Brazil: Authorities seek to contain electoral disinformation

RIO DE JANEIRO (HPD) — Brazilians are being bombarded with disinformation a week before the second round of presidential elections.

It is wrongly said on social media that leftist candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva plans to close churches and allow boys to use the same bathrooms as girls in public schools if he is elected. It is also falsely claimed that right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has confessed to cannibalism and pedophilia.

Unsubstantiated rumors abound on social media, and a spate of false accounts prompted electoral authorities last week to order what many experts describe as the most severe restrictions on freedom of expression ever recorded in this young democracy.

This is a dilemma posed by social media around the world, and Brazil has taken a strong-arm stance. Experts say that by doing so, the authorities cast doubt on their commitment to upholding free expression.

“What is happening in Brazil, with Facebook, with YouTube and with other platforms is very similar to what happened in the United States in the 2020 elections,” said Vicky Wyatt, campaign manager for the US organization SumOfUs. “An individual can publish something that does not have much echo, but that is filtered over time and ends up having negative consequences.”

Generally speaking, conservative channels generate more content and more falsehoods. According to statistics from the Igarape institute, in the eight days before and after the first round, on October 2, far-right YouTube channels were viewed 99 million times, while those on the left had 28 million views. Political analysts and the opposition express fear that Bolsonaro’s internet machine will help him question the results if he loses, by spreading false claims of fraud.

The Superior Electoral Tribunal, the country’s highest electoral authority, announced Thursday that it would ban “false or grossly out of context” content that could “affect the integrity of the electoral process.” In the days leading up to the second round, scheduled for October 30, outlets like YouTube and Meta (Facebook) will have just one hour — much less than in the past — to remove any problematic content. None of these companies commented on the measure.

Platforms that do not meet that deadline can be fined up to 150,000 reais ($28,000) per hour. They could also be blocked for up to 24 hours.

The president of the electoral tribunal, Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes, said that “the aggressiveness of this information and of the hate speech” justifies the measure. Attorney General Augusto Aras, a Bolsonaro appointee who is seen as an ally of the president, asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the measure, saying it was unconstitutional. He argued that it represents “prior censorship” and that it violates freedom of expression and the right to inform and be informed.

The Supreme Court was considering the request on Tuesday.

The electoral court also banned paid electoral advertising on the internet the two days before and the day after the vote.

The measures angered many Bolsonaro supporters. Others say they were justified by the scale of the dirty war being waged on the Internet.

The disinformation is more radical — and organized — than in the 2018 presidential campaign, in which far-right groups were accused of disseminating disinformation, trying to favor Bolsonaro.

“2018 was child’s play. It was something more honest, in the sense that they ideologically believed in what was happening and created channels to be part of the conversation,” said Guilherme Felitti, founder of Novelo Data, a company that monitors more than 500 conservative YouTube channels.

Some of those channels have become businesses, supported by ads and donations from their growing audiences. Several of its creators have run for public office this year.

Enzo Leonardo Suzi, better known by the name he uses on YouTube, Enzuh, is one of them. He launched his channel in 2015.

When Bolsonaro launched his campaign, Suzi used his YouTube channel to create several WhatsApp groups, including one called “meme factory,” to criticize Bolsonaro’s alleged rivals: mayors, governors, and even de Moraes, the Supreme Court judge. Supreme.

He was found guilty and fined up to 50,000 reais (nearly $10,000) five times for defamation allegations. In addition, he is one of the targets of an investigation of the spread of false news carried out by the Supreme Court.

With each trial, however, he gains followers.

“I thought of YouTube as a game,” Suzi told the Associated Press. “My plan from the beginning was to be an agent provocateur, curse the corrupt mobsters, sue me and take advantage of that to grow.”

His WhatsApp and Instagram accounts were blocked, but not his YouTube channel, where he continues to post things daily. He ran for state legislature, though without winning the seat this month.

Bolsonaro has long said that the electronic voting system is used to commit fraud, although he has never presented evidence of this. He recalls that hackers once penetrated the electoral commission’s computer network. The electoral court said the hackers did not have access to information about the vote count.

In any case, false or misleading information circulated on the networks about the electronic equipment used in the elections.

Ordem Dourada do Brasil, a far-right organization that longs for the times of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, published videos in which it promises to go to war “if necessary.” He questions the system used to vote and urges people to take to the streets and support Bolsonaro.

The Supreme Court and some of its judges were also targeted by disinformation campaigns. One publication threatened to use violence against the judges’ daughters. Others demand that this institution be eliminated.

Last year, the court launched an investigation into a network it accused of disseminating defamatory news and threats against judges. The police carried out more than two dozen searches and seizures.

The Bolsonaro and Lula campaigns denounced disinformation campaigns and managed to get the courts to block or eliminate them. Complaints of misinformation made by the electoral court increased by 1,671% this year compared to the 2020 local elections, said that body last week.

A member of Lula’s Workers’ Party was shot dead in July. Since then there have been reports of attacks for political purposes almost every week.

Tai Nalon, founder of AosFAtos, a fact-checking agency, said the big challenge facing the fight against disinformation circulating on social media is making the right decisions.

“No law regulates (online) platforms or says how justice should proceed with them,” he said.

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