democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Why disinformation could prove decisive in Brazil’s election

As the run-off vote looms at the end of the month, the far-Right’s misinformation machine is going into overdrive

Mac Margolis Robert Muggah
5 October 2022, 4.28pm
The first term of the elections ended up being a frustrating night for the left
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Alamy Stock Photo

Online disinformation is casting a shadow over Brazil’s presidential election. Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s incumbent right-wing president, and his allies have proven adept at flooding social media and messaging services with lies and conspiracy theories about his challenger, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula.

Fake news spread by social media likely helped Bolsonaro narrow the race in the first round on 2 October, when he performed much better than pollsters predicted. As both men prepare for the run-off vote on 30 October, the far right’s misinformation machine is expected to shift into overdrive.

Not only does digital misinformation tarnish reputations and intimidate opponents, it mobilises voters. This campaign has already seen influential politicians and pastors spread rumours on Facebook that Lula planned to shut down churches and persecute their followers. False allegations about Lula’s anti-Christian crusade reached 142 million Twitter accounts, reinforcing Bolsonaro's claim that he alone could safeguard the faithful. These tactics seem to be working, just as they did in 2018, with a sizable share of the evangelical vote migrating from Lula to Bolsonaro in recent months.

But the rumours were lies. A consummate political pragmatist, Lula has worked hard to keep his pitch ecumenical. As president, in 2003, he sponsored legislation that facilitated the creation of evangelical churches. He also governed alongside a vice-president who, while nominally Catholic, frequented evangelical church services and joined a party founded by a Pentecostal order.

Boslonaro knows he needs more than prayers to win reelection later this month

But in 2022, civility, fair play, and fact-based public discourse are giving way to post-truth politics and digitally enhanced smears. A third of Brazilians count themselves as evangelicals – a critical demographic in the country’s 156 million-strong electorate – especially among lower-income voters who by their sheer numbers can decide elections. Boslonaro knows he needs more than prayers to win reelection later this month. Look for all sorts of false flags and campaign chicanery as we head to the run-off vote.

Brazil is no stranger to misinformation and disinformation, of course. During Lula’s first run for president in 1989, Protestant pastors branded him ‘the devil’, while a rightwing rival warned that he would confiscate private earnings if elected. As it turns out, they got it exactly backwards; Lula lost the race to market favourite, Fernando Collor de Mello, only to watch his rival freeze national bank accounts and throw the economy into turmoil. 

The narrative flipped in 2014, when Lula’s successor, then incumbent president Dilma Rousseff, ran a campaign spot accusing rising left-wing challenger Marina Silva of plotting to take food from Brazilian dinner plates by shilling for bankers with her vow to grant autonomy to the central bank. Silva’s reply: “The Worker’s Party invented fake news.”

The difference today is that social media, broadband internet and ubiquitous smartphones are helping partisan hit squads – including a so-called ‘hate cabinet’ set up by one of Bolsonaro’s sons – to weaponize falsehoods and send unfiltered content directly to mobile phones. This is so much the worse in a country cloven by pious politics, where traditional news outfits with rigorous reporting and editing protocols are demonised. As so often is the case, lies preached with conviction become gospel. Bots and algorithms do the rest.

Few politicians deploy disinformation better than Bolsonaro, who in 2018 turned to Facebook, WhatsApp and a network of closely connected loyalists to parlay a flimsy, underfunded campaign into a fast track to the presidency. Political misinformation, along with conspiracies about everything from climate hoaxes and COVID-19 to QAnon, has since exploded, both online and off.

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The integrity of Brazil’s electoral institutions is coming under assault, faced with rising distrust of democratic institutions from some of the world’s most avid producers and consumers of social media content. Ahead of the presidential election and in the wake of the 2020 municipal elections, the Supreme Electoral Court formed special committees and observatories to monitor the online campaign. Eight social media platforms pledged to firewall their networks against misinformation.

Brazil can use all the help it can get. For all the buzz about fake news and digital harm in North America and western Europe, social media platforms still pay relatively scant attention to abuses in the non-English-speaking world. This may be because social media companies respond not just to their customer bases, but also in geographic locales where regulation and litigation hit the hardest. Hence, innovation and investment in content-moderation and machine-learning algorithms skew to anglophone markets, while neglecting other parts of the world that are potentially more vulnerable to online malfeasance.

This leaves a blindspot for social media companies as they negotiate the global frontier for digital disinformation, misinformation, hate speech and extremism. There is real-world fallout in emerging markets, including Brazil. For example, last month Global Witness, an NGO that advocates for the environment and human rights, submitted ten Brazilian Portuguese-language ads containing election misinformation to Facebook only to find that they were all cleared for publication. When the ads were rerun three weeks before the first round of the presidential election, nearly half slipped through the filters – including one suggesting that Brazil’s top electoral court had rigged voting machines.

Bolsonaro’s campaign to subvert the vote is still a work in progress

Civic groups in Brazil are also ringing alarm bells about the deluge of election-related disinformation. NetLab, a research project tied to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, exposed disinformation campaigns across dozens of WhatsApp and Telegram channels in the lead-up to the 2022 election. Another campaign group, the Sum of Us, also described how Meta (Facebook’s owner) is facilitating an ecosystem of posts and ads designed to subvert Brazilian democracy. And almost 100 Brazilian universities, think tanks and digital activists are urging social media companies to scale-up efforts to protect electoral integrity.Bolsonaro’s campaign to subvert the vote is still a work in progress. Even with the advantages of incumbency, and despite all the digital ordnance his loyalists threw at Lula, he lost the first round of the election by more than six million votes (5%) and remains the underdog in the second round. But he and his allies are second to none in their ability to bombard Brazilians with conspiracy theories and tales about doctored electronic voting machines, as well as a secret vote-counting centre.

Indeed, on the eve of the election, Bolsonaro’s ruling Liberal Party claimed, without evidence, that Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court had failed to take timely steps to ensure election security. It said that Brazil’s electoral system was beset by vulnerabilities to cyber predators. Never mind that Liberal Party president Valdemar Costa Neto and Bolsonaro’s defence minister had toured the electoral court’s data centre and found no “secret room” or evidence of anything nefarious. The electoral authority hit back at the claims of the president’s party, describing them as “false and dishonest, with no backing in reality”.

Whether the dissonance was due to a split within Bolsonaro’s inner circle or a ploy to spoil the election by sowing confusion, Brazilians may never know. In a polarised country, post-truth declarations can carry the weight of scripture.

Bolsonaro now heads into the run-off not just a survivor but emboldened by having beaten the projections of nine independent polls that had predicted Lula would win the first round by a landslide winner. In a grim night for the Left, Lula ended up winning just over 48% of the vote compared to Bolsonaro’s roughly 43%. Bolsonaro loyalists also performed better than expected, winning key governorships and congressional seats. Errors in the sample selection method and a failure to control for shifting demographics may well have thrown off Brazilian pollsters, but no matter. It will be fodder for the disinformation surge to come.

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