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Fake news deluge prompts Brazil election court to play catch-up

Not only are Brazilians heavy social media users, they’re particularly fond of Facebook-owned WhatsApp, where encrypted exchanges are virtually impossible to monitor.

By: Bloomberg | Rio De Jaeniro |
October 19, 2018 10:19:52 am
Brazil's polarised election enters last day of campaigning Regional Electoral Court employees deliver voting machines to a polling station at a public school, in Brasilia, Brazil. (File AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Brazil’s top electoral authority is stepping up efforts to curb fake news plaguing the country’s presidential election just ahead of the Oct. 28 runoff vote.

The court known as TSE launched an official website to debunk social media posts challenging the vote’s legitimacy, and has held two video conferences with executives from California-based messaging app WhatsApp, widely used in Brazil. TSE President Rosa Weber was also scheduled to address the issue in a Wednesday meeting with representatives for the candidates, far-right front-runner Jair Bolsonaro and leftist Fernando Haddad, according to the court’s press office.

Top fact checkers have for months voiced concern about proliferation of fake news in Latin America’s biggest democracy. Not only are Brazilians heavy social media users, they’re particularly fond of Facebook-owned WhatsApp, where encrypted exchanges are virtually impossible to monitor.

All but four of Brazil’s 35 political parties have signed an agreement with the electoral authority promising not to spread fake news, according to the TSE’s press office. Among those that have yet to sign is Haddad’s Workers’ Party. However, most fake news items are targeting him, according to Tai Nalon, director of fact-checking site Aos Fatos.

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Phallic Baby Bottles

Some appear frivolous, like a video falsely accusing Haddad of owning a Ferrari. Others strain credulity, such as accusations Haddad plans to provide daycare centers with baby bottles bearing phallic nozzles as a means to combat homophobia.

“What you see is a deliberate disinformation campaign that, while it can’t be directly associated with Bolsonaro’s party, visibly favors Bolsonaro’s campaign,” Nalon said in an email.

Among the most alarming videos for the authorities is one published on election day showing an electronic poll auto-completing someone’s vote in favor of Haddad. It was shared by Bolsonaro’s son, Flavio, who sounded the alarm over possible fraud and catalyzed the video’s dissemination. The TSE debunked the video several hours later, yet it was shared 732,000 times that day on Facebook — and countless more on WhatsApp, according to Aos Fatos.

The Workers’ Party asked federal police to investigate Bolsonaro’s campaign for alleged deployment of fake news and improper use of WhatsApp, according to a copy of the request. Haddad on Thursday accused his competitor of receiving illegal and undeclared corporate donations after local newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported companies are paying for a mass social media campaign against him. Bolsonaro’s team didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘Reputation Affected’

It’s too late for campaigns themselves to combat the spread of fake news, and would be senseless to count on their good-faith efforts to do so, according to Pablo Ortellado, a public policy professor at the University of Sao Paulo who’s an expert on the issue. The best hope is that WhatsApp takes action — for example, curbing the amount of messages that can be forwarded, as it did in India.

“What could be done is persuading WhatsApp to change the application’s configurations,” Ortellado said in an email. “It would be a responsible attitude. If Facebook had its reputation stained in the American elections of 2016, WhatsApp will have its reputation affected in Brazil in 2018.”

WhatsApp didn’t respond to questions regarding whether it is considering such action, if doing so would be technically possible before the election, nor potential threats to its reputation.

“We had a productive conversation about the actions we take to mitigate misuse and how we can work together to combat disinformation,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in an email about its meeting with the TSE. “We’re anxious to continue the dialogue during the electoral period.”

Following the Tuesday discussion with WhatsApp representatives, the TSE’s vice-prosecutor-general Humberto Jacques said the volume of false information “isn’t alarming” and circulates mostly on an inter-personal level rather than as part of an orchestrated large-scale campaign that would be more worrisome.

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