Spread of fake news adds to Brazil’s pandemic crisis

As the coronavirus spread through Brazil this year, ominous stories began filtering out through social media, often via federal lawmakers with hundreds of thousands of followers.

In the northeastern state of Ceará, one viral message claimed that local authorities were burying empty coffins in order to exaggerate the scale of the pandemic, claim relief funds and keep people under control.

The information was bogus, but its mass dissemination — in some cases by elected lawmakers — speaks volumes about the prevalence of fake news in Latin America’s largest nation. Nine in every 10 Brazilians have been exposed to fake news about the pandemic, which is typically shared in WhatsApp groups, according to a study by non-profit group Avaaz. Seven in 10 say they believed the information they received.

“The risks of fake news have gained new urgency because of the seriousness of the health issue,” said João Victor Longhi, a public defendant and member of the Brazilian Institute for Civil Responsibility.

“Some are saying the pandemic is a lie, that it is a China virus, that you don’t have to wear a mask. The risks of fake news are no longer only about the destruction of reputations or political differences, it is damaging society.”

Fake news has also proven to be a potent political tool, particularly among supporters of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. On Wednesday, Facebook suspended almost 100 accounts and pages linked to a disinformation campaign run by employees of Mr Bolsonaro and two of his sons, aimed at disparaging opponents and boosting the Brazilian leader. A top electoral court is investigating whether supporters of Mr Bolsonaro paid for fake news to amplify his message in the run-up to his election in 2018. And the Supreme Court is probing several prominent supporters of the president, including wealthy businesspeople, as part of a probe into malicious online attacks against its judges.

Brazil’s Congress is pushing for legislation to stop this flood of disinformation. The Senate earlier this month passed a proposal which is now being debated at the lower Chamber of Deputies, with a final vote expected in the coming weeks.

The proposal would force social media groups to ban fake accounts and those controlled by malicious bots, keep a database of the metadata behind messages that are forwarded en masse, and ensure that all content that is racist or threatens children is immediately deleted. Platforms that do not comply would be subject to fines as large as 10 per cent of their group revenues in Brazil the previous year.

The bill, however, has raised fears about freedom of speech and government surveillance and has been met with opposition from an unlikely alliance of media and civil society groups as well as Mr Bolsonaro’s hardcore supporters.

“There is a possibility that it is an excessive response, which goes beyond what is necessary,” said César Muñoz, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“For example, creating punishments for criticising public figures. This is wrong. Brazilians must have the right to criticise members of Congress.”

Critics also fret over the potential storage of metadata, which could be tapped by the government or even hacked.

Those supporting the legislation, however, said that regulation can be crafted that protects Brazilians from the harmful impact of fake news while maintaining people’s rights.

“There has to be a middle of the road solution because the current situation is not sustainable,” said Patricia Campos Mello, a journalist and author of an upcoming book on Brazil’s struggles with fake news.

“Fake news is rampant. The most viewed YouTube channels concerning Covid-19 are the ones spreading fake news. The way the algorithms work is by emphasising fake news over real news.”

Supporters and critics of the legislation agree it is much improved on earlier drafts, which included clauses requiring users of social media to register personal details, including addresses and phone numbers, in order to create accounts.

“The legislation is very, very important. The problem is that a lot of fake news is designed in a lab: it is made to have a specific effect, usually for some economic or political gain. There are organisations behind this,” said Felipe Rigoni, a federal deputy from Espírito Santo, who is involved with the project in the lower house.

“[But] We are going to have to change and improve the current legislation. The Senate did not include tools to follow the money. You need to track the money to identify the organisation behind. Usually they are financed by millions of reais and have specific intentions.”

In a poll by Datafolha, more than 80 per cent of respondents said fake news targeting lawmakers or the supreme court posed a threat to democracy.

For Ms Mello, the forces behind fake news are a mix of “organic and orchestrated networks. You do have people linked to the government that are analysing social media, but at the same time you do have real life supporters. And someone is paying for the bots.”

Israel Batista, a lawmaker from Brasília, said the legislation had
“been seen as a tool of censorship, perhaps unfairly, because it is not the intention of the project to promote censorship.”

“It is necessary to debate the role of fake news in Brazil because it affects public opinion in a very worrying way. Brazil needs to address the issue.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice