Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Much Is Fake News Influencing Latin Elections?


Reports claim countless messages with false information flooded Facebook-owned WhatsApp in the last weeks ahead of Brazil’s highly polarized presidential election. Before the election, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party alleged businessmen supporting his far-right rival, Jair Bolsonaro, were behind the spread of misleading propaganda on the instant messaging application, which has more than 120 million users in Brazil. Bolsonaro denies the claim. Moreover, Facebook shut down dozens of pages and accounts linked to a pro-Bolsonaro marketing group, though the social media network insisted they were closed because they repeatedly posted spam and not because of their posts’ content. How much impact did the spread of misinformation have on Brazil’s election? How did this play out in other presidential races in the region this year, such as in Colombia and Costa Rica? What effects does false propaganda on social media have on Latin American democracies, and what should be done, if anything, to control it?

Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica and head of the Organization of American States’ mission of observers in Brazil’s election: “Brazil’s recent election once again demonstrated the incontestable importance that digital technologies and social media have gained in campaigns’ communications strategies. The winning candidate in this election only had seven seconds of paid advertisement time on television before the first-round vote, in accordance with the distribution rules outlined in Brazil’s electoral laws. But this didn’t impede the rapid growth of his support, thanks in part for his successful positioning on social media, on which the number of followers he had vastly surpassed those of his contenders. Digital platforms not only allowed candidates to present their messages and interact directly with supporters, they also became a channel to attack, offend and disinform not just the candidates, but also the electoral system’s institutions. This has been a theme in many other campaigns across Latin America. In Brazil’s case, something unprecedented also occurred: private messaging platform WhatsApp became the preferred medium to spread false content. Despite electoral authorities, the media, social organizations and social media companies’ many efforts to prevent and counteract the spread of false news, the phenomenon achieved unparalleled dimensions, truly becoming a misinformation tsunami. At the same time, digital technologies offer the electorate many opportunities that before were out of reach—not just to access information about political parties and candidates and make their voices heard, but also to monitor and inspect the use of public resources in electoral campaigns, including private financing assigned to political parties and candidates. The real challenge is to enhance the virtues that social networks offer in order to improve the quality of democracy and more effectively contain the risks that can be generated by a perverse use of them."

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director of RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: “Brazilian subscribers to WhatsApp received large numbers of election-related postings stating blatant misinformation and disinformation either by or on behalf of the two leading candidates. More than 50,000 postings were misleading, urging to vote number 17, as if it were Lula’s (who was not running) when 17 was in fact Bolsonaro’s ballot number. In Colombia, some political analysts claim the 11.7 million votes cast in favor of the anti-corruption referendum in August 2018 resulted from misinformation and disinformation messages posted on social media, radio, and TV by the Green Alliance Party, the originators of the referendum. Facebook’s effect on Costa Rica’s run-up to the presidential election is mixed. ‘Likes’ seem to have affected the presidential preferences of tech-savvy young, but most Costa Ricans chose Carlos Alvarado Quezada’s promises of same-sex marriage, gender equality, skilled jobs and technical education, based on his previous experience as minister of labor. A free and truthful marketplace of competing ideas is essential to the effective workings of any democracy, more so in Latin America where democratic institutions are weak and political corruption and collusion are rampant. Given the prevalence of the distortions of facts, if not outright lies, on social media, radio, and TV, it seems truth in advertising by and for politicians lies in governments holding those companies liable for the false postings of their subscribers, advertisers and sponsors. The companies’ breast-beating, apologies and promises of ‘doing better next time’ will not solve the problem. As providers of a service, these companies must be as liable as any other service provider who intentionally and willingly misleads the public.”

Cristina Tardáguila, executive director of Brazilian fact-checking agency Agência Lupa: “There are many factors involved in deciding a vote, including your family, your friends and your education level. For the first time in Brazil, what you received and read on your phone seemed to have had a crucial role. It is still too early to measure the impact of misinformation on the final decision, but there is no doubt—and Laura Chinchilla’s statement from the OAS is clear about it—that false news was a bad surprise in our 2018 election. What we know for sure is that 44 percent of Brazilians recognize that they inform themselves through WhatsApp, which means the app plays an important role in the country. Agência Lupa, along with the University of São Paulo and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, has monitored 347 public chat groups on WhatsApp (with 18,000 people and more than 850,000 messages) and found an amazing amount of disinformation. Analyzing only 50 images (the most shared ones), we found out that only four of them were 100 percent true. But false information is all over. From Oct. 27 to Oct. 28, Lupa and other fact-checking platforms in Brazil worked together in a collaborative initiative. In 48 hours, we debunked 50 posts of false content. This means we face more than one big lie per hour in a very important weekend. And we were less than 50 fact-checkers. Brazil’s election served as an alert to the rest of the world in many senses. We have been spending too much time thinking about ways to prevent false news on Facebook, Twitter and Google. But what about encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram? We have been spending too much time thinking about legislation around fake news. But fake news is hard to define. So why don’t we invest time and money on news literacy programs? These kinds of ideas are what we need to develop.”

Silvio Waisbord, professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University: “We may never know with absolute certainty if elections in Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico were decided by misinformation. But we know that misinformation spread, that campaigns flooded social media with fantasies and that candidates poisoned public opinion with lies. All major social media brands and companies have been accused of facilitating the wide dissemination of falsehoods. The evidence is undeniable. Folha recently exposed actions by the Bolsonaro campaign to flood WhatsApp with false messages. WhatsApp has been recently accused of aiding misinformation in several countries. In India, the company imposed restrictions on the number of times messages can be shared and the number of contacts for individual users. Yet companies are slow to react. Democracies are playing a game of whack-a-mole with misinformation on social media. If it’s not one platform that serves to spread lies, it’s another. The conventional wisdom that digital giants should self-regulate and get rid of lies has problems as corporate decisions, primarily concerned with keeping sites popular and traffic constant, do not fit well with the needs of democracies. Yet it is not clear that there are obvious policy solutions that have strong popular support and that won’t interfere with free expression. In Latin America, this issue is particularly treacherous given the spotty record of public-oriented regulation of media content which has often devolved into plain censorship. We may never know exactly whether misinformation tilted electoral results in one direction. Yet we know that when misinformation is prevalent, democracies confront a dark situation. Democracy is premised on the presence of an informed citizenry. Recent elections, in contrast, show the broad circulation of falsehoods among the public and a steady diet of lies promoted by candidates as well as their allied media and influencers. It is not obvious that responses such as fact-checking or in-depth investigations by news organizations and other associations are effective in stopping false information or changing minds. They do unmask lies, but it debatable if they effectively counter common lies in certain pockets of the Internet. As long as lies inundate everyday digital platforms, democracies are in peril.”

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