As election looms, Brazil braces for fake news
Demonstrators protest against the appeals court's decision to upheld a sentence against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in January 2018. (Photo by Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The day was just beginning at Largo do Arouche, once a charming square in the center of SÃ£o Paulo. It was just past 8am on January 10, and a group of protesters was trying to break down the entrance door of the office of the safety guardsâ union, infuriated by an audio they heard via social media that was attributed to the unionâs president, saying âguards have to be badly paid.â
The result of the protest: six people wounded by the explosion of a homemade bomb. The audio: false.
The incident was really just a test run for the upcoming el ection season in Brazil, which will be as much about fake news as anything. Since 2002, when Luis Inacio Lula da Silva was elected president, corruption scandals have eroded the reputation of Brazilâs political system. (His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was hit by an impeachment process in 2016.) In the late â80s, when the country returned to a democratic system, more than 50 percent of Brazilâs voting population declared they identified with one of the main parties. Today, less than 10 percent still identify that way, according to a survey recently updated by the Center for Public Policy Research at SÃ£o Paulo State University.
And voters are convinced fake news will invade Brazilâs elections this year. In hopes of counteracting misinformation, newspapers have grown and independent watchdog agencies sprung up. In 2014, the newspaper O Globo created the âPreto no Brancoâ (Pen on Paper) blog, intended to fact-check information. Its creator, Cristina TardÃ¡guila, left the paperâs newsroom in 2015 to create the AgÃªncia Lupa, the first specialized watchdog team to operate in Brazil. Starting with four journalists, today Lupa is comprised of 15 people working for clients such as the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, the website MetrÃ³poles, PiauÃ magazine, and the CBN news radio network (where I am director of journalism). âWe have expanded the team to deal with this yearâs events,â says TardÃ¡guila. She predicts the elections this summer âwill be packed with false news and robots trying to control the political narrative,â adding that âthis will be the election of memes and misinformation.â (Meantime, O Globo has created its own watchdog team called âÃ isso mesmo?â (âIs that really it?â)
As in the US, news bots and fake social media profiles proliferate in Brazil. After unions called for a general strike in April 2017, âover 20 percent of the Twitter interactions among users in favor of the strike were provoked by fal se profiles,â according to a study by the education and research institution Getulio Vargas Foundation, which adds that in 2014, robots managed to generate over 10 percent of the online discussions around the presidential election. Referring to the foundationâs work, Twitter Brasil states that it had no access to the research methodology, but considers that âexternal partners may face difficulties when making unilateral measurements on the platform.â
The elections this summer âwill be packed with false news and robots trying to control the political narrative,â TardÃ¡guila predicts.Sign up for CJR's daily email
Other fact-checking agencies have appeared, such as Truco (named for the shout-out in popular Brazilian card game that translates to âIs it true?â). âThis year, we will move from five states to 10, covering regional elections,â says Natalia Viana, who runs Truco. The group has partnerships with Exame (a Brazilian economic and business magazine) and Jovem Pan, a national radio network.
Created in 2015, Aos Fatos started with two individuals and now has a staff of nine professionals. This agency works for news websites and has a partnership with Facebook in Brazil providing cross-checking tips via Messenger. Tai Nalon, co-founder, says they are expanding partnerships, which included in 2016 BuzzFeed Brasil. Among others, they also work with UOL, a national news and internet services portal.
In addition to the press, government agencies also are preparing to scrutinize the summer elections. Elections in Brazil have been 100 percent electronic since 2002, and paper ballots are no longer used. In January, Minister Gilmar Mendes, who at that time presided over the TSE (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral, which is Brazilâs highest electoral court in charge of watching over the elections to prevent fraud) announced the creation of a task force against fake news. The initiative will form an advisory board consti tuted by the governmentâs intelligence area, citizen representatives, and even the army.
The first meeting of the TSE with the social media giants happened early in February. At the meeting, Mendes offered assurances that the measures against fake news wonât result in censorship. âBut they will protect privacy and honor,â he warned.
Governors and politicians frequently label any information that bothers them as fake news. âThis is another risk we will have to face this year,â says Patricia Blanco, president of the Instituto Palavra Aberta, a nongovernmental organization that watches over freedom of expression. âUnder the pretext of combating fake news, politicians and candidates may use this as an excuse for censorship, restricting publications or even asking for content to be removed.â Among other causes, the Palavra Aberta has promoted a discussion on the danger of legal provisionsâ"some already underwayâ"that may allow judges to determine the imm ediate removal of content.
There are currently at least three bills underway at the National Congress proposed by members of the house who say they intend to fight fake news. The texts try to criminalize authors of false information and even establish fines. âBrazilians have a habit of creating opportunistic, last-minute laws that are not always effective. And these may involve other risks against the free circulation of information,â says press lawyer TaÃs Gasparian.
ICYMI: Facebook pulls back the curtain on what kinds of speech it toleratesHas America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today. Ricardo Gandour is director of journal ism at CBN News Radio Brazilian Network and associate professor of journalism at ESPM School, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Follow him @rgandour.Source: Google News South Brazil | Netizen 24 Brazil