Guardian News and Media/Brasilia
As Brazil nears the climax of its most bitter and polarised election in recent history, academics and digital activists fighting to stem a rising tide of fake news say that accurate coverage of the campaign risks being drowned out by the sheer volume of lies being spread on Facebook and WhatsApp.
On Monday, Brazil’s electoral court ordered Facebook to remove links to 33 fake news stories targeting Manuela D’Avila, a communist party politician and the vice-presidential candidate for Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT).
D’Avila party hailed the decision as a victory, but one digital media expert said it was a mere drop in the ocean.
“This is nothing. It’s irrelevant amid the lies and attacks in this election,” said Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy at the University of São Paulo who leads a project monitoring public debate on social media. “There is very little correct information.”
Haddad – who replaced his party’s jailed founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as its presidential candidate – scored 29% of the vote in the election’s first round on Sunday, trailing the right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro who took 46% of the vote. The two men face a runoff vote on October 28.
In the electoral court’s ruling, Judge Sergio Banhos gave Facebook 24 hours to provide the IP addresses of computers used to register the accounts that posted the fake news stories – and the personal details of the page administrators. Facebook said it would obey the ruling, and the links have already been removed.
According to court documents, the pages included video edited to include images from a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro, D’Avila talking about an anti-homophobia campaign, and “images that hypersexualised children”.
The film asked the viewer: “She wants to be vice-president for Lula’s Workers’ party. What do you think?” court documents said.
Bolsonaro’s campaign has attacked Haddad and the PT over a programme of educational material aiming at fighting homophobia in schools produced while he was minister of education under President Dilma Rousseff in 2011 but never distributed.
Fake news items have deluged Brazil’s garrulous social media networks with material suggesting that he and D’Avila want to “sexualise” children.
“It is one of the main topics of the Bolsonaro campaign,” said Ortellado.
Meanwhile, some on the left have lied about Bolsonaro’s proposals to abolish taxes for Brazilians who earn less than five times the minimum salary – around £977 a month – instead alleging that he intends to increase taxation on the poorest, Ortellado said. Others have spread fake stories claiming that a knife attack that left Bolsonaro seriously injured was faked to boost his polling.
In the past 10 weeks, Comprova – a monitoring project set up by 24 media organisations – has investigated 110 alleged fake news stories on WhatsApp and Facebook, said executive editor Sergio Ludtke.
“We know that we cannot stop the tsunami,” he said, adding that more and more fake news is spreads on the WhatsApp network, which is impossible to control – or even monitor – as most groups are private.
“We only see some of this and we know that’s not representative, it’s just an indication. It’s very difficult,” he said.
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