Buenos Aires Weather | Lies, fucking lies, and social media: Fake news stalks voting in Brazil

In a divisive election campaign marred by fears of unrest if far-right President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to accept defeat, Brazil is fighting an uphill battle against disinformation being used as a political weapon.

Analysts say Bolsonaro’s 2018 election victory was largely due to an effective smear campaign against his opponents.

Four years later, his supporters sought to replicate that feat, turning their attention to leftist former president and opinion poll leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

“Disinformation has been unleashed” on new platforms such as Telegram and TikTok, which allow the rapid dissemination of easily manipulated video content, explains Ana Regina Rego, coordinator of the National Network to Combat Disinformation.

Social media videos and other posts have sought to portray Lula, among other things, as an alcoholic who will shut down churches if elected in October.

Bolsonaro has also been targeted by fake publications that questioned, for example, if he was really stabbed during the election campaign in 2018.

And despite relentless work to debunk these and other false claims, these publications are finding fertile ground in a country where a 2018 study found nearly half of Brazilian voters rely on WhatsApp to read news about politics and the elections. The figure was even higher among Bolsonaro voters.

In 2022, disinformation spreaders have even more options, including Telegram, the fast-growing messaging system that Bolsonaro publicly embraced after blocking posts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Despite tougher rules passed and better policing introduced against fake news, experts say new technologies are making it harder.

Facts, lies, sensationalism

The scope of fake news is impressive.

Three TikTok videos claiming to show Lula getting drunk on a clear liquid – which is actually water – have been viewed 6.6 million times, while five others on the same platform who attempt to throw the Doubt about Bolsonaro’s stabbings had 3.3 million views.

Content that combines “facts, lies and decontextualization with sensationalism is 70% more likely to go viral than something informative,” Rego noted.

TikTok told AFP that its policy is to remove content that violates its “community standards” and may affect the electoral process, and to avoid highlighting “potentially misleading information that cannot be verified”.

At the start of the 2022 presidential campaign, the President of the Electoral Supreme Court, Alexandre de Moraes, promised that justice would be “resolved” in the fight against false information. And there have been some successes.

Moraes has since ordered social media to delete several posts by Bolsonaro for misinformation, along with numerous others from his supporters.

The court oversaw the creation of a group with companies including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google and TikTok to filter out fake news and report violators. Campaigns have been launched to boost digital literacy among social media users.

WhatsApp has agreed to delay the launch in Brazil of a new “Communities” feature until after the election that would allow the creation of groups of groups, with admins able to message anyone – greatly increasing the potential for spread viral information.

Telegram bowed to pressure to remove disinformation content under threat of being blocked for failing to cooperate with authorities.

“Without the collaboration of the platforms, it is very difficult” to prosecute the spreaders of disinformation, said sociologist Marco Aurelio Ruediger of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a Rio think tank.

“It takes a long time to adopt punitive measures, and by then the damage is already done, because the information has already circulated,” he said.

‘Even worse’

It’s not just on social media, however, that the lies are prevalent.

Bolsonaro himself has repeatedly criticized Brazil’s electronic voting system, which he says – without evidence – is riddled with fraud.

The president is being investigated for the allegations.

Bolsonaro, who likes to say that “only God” can remove him from office, warned that Brazil faced “an even worse problem than the United States”.

It raised fears that his supporters would not accept the results and that Brazil could see an outburst of violence similar to the attack on the US Capitol in January 2021 following Donald Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden.

Trump supporters have been enraged in part on social media, where Bolsonaro has tens of millions of followers.

“I fear that the results will not be accepted and that violence will be encouraged; we could experience a situation similar to that of the United States,” Ruediger said.

Five things about Brazil’s voting machines

Brazil has used electronic voting machines in its elections since 1996. But only recently have they become controversial, with claims by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that they are rife with fraud. Here are five things to know about the chunky beige computers fueling a raging debate over democracy in Latin America’s biggest country.

How did they start?
Ironically, given Bolsonaro’s bashing, electronic voting machines were introduced in part to combat fraud. Brazilians used to vote on paper ballots where they ticked a box or wrote a name, depending on the type of election. In a country where 14% of the adult population was illiterate, the system was chaotic, slow and prone to fraud. “There were always problems with the count. Illegible handwriting, names written in the wrong place, Xs on the outside of the box – all of this meant that a ballot was invalid,” says Henrique Neves da Silva , former judge of the Superior Electoral Court of Brazil. “There was also a lot of fraud and ballot stuffing.” With the help of the army, computer experts developed the country’s first electronic voting machine, deployed in 57 cities for the 1996 local elections.

How prevalent are they?
Celebrated as a success, voting machines were extended to 67% of the electorate for the 1998 Brazilian elections and 100% for the 2000 elections. Brazil is one of 23 countries using electronic voting for general elections, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 18 others use them for regional elections.

How do they work?
The machines are equipped with a numeric keypad. When voters type in the chosen candidate’s two-digit code, their photo appears. They then press a green button to confirm. “It’s a very simple machine, with only one function: to count the votes”, explains Da Silva. Essential detail: the machines are not connected to the Internet. At the close of voting, election officials remove the memory card from each machine and send them to the local electoral authority office, which in turn sends the information to the central counting system in Brasilia via an independent network. In remote areas such as the Amazon rainforest, a satellite connection is sometimes used. Results are usually finalized in around two hours – not bad for a sprawling country with 156 million voters.

How secure are they?
The counting software is updated with each election. Political parties, the judiciary and the military are allowed to inspect the source code. Security tests are also organized during which IT experts try to hack into the system. “They literally dismantle the machines, touch what they want. There is much more latitude than what [a theoretical hacker] would actually have election day,” says Da Silva. No major security breach has ever been detected.

What does Bolsonaro say?
Bolsonaro insists the system is rife with fraud, but has offered little evidence. He claims he should have won the 2018 presidential election in the first round, instead of the second round, but has provided no evidence. He is pushing for a paper printout to be made of each vote, so the tally can be checked. But election officials say that would only introduce the possibility of fraud. Prosecutors are investigating the president for spreading false information about the electoral system, including during a meeting with foreign ambassadors in July that was peppered with lies. The US Embassy said after the meeting that the elections in Brazil are “a model for the world”. Bolsonaro has repeatedly threatened not to recognize the election result unless the system is changed.

– TIMES/AFP

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by Eugenia Logiuratto & Louis Genot, AFP

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