Brazil facing fake news one month before the presidential election

In Brazil, the presidential election is fast approaching. The authorities seem better equipped to fight against the misinformation that is flooding social networks one month before the deadline. But content is more difficult to control due to the emergence of new platforms. In 2018, the ballot was marred by the massive dissemination of false information, particularly on WhatsApp messaging, with a significant impact on the victory of current President Jair Bolsonaro, according to experts.

As the first round approaches on October 2, most of the false or misleading content circulating on the networks concerns the Head of State and his great rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Preceded by Lula in the polls, Jair Bolsonaro however has three times more subscribers on social networks, where he is very active, preferring weekly live on Facebook to institutional communication.

Electronic ballot boxes questioned by Bolsonaro

The president of the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Alexandre de Moraes, promised last month to be “firm and relentless” in the face of misinformation. The TSE has already ordered the removal of dozens of pieces of content, including posts by President Bolsonaro, including a video in which he questions the reliability of the electronic ballot box system without providing evidence.

Major innovation compared to 2018: the creation by this same court of a group to fight against misinformation in which the main platforms participate directly, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, TikTok and more recently Telegram, initially reluctant before changing his mind. To limit the mass sending of messages, WhatsApp has decided not to put its new “communities” tool into service in Brazil until after the election, which brings together several existing groups.

“False information circulates wildly”

Telegram, a platform increasingly used by Jair Bolsonaro, had to appoint a legal representative in Brazil after being threatened with being blocked by the Supreme Court due to its lack of collaboration with the authorities. “The collaboration of the platforms is essential, because the legal sanctions take a long time to be applied. And when this is the case, the damage is already done because the information has already circulated,” explains Aurélio Ruediger, director of the School of Communication at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

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Despite these advances compared to 2018, the challenges remain numerous, due in particular to new tools that make it easy to manipulate visual content on video platforms such as TikTok, which is very popular among young people. “With these editing tools for short videos, false information circulates rampantly,” says Ana Regina Rego, coordinator of the National Network to Combat Disinformation.

Lula in the water

According to a newspaper count O Globo, about thirty videos conveying false information about the presidential election have been viewed more than 15 million times on TikTok. Three of them, which claim that Lula is “getting drunk” while drinking water, have been seen by more than six million Internet users.

Five other videos, which cast doubt on the stabbing attack of which Jair Bolsonaro was the victim one month before the 2018 presidential election, have accumulated more than three million views. TikTok claimed to have removed videos that “violate community standards” and reaffirmed its commitment to the fight against misinformation during this election period.

The Specter of the Capitol

According to Ana Regina Rego, content that presents “erroneous information or information taken out of context for the sake of sensationalism has a 70% greater chance of going viral”. Hence the risk of seeing false information take on a disproportionate dimension.

This was the case in January 2021 in Washington, during the invasion of the Capitol by dozens of supporters of Donald Trump convinced that the victory had been stolen from him in the American presidential election by fraud. In Brazil, experts fear that Bolsonaro’s attacks on electronic ballot boxes will serve to prepare the ground for a possible challenge to the result. “Society is less gullible than before, but if the result is not recognized, with incitement to violence, we could relive an episode like that of the Capitol in Brazil”, warns Aurélio Ruediger.

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