The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Brazil’s fake-news problem won’t be solved before Sunday’s vote

Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and current President Jair Bolsonaro are competing in a runoff election Sunday. (Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Mac Margolis, a Global Opinions contributing columnist, is the author of “Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.” Robert Muggah is co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank.

If Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fails to win reelection this Sunday, it won’t be for lack of lying. With charges of “Satanism,” teaching homosexuality in the classroom and doctoring voting machines, right-wing partisans are working overtime to keep the campaign in smears, magical thinking and flat-out bogus news.

Not that the left hasn’t tried to do the same. Indeed, backers of the Workers’ Party challenger, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have spread their share of fake news, associating Bolsonaro with cannibalism and pedophilia. Yet their efforts look amateurish compared with those of the “Bolsonarista” disinformation machine.

Digital security analysts at the Igarapé Institute, an independent think tank, found that Brazil’s far right is a much more prolific spreader of spurious news. Pro-Bolsonaro posts on YouTube drew more than 99 million views compared with 28 million for left-wing channels eight days before and after the first round of presidential voting on Oct. 2.

Just how far the right will go to roil the elections became clear Wednesday, when Bolsonaro loyalists accused local radio stations of dropping tens of thousands of his campaign spots, thus deliberately favoring Lula. While election authorities quickly dismissed the claims, the maneuver provided a glimpse of the confusion and acrimony to come should Bolsonaro lose.

These untruths poison prospects for civility and democratic coexistence in Brazil. They also erode the foundation of free and fair elections, which rely on public trust, institutional integrity and agreement on the basic rules of engagement. Yet too often, efforts to purge the web of falsehoods and other malicious content fall short or trample liberties.

For evidence of what damage can be done, look no further than last Sunday’s standoff between federal police and Roberto Jefferson, a former lawmaker and devoted Bolsonaro supporter who opened fire on agents who had come to arrest him. Two were treated for shrapnel wounds, and Bolsonaro’s brand took a direct hit.

For months, Jefferson had relished his role as the far right’s headline provocateur. He built a following online by brandishing firearms and growling threats at the “godless” left and the “thought police” in the Brazilian judiciary. Landing in jail last year for such theatrics and getting banished from social media only enhanced Jefferson’s libertarian cachet. What better ally to ignite the right-wing insurrection and narrow Lula’s lead in the runoff?

Fifty rifle rounds and three lobbed grenades later, Jefferson was back behind bars, and Bolsonaro was reeling off disclaimers. After all, his gun-toting protege had just brazenly attacked the federal police, among Bolsonaro’s dearest constituencies, and sabotaged one of the incumbent’s favorite campaign tropes: that he was the victim of rogue justice. If that sounds far-fetched, take a closer look at the information wars that have engulfed Latin America’s biggest democracy.

Democratic representation is in trouble everywhere, of course, but Brazil stands out. An insatiable demand for social media, ubiquitous bots and more than 80 smartphones for every 100 Brazilians help bad actors exploit credulousness at a keystroke. Throw in an overeager judiciary with a tradition of leaning in wherever political quarrels break out, and you risk repeated collisions between branches of government and threats to basic constitutional liberties.

Brazil’s supreme electoral tribunal, known as the TSE, has inadvertently heightened these tensions. Until last week, the court intervened only when petitioned by a party claiming injury or redress for misinformation and lies. Now the seven-judge panel is empowered to take the initiative to remove content it deems offensive, mendacious or simply misleading. “The common citizen, the ordinary voter,” said Ricardo Lewandowski, deputy chief electoral court justice, “is unprepared to process this sort of informational disorder.”

The challenge in Brazil, as in democracies everywhere, is how to determine what information is true or false — and who ought to decide. For all their legal expertise, Brazil’s top jurists are badly outmatched by digitally driven media. The Brazilian supreme court, which has been grappling with fake news for years, already hears some 80,000 cases annually of every sort. “We’re a society trying to respond to digital threats with analogical procedures and a sluggish judicial system,” said Cláudio Lucena, a Paraiba State University professor who sits on Brazil’s National Council for the Protection of Personal Data and Privacy.

The disinformation war is too important to delegate to a few men and women in black, especially during Brazil’s most consequential election campaign since the return of democracy. Nor is laissez faire an option in times of doxing, deepfakes, bots and troll farms. Brazil’s electoral bodies have launched special observatories to monitor disinformation, but they, too, are overwhelmed.

Most activists and governments agree that the only credible solution is a “whole-of-society” approach, which calls for “shared responsibility” among the public sector, business and civil society. That means more targeted regulation and requirements that tech companies scrub their platforms, but this has proved daunting in non-English-speaking markets. While eight social media giants have pledged to do better in Brazil, misinformation still seeps through the cracks.

Working out the rules and red lines for the digital media market promises to be drawn out and quarrelsome, given how much operators stand to profit from ruses and hype. “The trouble is we still insist on emergency fixes, even knowing that tomorrow’s tech threats may be nothing like today’s,” said Lucena. There’s no hack for that problem.