Disinformation and consequences in Brazil
Army officers stand guard outside the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli
What are the implications of online disinformation in Brazil and will efforts to contain it bear fruit?
Robert Muggah is the co-founder and Mac Margolis is an advisor and editor at the Igarape Institute.
Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro may have lost his bid for re-election and fled to the United States, but don’t tell that to the loyal supporters he left. Four in 10 Brazilians still believe he beat Lula Inácio Lula da Silva, who was sworn into office on Jan 1. The same magical thinking propelled his most ardent acolytes to storm the Brazilian capital a week later in a pique of insurrection. Brazil’s new government is still picking up the pieces.
So how to explain the far-right’s denialist frenzy? No doubt, loser’s remorse and toxic polarization have roiled Latin America’s biggest nation, as they have in democracies just about everywhere. But perhaps nothing has done more to poison the public mood than the steady drip of web-enhanced fake news, intrigue, smears, cheap shots and outright fabrications which have seeped into the Brazilian body politic.
Now comes the counter-offensive. In one of his first executive orders, Lula announced a new Office for the Defense of Democracy, created specifically to scrub the media of disinformation. That the same initiative also provoked fierce reaction from the hard right and free expression advocates was also a glimpse of the blowback in store for Lula in the campaign ahead.
Competitive 21st century democracy is no game for amateurs, of course, but no one plays it like Brazil’s radical right wing. After all, Bolsonaro and his family worked to fuel conspiracies and culture war antics. Research by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil based think tank, found that far right YouTube channels generated over 1 billion views in the final stretch of last year’s elections. Lula’s loyalists were no match for the “Bolsonaristas” who outgunned them three posts to one on the video sharing platform. It was no different on Facebookand Instagram.
Critics quickly tarred the government’s latest campaign to stamp out disinformation as a ploy to stifle dissent, describing it as a new Orwellian “Ministry of Truth”. No matter that web warriors on the splenetic right had spent the last four years slandering rivals, hyping junk science and trashing Brazil’s widely acclaimed electronic voting system.
Not all the opposition pushback comes from the ideological fringe. Many digital rights activists question how the authorities will define disinformation and what distinguishes incitement from opinion. There are also concerns about how much discretionary power the new office will wield in the defence of democracy. Digital harms are no mystery: Consider Bolsonaro’s health ministry which flogged unproven Covid-19 medication even as Brazilian pandemic deaths spiked. Yet Brazilians are not united about how to tackle one of democracy’s newest and most intractable problems.
Brazil is not the only country facing a deluge of online disinformation and misinformation. However, it is a hyper-connected society, with more than one mobile phone per capita, the world’s fifth largest social media market, and little use for conventional news sources. This makes it a laboratory for both online opportunists and digital policy wonks.
Nor is Brazil’s discredited political system – 32 registered parties, 23 of them with seats in Congress, and politicians who change allegiances like socks – any help. No wonder only 14% of Brazilians say they trust the government. Such disenchantment has helped turn Latin America’s biggest democracy into a seller’s market for populist barkers and fabulists.
Brazil now wants to be known as a proving ground for how to fight back – no simple task in one of the world’s 15 most polarized societies. For the rightwing partisans, the man to malign is Alexandrede Moraes, the Supreme Court justice who has ordered purveyors of disinformation jailed, their sponsors fined, and dozens of allegedly seditious rightwing social media accounts taken down. “The Protector of the Realm,” Rio de Janeiro State University political analyst Beatriz Rey calls him, only half jokingly, after the overlord in the Game of Thrones.
Justice Moraes is leaning in where other national institutions have ducked. A bill to cull fake news is languishing in Congress. Brazil’s Prosecutor General, a Bolsonaro hangover, mostly looks the other way. Lawmakers routinely take their quarrels to the Supreme Court to decide, abdicating legislative authority.
Yet Brazil’s campaign against online disinformation can’t be reduced to a judge cosplaying the bad cop. The creation of the new office is part of a much wider effort by the nation’s judiciary and civil society groups to cull fake news, conspiracies, and hate speech - some of it imported from the U.S. - from social media platforms.
Drawing red lines and enforcing them will take time: disinformation is easier to decry than delimit. The government must take care to keep oversight from becoming overreach. Authorities can expect no quarter from Brazil’s far right politicians and influencers who have parlayed misinformation, hoaxes, and hate speech into a popular brand.
Ultimately they, too, may face a reckoning. Trust in the internet has fallen 18% in Brazil since 2019, one of the steepest declines among 20 countries surveyed by the Germany-based New Institute. Yet laissez fairealone will not stop the lying game, any more than government censorship. Brazilians will have to find their way to common ground. Governments everywhere will be watching closely.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Part of:Disinformation: Is democracy under threat?
Updated: August 23, 2023
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