The future of Brazil’s democracy and economy is believed to be at stake in the heated presidential election that has deeply divided the country, before a final vote this Sunday. The campaign has been riddled with viral fake news stories spreading through social media and fears that the election of the right-wing front runner, Jair Bolsonaro, will herald a return to strong-armed politics in Brazil.
The country’s prosperity is also hanging in the balance, with the two candidates on the ballot this week representing opposing views about where Brazil’s economy - the largest in Latin America and the eighth largest in the world - should go after the longest recession in its history.
Recent polls heavily favour ring-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro. According to a survey published by CNT on Monday October 22nd, the 63-year-old retired army captain and seven-time congressman has a 14% lead over the leftist candidate, Fernando Haddad.
Financial markets are responding well to Bolsonaro’s likely victory. Bovespa, Brazil’s largest index, has gained more than 12% since September, while the Brazilian Real has gained 10% against the US dollar during the same period. High market hopes are riding on Bolsanaro’s market-friendly economic pledges.
These pledges have been supplied by Bolsonaro’s economic advisor, University of Chicago educated Paulo Guedes. They include a commitment to pay down 20% of Brazil’s ballooning national debt by privatising more than a hundred of the government’s state owned enterprises. Bolsonaro also plans to replace the country’s fiendishly complicated tax system with a universal 20% tax and reform a sprawling pension system that is both unsustainable and unfair.
But getting these ambitious plans to pass through Brazil’s Congress will be difficult. Despite serving in the lower house for nearly three decades, Bolsonaro has little support in the country’s fractured legislature that includes more than 30 parties. Many of the major reforms - including pension reform - require a two-thirds majority to pass. In one interview, Bolsonaro responded to scepticism about his election promises by suggesting that he would shut down Congress the same day if he were elected president.
That kind of provocative verbal gun-slinging has won Bolsonaro both ardent supporters and sworn enemies. He was a victim of a stabbing at a rally last month that put him in the hospital for weeks, an episode that nearly cost him his life but buoyed his campaign with heavy media coverage. In interviews he has also disparaged women, blacks, and homosexuals while making startling statements like promising to jail his opponent, Fernando Haddad, for alleged complicity in the Lava Jato corruption scheme.
A protestor holds an sign showing an image of Jair Bolsonaro that reads "He lies on WhatsApp” (REUTERS/Nacho Doce)
Brazil: the new fake news frontier
In the midst of the stranger-than-fiction reports of Bolsonaro’s stabbing and his comments in interviews, a firestorm of false stories has been spread through Facebook and the WhatsApp messaging app.
Facebook said on Monday it had removed 68 pages and 43 accounts associated with a Brazilian marketing group, Raposo Fernandes Associados (RFA), for violating the social media network's misrepresentation and spam policies, according to Reuters. The newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo said the group was the main network of support for Jair Bolsonaro on the internet.
Facebook said RFA used fake accounts or multiple accounts using the same names to create pages with massive amounts of clickbait intended to direct people to third-party websites. "Our decision to remove these pages was based on the behaviour of these actors – including using fake accounts and repeatedly posting spam – rather than on the type of content they were posting," Facebook said in a statement.
At the same time, Facebook's popular messaging service WhatsApp has also come under scrutiny in Brazil after Haddad accused Bolsonaro's supporters of using it for bulk messaging of misleading information during the campaign. WhatsApp has more than 120 million users in Brazil, or about 60% of the population, rivalling the reach of Facebook's main platform.
The messaging service has become one of the main ways Brazilians keep in touch with friends, colleagues and family, and it also is an important channel for acquiring political information. But WhatsApp has been flooded with fake news and conspiracy theories.
Haddad alleged on Monday that businessmen supporting Bolsonaro had been paying to bombard voters with misleading propaganda in violation of electoral law, which his rival denies. WhatsApp said it took the allegations seriously and was "taking immediate legal action”. But independent fact checkers and social media experts say that has not been enough to stop a flood of falsehoods and conspiracy theories distorting political debate without public oversight.
"It is very worrying. We are walking on ice, because fake news is manufactured on an industrial scale, but the monitoring and fact-checking is a slow and time-consuming process," said Thiago Tavares, head of SaferNet Brasil, a non-governmental organisation that monitors social media for potential crime, according to Reuters.
Unlike Facebook's open platform, which the company monitors for abusive content, messages that circulate in WhatsApp groups of up to 256 people use end-to-end encryption, making them inaccessible to even the platform's administrators.