In a divisive election campaign blighted by fears of unrest if far-right President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to accept defeat, Brazil is waging an uphill battle against disinformation wielded as a political weapon.
Analysts say Bolsonaro's 2018 electoral victory was in no small part due to an effective fake news smear campaign against his opponents.
Four years later, his backers have sought to replicate that feat, turning their attention to leftist ex-president and opinion poll frontrunner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
"Disinformation has run wild" on newer platforms such as Telegram and TikTok, which allow for the rapid dissemination of easily manipulated video content, says Ana Regina Rego, coordinator of the National Network to Combat Disinformation.
Social media videos and other posts have sought to portray Lula, among other things, as an alcoholic who will shut down churches if elected in October.
Bolsonaro also has been targeted by fake news posts that have questioned, for example, whether he was really stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018.
And despite nonstop work to debunk these and other false claims, such posts find fertile ground in a country where a 2018 study found that almost half of Brazilian voters relied on WhatsApp to read news about politics and elections. The figure was even higher among Bolsonaro voters.
In 2022, spreaders of disinformation have even more avenues including Telegram, the fast-growing messaging system that Bolsonaro has publicly embraced after having posts blocked on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Despite stricter rules adopted and better policing introduced against fake news, experts say new technology is complicating the task.
Facts, lies, sensationalism
The reach of fake news is impressive.
Three TikTok videos alleging to show Lula getting drunk on a transparent liquid – which is actually water – were seen 6.6 million times, while another five on the same platform that try to cast doubt on Bolsonaro's stabbing had 3.3 million views.
Content that combines "facts, lies and decontextualisations with sensationalism has a 70 percent greater chance to go viral than something informative," Rego noted.
TikTok told AFP its policy is to withdraw content that violates its "community norms" and may affect the electoral process, and to avoid highlighting "potentially misleading information that cannot be verified."
At the outset of the 2022 presidential campaign, Supreme Electoral Court president Alexandre de Moraes vowed the justice system would be "resolute" in the fight against fake news. And there have been some successes.
Moraes has since ordered social networks to remove several Bolsonaro posts on grounds of disinformation, along with many others from his supporters.
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The court oversaw the creation of a group with companies such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google and TikTok to screen out fake news and report offenders. Campaigns have been rolled out to boost digital literacy among social media users.
WhatsApp agreed to delay until after the election the launch in Brazil of a new "Communities" feature that would allow the creation of groups of groups, with administrators able to send messages to all – thus vastly increasing the potential for viral information spread.
Telegram bowed to pressure to take down disinformation content under threat of being blocked for not collaborating with the authorities.
"Without the collaboration of the platforms, it is very difficult" to pursue the spreaders of disinformation, said sociologist Marco Aurelio Ruediger of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a Rio think tank.
"It takes a long time to adopt punitive measures, and by then the damage is already done, because the information has already circulated," he said.
It is not only on social media, however, where lies are spread.
Bolsonaro himself has repeatedly criticised Brazil's electronic voting system, which he alleges – without evidence – is riddled with fraud.
The president is under investigation for the claims.
Bolsonaro, who is fond of saying "only God" can remove him from office, has warned Brazil faces "an even worse problem than the United States."
This has led to fears that his supporters might not accept the results, and that Brazil could see a burst of violence akin to the attack on the US Capitol in January 2021 in the wake of Donald Trump's loss to Joe Biden.
Trump's backers were riled up in part on social media, where Bolsonaro has tens of millions of followers.
"I fear that the results will not be accepted and that violence will be encouraged; we could experience a situation similar to that of the United States," said Ruediger.
Five things on Brazil's voting machines
Brazil has used electronic voting machines in its elections since 1996. But it is only recently they became controversial, with allegations by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that they are plagued by fraud. Here are five things to know about the squat beige computers fuelling a raging debate on democracy in Latin America's biggest country.
How did they start?
Ironically, given Bolsonaro's bashing, the electronic voting machines were introduced partly to combat fraud. Brazilians used to vote on paper ballots where they would check a box or write in a name, depending on the type of election. In a country where 14 percent of the adult population was illiterate, the system was chaotic, slow and fraud-prone. "There were always problems with the count. Illegible writing, names written in the wrong place, X's outside the box – all that meant a ballot was declared null," says Henrique Neves da Silva, a former judge on Brazil's Superior Electoral Tribunal. "There was also a lot of fraud and ballot-box stuffing." With help from the military, computer experts developed the country's first electronic voting machine, rolled out in 57 cities for the 1996 local elections.
How widespread are they?
Celebrated as a success, the voting machines were expanded to 67 percent of the electorate for Brazil's 1998 elections, and 100 percent for the 2000 elections. Brazil is one of 23 countries using electronic voting for general elections, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Another 18 use them for regional elections.
How do they work?
The machines are equipped with a number pad. When voters type the two-digit code for their chosen candidate, his or her picture appears. They then press a green button to confirm. "It's a very simple machine, with one function: to tally votes," says Da Silva. A key detail: the machines are not connected to the Internet. When voting closes, poll workers remove the memory card from each machine and send them to the local office of the electoral authority, which in turn sends the information to the central counting system in Brasilia via an independent network. In remote regions such as the Amazon rainforest, a satellite connection is sometimes used. Results are usually finalised in around two hours – not bad for a sprawling country with 156 million voters.
How secure are they?
The vote-counting software is updated for every election. Political parties, the judiciary and the military are allowed to inspect the source code. Security tests are also held in which IT experts attempt to hack into the system. "They literally take the machines apart, touch whatever they want. There is way more leeway than what [a theoretical hacker] would actually have on election day," says Da Silva. No major security flaw has ever been detected.
What does Bolsonaro say?
Bolsonaro insists the system is plagued by fraud, but has provided scant evidence. He claims he should have won the 2018 presidential election in the first round, instead of the run-off, but has offered no proof. He is pushing for a paper print-out to be made of every vote, so the count can be checked. But election authorities say that would only introduce an avenue for fraud. Prosecutors are investigating the president on charges of spreading disinformation about the voting system, including during a meeting with foreign ambassadors in July that was spattered with falsehoods. The US Embassy said after that meeting that Brazil's elections are "a model for the world." Bolsonaro has repeatedly threatened not to recognise the election result if the system is not changed.
by Eugenia Logiuratto & Louis Genot, AFP