disinformation. Democracy is at risk in an environment where disinformation generates disorientation. And that leads to a loss of faith in the system. This is very bad.
If we don't find ways to fight this, it could significantly affect our societies. Digital platforms play a leading role, and we have to push for greater regulations so that social media platforms respond socially and legally for the things they help to spread.
Of course, they are not the ones producing the content. But they offer the structure and the infrastructure, so that hate speech and classist, misogynistic, racist, and fascist speech are able to reach other people.
MF: Do you believe that Bolsonaro's disinformation campaign will carry him to the presidency?
RC: It may carry him to the presidency. Today, if I were to bet, I would bet very, very carefully. Although Lula led Bolsonaro by 6 million votes in the first round, this is another election. People have to turn out and vote again. The great weapon is disorientation. It's fake news. Remember that the Bolsonaro campaign is not rooted in proposals, it is rooted in lies or discrediting the other candidate. And that, absolutely, may carry him to the presidency again.
It's scary. It's really scary, because that would give him not only four more years, but it would also allow him four more years to continue to attack the electoral system, which is a system that brought him here. Four more years to disorient people, and for them to lose faith in their ability to collectively choose their own future.