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Brazil Breaks New Ground in the Global Fight Against Fake News


Even as the armed forces and police broke up the 8 January insurrection in Brasilia, carting more than 1,000 rioters off to prison, the Brazilian rumour mills spun into high gear. Not surprisingly, sympathisers of defeated incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro were convinced that the vandals were the victims. Social media and private messaging groups lit up with tales of egregious police abuse, arbitrary arrests, and detention facilities akin to “concentration camps”.

Brazil’s alt-right influencers borrow heavily from their US counterparts. Just as conspiracists in the US speculated that antifa and the deep state were behind the assault on the Capitol on 6 January 2021, some rightwing social media channels blamed the storming of the ‘three powers’ – the presidential palace, congress and the supreme court – on leftwing provocateurs, who they claimed had infiltrated the movement to defame it.

Federal lawmaker Bia Kicis, a loyal Bolsonaro ally, took to Twitter to announce the death of an elderly woman in police custody. This was a lie, but no matter, the tweet notched up 1.1 million views before the fact-checkers moved in. Brazil’s excitable far-right web warriors are second to none on the post-truth battlefield.

After all, Brazil’s rightwing reactionaries have had ample practice spreading disinformation. In the four years since Bolsonaro won office in 2019, Latin America’s biggest democracy has become a hothouse of fake news and conspiracy theories, with many parallels to the US.

There is no shortage of lying across the country’s political spectrum, but the hard right sets the pace. In the 2022 general election campaign, this meant sharing wild rumours, smears, low blows and outright fabrications, as well as issuing paeans to junk science and trash-talking Brazil’s widely acclaimed electronic voting system.

So-called ‘Bolsonaristas’ posted roughly three times as many YouTube videos as Lula loyalists and the left, centre and mainstream media, according to research by the digital security team at Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank. Far-right YouTube channels also generated more than a billion views on the social media site between August and October 2022, and similarly enthusiastic engagement among Facebook and Instagram followers.

Brazil’s third largest newspaper, O Estado de São Paulo, highlighted that the far-right’s preferred target was the supreme court, which it reported was hit with a barrage of “threats, insinuations and plenty of disinformation” over its rulings that were meant to curb fake news.

Although the partisan fabulists failed to change the course of the election, they helped to ensure that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s second-round victory which he won by just two million votes was the narrowest since the return of electoral democracy to Brazil in the late 1980s. A poll taken shortly after the riots of 8 January showed that almost 40% of Brazilians still believed that Bolsonaro had won the presidential election. That the rioters in Brasília camouflaged their failed insurrection attempt with the same conceits only encourages the tactic of weaponising disinformation and misinformation.

It is unsurprising then, that one of Lula’s first actions as president was to launch an offensive against disinformation: the National Prosecutor’s Office for the Defense of Democracy. By tasking the Attorney General’s Office with overseeing the new office, the government sent an unmistakable message – Brasília is determined to win the war against fake news.

The initiative provoked a fierce backlash from the right-wing fringe and some proponents of free expression, who accused the government of creating an Orwellian Ministry of Truth to promote censorship. But it is not just the far-right who have misgivings over Lula’s new office. Digital rights activists have raised concerns over what constitutes ‘disinformation’, who decides which opinions constitute incitement, and what powers the office will have to police this.

This is a common theme – governments, companies, and activists worldwide are struggling not just to contain misinformation, but to define it. Brazil’s Attorney General’s Office has drafted its own definition: “Voluntary intentional lying with the intention of harming public policy”. It is a description as sweeping as it is imprecise. Disinformation, according to the attorney general, includes any content meant to promote deliberate attacks against “members of public powers”. Such a broad mandate has caused pushback from opposition politicians and civil rights advocates who fear that it could be used to silence opponents and encourage censorship.

Brazil’s lawmakers understand the inherent risks of a vague remit. They worry that the new authority could be an invitation to legal adventurism if not outright arbitrariness. It might also invite a multitude of legal challenges that only a lawyer could love. The Attorney General’s Office has taken note and vowed that it has no intention of overreaching.

Source : Open Democracy