Ahead of Brazil’s presidential election on October 7 vote, false narratives about electronic voting fraud have spiked and deepened mistrust as citizens head to the polls.
The narrative has been amplified by the far-right frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro, who claimed the voting system is rigged in favor of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT).
On September 28, Bolsonaro, a former Army captain with a past predilection for dictatorship, said he would not accept an electoral defeat. He repeated the statement on September 29, yet the next day claimed he said he would not call the winner to congratulate him or her for their victory.
Brazil has used electronic voting on a national scale since 1996. Since its implementation that year, no evidence of fraud has surfaced.
Suspicions about electronic voting have always existed, but the discussion was not prominent until the 2014 election. Then-PT candidate Dilma Rousseff won by a tight margin and then-runner-up Aécio Neves, from the center-right party PSDB, asked for a recount of votes based on “claims that arose on social media.” The audit did not find evidence of fraud.
In 2015, Congress approved a bill authored by Bolsonaro to change the voting system. Voting would still be electronic, but every vote would be printed. But in 2017, Brazil’s Supreme Court decided that printing the votes was unconstitutional.
The Brazilian electoral court often calls on independent specialists to audit the security of the voting system. These independent analyses have found vulnerabilities in the system that make it susceptible to a potential hack. There was no evidence, however, of an orchestrated effort to benefit one specific candidate.
Fraud claims in the 2018 election
Claims of fraud gained massive momentum this year after Bolsonaro brought up the topic in a video published on his Facebook page. The video was published on September 16 while he was in the hospital after being stabbed on the campaign trail. At the time, polls showed support for PT candidate Fernando Haddad was growing.
In the video, Bolsonaro said:
The narrative now is that I will lose to anyone in the second round. What worries me is not losing due to voting, but due to fraud. So, this possibility of fraud in the second round, maybe even in the first round, is concrete. The PT has found a way to power: electronic voting.
This Facebook post received more engagement any of Bolsonaro’s other posts in September. Our analysis using CrowdTangle showed it garnered 30 times more engagement than average for his page. The video had almost eight million views.
Days later, one of his sons, Flavio Bolsonaro, who is also a politician, published a video criticizing polling firm Datafolha Institute and suggesting electoral polls could be used to back up frauds.
On Twitter, the word “fraude” (Portuguese for fraud) was mentioned 204,000 times in September. Research shows a strong association between the use of the word “fraud” and support for Bolsonaro’s candidacy, with the use of the hashtags #SomosTodosBolsonaro (We are all Bolsonaro), #EleSimNoPrimeiroTurno (Yes, him in the first round) and #Bolsonaro17 (his ballot box number).
The most popular tweet mentioning the word “fraud” came from the conservative humorist Danilo Gentili. The post complained about the ban of Facebook polls on personal profiles and said it was “obviously” a way to pave the way for election fraud.
Although the tweet does not mention Bolsonaro directly, the word cloud from the retweeters’ bios shows a connection to Bolsonaro. His name and his number appear in retweets, as do other topics related to his discourse, including the words “Christian,” “Right-wing united,” “patriot,” and “Brazil.”
Fears of Venezuelan interference
One of the most popular electoral hoaxes was an article claiming the Brazilian electoral court had handed the security codes of electronic voting machines to Venezuela. According to them, this would enable electoral fraud.
The article was not accurate. It referred to a tender to print the votes (before the Supreme Court barred the printed vote law). The successful bid was made by a British company owned by two Venezuelans and a Portuguese partner. However, the company was not approved on the printing test made by the electoral court. With the aforementioned Supreme Court decision that declared printed voting unconstitutional, the tender was finally canceled. Therefore, the codes were not given to Venezuela.
This article was published by “Diário da Cidade Online,” a hyper-partisan right-wing website. The post received eight times more engagement (likes, shares, and comments) than an average post on its Facebook page. It was shared and amplified by one of Bolsonaro’s sons, Carlos, and right-wing pages on Facebook, including “Conservative Brazil” and “Capitalist Post.”
On WhatsApp, popular false messages featured Gerardo de Icaza, director of the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation of the Organization of American States (OAS), denouncing fraud in past elections. The images showed him and the false statement on the cover of popular magazines, as if they were breaking news stories.
The false magazine covers started circulating widely during the week. In response, Icaza gave interviews to Brazilian outlets saying there was no reason to suspect electronic voting in Brazil. The interviews were given to newspapers, and not magazines. OAS denied the authenticity of the magazine covers in a tweet.
WhatsApp has 120 million users in Brazil; one in 10 users on the platform are from Brazil. According to Datafolha Institute, it is the most popular social network among Brazilian voters: 66 percent of which use WhatsApp. Since messages on the platform are encrypted, it is not possible to track how the hoax started and how much reach it garnered.
This analysis shows how claims of electoral fraud have spread through the most popular social media platforms in Brazil: WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. These suspicions originated from a variety of sources, including presidential candidates, hyper-partisan websites and apocryphal messages. Most claims had some connection to fact but were altered and instrumentalized to confirm a certain narrative. Both Bolsonaro’s claims and the inaccurate article about Venezuela, for instance, were connected to reports of vulnerabilities in the voting machines. Likewise, the fake magazine covers were published on the same week that Icaza spoke to Brazilian outlets.
Electoral fraud claims should be given unequivocal attention since they raise questions about Brazil’s entire election process. Disinformation about voting security can increase polarization and weaken institutions. Moreover, the construction of a pre-narrative of fraud and disinformation by one candidate is worrisome, as it can later be used to justify non-acceptance of an electoral defeat.
Luiza Bandeira is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
#ElectionWatch Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.