Social media platforms say they have launched an effort to crack down on fake news and misinformation in Brazil ahead of an October election that many expect to be turbulent.
Fake news has proven to be a powerful political tool in Latin America’s biggest country and was used to dramatic effect in the 2018 election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
Caught off guard then, Meta-owned platforms — in conjunction with the country’s electoral tribunal — have since deployed new technologies to detect and stifle the spread of disinformation as well as streamlined procedures for officials and judges to put the content offline, according to the company.
Even Telegram, which the Supreme Court temporarily ordered suspended in March for harboring misinformation, has signed an agreement with election officials to develop tools to report fake news as well as an AI chatbot to answer questions about elections.
The messaging app, which allows users to broadcast messages to millions of subscribers, has recently been a favorite of Bolsonaro, who switched to the platform after WhatsApp began limiting the width of content sharing.
“We learned a lot from 2018 and we are doing a lot more than we were back then. We are in a much better place now,” said Dario Durigan, public policy manager for WhatsApp in Brazil.
“We are making an unprecedented effort. This is by far the most important presidential election we have this year. »
Stemming the flow of disinformation is particularly important this year, as Bolsonaro has gone to great lengths to cast doubt on the integrity of elections, including the country’s electoral system. In an echo of former US President Donald Trump, he repeatedly claimed that the country’s electronic ballot boxes were vulnerable to fraud, without providing any evidence.
Many fear the former army captain will not accept the result if he loses, with the head of the Superior Electoral Court recently warning that Brazil could face an event similar to the storming of the US Capitol in 2021.
“Democracy is under threat. Electoral justice is under attack,” said Edson Fachin.
Used by 120 million Brazilians, WhatsApp is part of the daily life of the Latin American nation and played a central role in the 2018 elections. But it has also been widely abused. Fabricated information and slanderous stories were spread on the platform, while secret interest groups supporting Bolsonaro bombarded users with mass messages, which have since been ruled illegal by the electoral court.
Durigan said WhatsApp solved the problem by using AI to track suspicious message patterns while immediately blocking accounts used to bulk send content. Additionally, he said, the app has worked to limit the extent to which posts can go viral by introducing “friction.”
“In 2018, a user could forward a message to 20 contacts at once. In 2019, it was reduced to five. In 2020, a message that is forwarded more than five times is labeled as frequently forwarded and can only be forwarded once. Now, in 2022, all messages that have been forwarded once can only be forwarded to five contacts or one group,” he said.
“Whatsapp bans 8 million accounts worldwide per month. You must be a human using it organically or you get banned,” he added.
The company also said it would not roll out its new Communities feature – allowing chat group administrators to broadcast messages to thousands of members – in Brazil before the election, a decision Durigan said was made. “taking into account the context”.
Sister platforms Facebook and Instagram, meanwhile, say they have started attaching tags to election-related posts that link users to the election tribunal’s website and fact-checking resources. The groups say they also run nationwide programs to train election officials on how to remove malicious or fake content.
“Since 2018, we have made huge improvements and investments in partnerships and in identifying content and making sure that we reduce the reach of negative content. Accelerating our response is the main objective,” said said Debs Delbart, program manager for Meta’s Strategic Response Team.
Delbart added that Meta has also sought to increase ad transparency by creating a process to verify buyer identification and adding disclaimers to show who is responsible for payment. The information is then made public.
“We are now extending [beyond politics] the subjects for which we require this level of transparency, including human rights, the economy and health. If you want to run political or social ads in Brazil, you must be in Brazil. You can’t be [outside the country].”
Critics say, however, that the platforms themselves need to be more transparent if they are sincere in their fight against the epidemic of fake news in Brazil.
“A part of [the developments] are welcome changes, like more transparency in ad buying, but some of them are either things that were already in place or public relations measures,” said Patricia Campos Mello, researcher at the Columbia University.
“For example, the labeling of electoral information – we don’t know how well this works and how effective their moderation is in Portuguese, because there is no transparency in terms of disclosing the number of messages labeled and the number of people they reached before they were tagged.
Efforts by social media platforms have also been partly overshadowed by a dispute over anti-fake news legislation currently before Congress.
Following the widespread spread of misinformation during the 2018 election, lawmakers attempted to launch sweeping regulations that would, among other things, create strict moderation and transparency requirements as well as a basis for paying news producers for the contents.
The legislation has been fiercely opposed by Bolsonaro, whose supporters frequently use fake news, but also tech groups such as Meta and Google. Meta staff say the bill would “fundamentally change the way the internet works” and hurt small businesses that advertise online.
Social media researchers, however, say the legislation would force platforms to disclose more information about their ad targeting and audiences and that tech groups aren’t comfortable with that.
“The less mandatory moderation the better for them,” Campos Mello said. “They want to follow their own electoral and civic rules, instead of following the official rules, because that way they cannot be held accountable.”