Fake News In Brazil
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 5,2018

For Stela Wanda Pereira da Silva, the breaking point came when her father posted a video of a woman getting assassinated to the family’s private WhatsApp group, calling it an example of the violence that would ensue if leftist Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad prevailed in Brazil’s presidential election.

Shannon Sims

Da Silva, a 22-year-old resident of the coastal city of Salvador and a Haddad supporter, did some digging and discovered that the woman in the video was the victim of a robbery gone bad and not a politically motivated hit, as her father maintained. When she showed her family that the post was fake news—from Venezuela, yet—a civil war broke out, with half the group’s members defending her and the other half taking her father’s side.

“Our family was totally divided because of this election, so I had to leave the group,” says da Silva, who acknowledges that her relationship with her father has always been turbulent. Her experience on the platform isn’t unique, she says: “I have many friends who would prefer to leave their family WhatsApp group than deal with the unhealthy environment they create.”

Brazilians are among the world’s top users of social media, leaving them especially exposed to fake news and political influence campaigns online. Social media forums have replaced traditional media, which for decades were controlled largely by a single Brazilian conglomerate, Globo Group. Facebook Inc.-owned WhatsApp, in particular, has become the main vehicle for the internecine spats that happen elsewhere on Twitter or Facebook. Brazil is WhatsApp’s top market, with more than half of its 208 million people counted as users. They cluster in family or affinity groups whose typical fare is quotidian— holiday plans, an upcoming volleyball match, dinner Thursday night. But the groups also serve as virtual propulsion jets for political news, both real and fake.

“Brazil is dealing with a very powerful combination right now,” says Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University. “It’s a combination of a lack of confidence in traditional media and easy access to alternative social media outlets.”

This dynamic has played out against the dramatic backdrop of the October presidential election, one of the most critical votes anywhere this year. Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right head of the Social Liberal Party and a former Army captain, won the Oct. 28 runoff with 55.1 percent of the total, besting Haddad, a substitute candidate for the Workers’ Party, whose former leader, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, is in jail on corruption charges. Bolsonaro’s tough-on-crime message resonated in a nation where 63,880 people were murdered last year, but some of his other rhetoric—including praise of a notorious torturer from the two decades of military rule that ended in 1985—rattled observers worried about the future of Brazil’s democracy.

The fake news flood during the campaign also prompted concerns that this wasn’t a fair fight. A bombshell investigation published a week and a half before the runoffby Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s most respected newspapers, revealed that a group of entrepreneurs had paid influencers to spread anti-Haddad content from their private WhatsApp groups. The report sent Workers’ Party representatives running to the country’s electoral court claiming fraud, arguing that the actions amounted to illegal campaign donations. The court opened an investigation, but no determination has been made.

It’s impossible to quantify how much of a lift Bolsonaro got from fake news, and his supporters say such claims are overstated. However big the bump, the spread of misinformation on social media could pose a long-term threat to democratic norms and institutions. Politics in Latin America’s biggest economy have always been fragmented— no fewer than 13 parties contested the presidency—but it’s difficult to recall a time when they’ve been this polarized.

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