Brazil: The WhatsApp President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Bolsonaro social medis

Graphics from Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s social media detailing his followers on Facebook (left) and Twitter (right). / Twitter: @jairbolsonaro / Creative Commons

If polls predicting a landslide victory for Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s runoff election are correct, Brazil on January 1 will inaugurate its first president to win by virtue of his superior social media prowess rather than the strong party bases that propelled his predecessors.  He gained strong support from different sectors of Brazilian society by delivering – legally and potentially illegally – the message his supporters wanted to hear directly to their personal electronic devices, without the validation and transparency of traditional media.  The receptivity of his young supporter base compensated for the low amount of TV time allotted to him under Brazilian law.

  • WhatsApp has around 120 million users in Brazil, around 60 percent of the population, for a wide array of personal and commercial communication needs. The polling firm Datafolha found that two-thirds of Brazilian voters use WhatsApp, and that of them a majority (61 percent) are Bolsonaro supporters likely to follow political news on the service – compared to 38 percent of the backers of his opponent, Fernando Haddad.
  • The platform is perfect for manipulation of information. Messages are encrypted and are therefore beyond the domain of electoral authorities, independent fact-checkers, or even WhatsApp managers.  Real and fake news spread like wildfire.  Agência Lupa, a fact-checker service, has found that only 50 of the most shared pictures in 347 WhatsApp groups were factually correct.  During the weekend of October 6-7, the company found that 12 of the fake news items it evaluated were shared 1.2 million times.  The Federal Electoral Court (TSE), which created a consultative council earlier this year to tackle online misinformation, has been slow to respond to the threat – perhaps out of fear it would be accused of limiting free speech.

Bolsonaro’s campaign also used Facebook effectively even after it twice shut down pages carrying content of his deemed to be fake – 197 pages and 87 accounts in July, and 68 pages and 43 accounts two weeks ago.  Many of the pages portrayed Haddad as a Communist whose Workers Party would turn Brazil into another Cuba and convert children to homosexuality.  One attack – alleging that Haddad would distribute “gay kits” to expose schoolchildren to homosexuality – was so blatant that the TSE ordered Bolsonaro’s campaign to stop it.

  • Haddad’s presence on Facebook (1.5 million followers) is minuscule compared to Bolsonaro’s (7.8 million). Some of Haddad’s followers used social media to spread rumors that Bolsonaro staged his near-fatal stabbing at a rally last month; social media have not shut down any of Haddad’s pages or accounts.

Bolsonaro’s social media campaign has also allegedly been tainted by illegal funding.  Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers, last week reported that wealthy businesspersons spent US$3.2 million on a WhatsApp fake news operation.  If true, they broke electoral laws barring undeclared corporate campaign donations and the purchase of contact lists from a third party.  Speaking on Facebook Live, Bolsonaro said Folha had no evidence, adding in an interview later that he has no control over the businesspersons anyway.

Fake news in elections – in the traditional or social media – is not a new phenomenon, but its wildfire impact has caught many in Brazil by surprise.  The mere speed that disinformation travels makes it nearly impossible for Brazilian authorities to curb its spread, and self-policing by social media platforms also seems an implausible solution given their benefit from the high traffic fake news drives.  Bolsonaro and his campaign team realized this earlier and embraced it more aggressively than Haddad, who did not enter the race until September 11, ever did.  Haddad was busy trying to simultaneously convince Lula’s supporters to vote for him and others that he was not Lula’s puppet, while Bolsonaro’s message was reaching tens of millions of Brazilians with smartphones.  The likely president’s expertise in using social media (legally or not) has clearly boosted his campaign, but governing by WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter remains an untested proposition.  It seems that Bolsonaro may also follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook into government.  Crushing his opposition under a barrage of half-truths and lies does not bode well for democratic governance.

October 26, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.