#ElectionWatch: Fast and False in Brazil
Inaccurate information outperforms articles from traditional media in the debate on corruption
Amid a deep political crisis, Brazil will elect a new president, new state governors, and a new Congress in two rounds of voting — the first on October 7 and the second on October 28. The stakes are high, and misinformation or disinformation have the potential to influence the electoral process. Any accusations of large-scale falsehood could cast into question the legitimacy of the process, or the results.
Questions of corruption are particularly sensitive, both because of Brazil’s slew of recent political scandals and because of the issue’s potential to undermine individual candidates. Of the top 20 articles about corruption in Brazil published on Facebook and Twitter in Portuguese over the past six months provides asnapshot of the current information environment in Brazil.
Corruption was the focus of the analysis due to its importance in public debates. Since 2014, Brazil has experienced twin political and economic crises, both of which have corruption as the central theme.
Among the top 20 stories, four were inaccurate, one was published by a website considered part of a disinformation network, and one was created by a satirical outlet. Among the four most popular articles, three were factually incorrect. In this specific case, the analysis showed that low-credibility sources attracted more engagement on social media than reputable and trustworthy sources.
Analysis of the social-media interactions generated by each of the top six non-authentic articles revealed insight into the types of content being created, the motivation behind it, and the way in which misinformation and disinformation spread.
There was no uniform pattern on the type of content created. Content ranged from satirical to fabricated information. However, most of the websites engaged with political issues, suggesting that convincing voters was one of the primary motivations behind the content.
Information primarily traveled on Facebook groups and pages and was shared by people who did not always identify the information as non-accurate. However, there was one case of an organized network working to “spread disinformation” according to Facebook, who removed the page. It was also possible to observe polarization in the way content was distributed.
Analyzing the articles
Olho Aberto Paraná: “Brazil might have a military intervention to end political corruption”
The article affirmed that the Brazilian armed forces would soon carry out an intervention within the federal government due to corruption claims. However, there was no such intervention and no indication of any mobilization which might have suggested one. “Olho Aberto Paraná,” or “Eyes Open Paraná,” did not publish any corrections. A few days later, it issued audio, which spread rapidly on social media, of an alleged Army spokesperson reiterating that the intervention was imminent. The Army refuted the veracity of this audio.
The motivation behind the publication of the article was not clear. Olho Aberto Paraná is a local website from the Southern state of Paraná, where the wide-reaching corruption investigation Lava Jato (Car Wash) originated. The probe uncovered a huge bribing scheme at Brazil’s state-controlled oil giant, Petrobras, and implicated politicians and the largest private companies in Brazil. The blog publishes local news and displays ads both on the website and as blog posts. Olho Aberto Paraná claims to be the most accessed website in the state, according to its own data.
The article garnered 791,300 engagements, most of them on Facebook. Its success could be potentially connected to the date it was published, May 24, while atruck drivers’ strike was taking place in Brazil. Some of the strike participants called for a military intervention for the same reason.
Brazil, a country that was governed by the military between 1964 and 1985, is experiencing a resurgence in pro-military sentiment since the onset of the economic and political crises. Websites that engaged with and disseminated the Olho Aberto Paraná article were advocates of such military and anti-corruption sentiments.
Sensacionalista: “After 518 years, Brazil is finally free of corruption”
This article appeared on the satirical website Sensacionalista, or Sensationalistic,which makes fun of both sides of the political spectrum. Inspired by The Onion, Sensacionalista was created in 2009, but became increasingly notorious at the beginning of the crisis in Brazil in 2014. The Sensacionalista Facebook page had more than three million likes and the site’s Twitter page 1.66 million followers as of August 29, 2018. Sensacionalista publishes articles about a variety of topics, not only politics. The website describes itself as non-partisan and publishes satirical articles about different sides of the political spectrum.
Sensacionalista’s headline was meant to provoke opponents of the Workers’ Party (PT) who claim that the party — whose leaders governed Brazil for 13 years (2003–2016) — is the only source of corruption in the country. The article was published after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a court appeal, a decision that soon resulted in the imprisonment of the former president. Although the article was satirical in nature, it suggested the PT was being unfairly persecuted by the Brazilian judiciary system.
Sensacionalista’s article had 570,421 engagements, of which most were likes, comments and shares on Facebook. Although satires are not published with the intention of deceiving audiences, they “have the potential to fool” people, thus causing confusion.
Most interactions with the article involved left-wing profiles, which were likely aware of the article’s satirical tone and in agreement with the article’s argument of judicial bias against the PT. However, some Facebook users who saw the headline did not understand the satirical nature of the article, for example, by saying the article was mistaken and other parties were also implicated in the corruption scandal, and one even said they would denounce the piece to Facebook.
“The Folha,” which borrows its name from one of the major national publications, “Folha de S.Paulo,” could be described as a highly partisan website. It mostly publishes political news concerning corruption inquiries and allegations, usually against former president Lula da Silva and favorable to Sergio Moro, the federal judge who has led the Lava Jato investigation.
This piece claimed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) discovered that Brazil sold the 2014 World Cup semifinal to Germany — Brazil infamously lost the game 7–1. The article mixed old hoaxes (similar claims about Brazil selling the World Cup final to France in 1998 reemerged in 2014, with the opponent being replaced by Germany) with news about the FBI’s wide-reaching probe into corruption within FIFA and international football. The FBI, nonetheless, has never brought forward any accusations or evidence about fixed results during the 2014 World Cup.
The piece had 450,100 engagements, most coming from pro-Moro and anti-PT Facebook pages and groups. This illustrates the polarization that emerged in Brazil’s social media after 2014, when the behavior of anti-corruption groups on Facebook — regarding pages and posts they liked — became almost indistinguishable from the online behavior of conservative and right-wing groups. On the other side, left-wing groups on Facebook merged with groups interested in human rights and progressive social movements. Yet, a few left-wing Facebook pages also engaged with the corruption article.
A similar article was published by “Sempre Questione,”or “Always Question,”and also became one of the articles with the most interactions on social media. “Sempre Questione,” a website that reports on a variety of themes, from international topics to health issues, generated 80,000engagements with an article published on March 3, after The Folha’s publication on February 24. The article generated engagement both from left-leaning and right-leaning pages.
O Diário Nacional: “Dodge charges Aécio with corruption and obstruction of justice”
“O Diário Nacional” has been described by Revista Época, a traditional Brazilian magazine,as a highly partisan “fake news” website. It was one of the 196 pages removed by Facebook last July under allegation of integrating a misinformation network headed by Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL — Free Brazil Movement), a right-wing activist group that played a leading role in impeachment protests against then-President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in 2015 and 2016. In a statement, the social media company described MBL’s actions as:
“A coordinated network that hid behind fake Facebook accounts and misled people about the nature and origin of its content, all for the purpose of sowing division and spreading misinformation.”
Interestingly, this piece was not inaccurate, but rather the reproduction of an article published by a local news website with legitimate information about charges brought against Aécio Neves, the then-runner-up in the 2014 presidential election and member of the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). The original article was reproduced from MidiaMax, a local website from Mato Grosso do Sul state.
O Diário Nacional’s corruption piece generated 146,000 engagements. It was boosted by the Facebook pages of MBL and Fernando Holiday, a councilman connected to the movement. It also generated engagement from regional MBL pages, pro-Jair Bolsonaro — a former military officer currently ranked second in the presidential race –and pages, profiles, and groups supporting judge Sergio Moro.
Aconteceu, virou manchete: “Judges publish statement saying: ‘whoever criticizes judges’ housing allowance supports corruption.’”
The article was a reproduction of an article published in another website, the left-wing “A Postagem,” or “The Post”. Even though “Aconteceu, virou manchete” acknowledges that the article was a reproduction, it changed the headline. A Postagem’s original headline was: Judges association publishes surreal note saying that whoever is against judges’ housing allowance supports corruption: in the style of “Judiciary: love it or leave it.”
“Aconteceu, virou manchete,” or “It happened; it’s become a headline,” published a hard news-style headline: Judges publish statement saying: ‘whoever criticizes judges’ housing allowance supports corruption. Since the statement is in quotes, it suggests that it is an exact reproduction of what the association stated.
However, this does not accurately reproduce the content of the article, which is about a letter written by the head of the judges’ association. He stated:
“Who is interested in this campaign [to harm the judges]? People who work against corruption and for the rule of law or the corrupted ones?”
It was not possible to verify whether the alteration was intentionally meant to cause confusion or whether it was simply a case of a lack of due diligence. The “Aconteceu, virou manchete” blog reproduced news from different sources, most of them with a left-wing tendency. The piece generated 90,400 engagements, mostly from left-wing Facebook pages.
Taken together, the cases show how low-accuracy information has been disseminated in Brazil over the past six months.
In the graph, each circle represents a social media account that posted factually incorrect stories described above. The size of each circle represents the number of articles with whicheach group engaged. A bigger circle means the page shared more non-authentic content. For instance, the bigger circles Lula Livre (Pérolas dos Coxinhas) and União das Esquerdas — two left-wing groups — shared four of the non-authentic articles.
Most people who shared the articles in these groups did not state they were inaccurate in their posts, suggesting they could not recognize disinformation and misinformation. Even the satirical piece led to outraged comments in one of the groups by people who did not realizethe article was a parody.
The color of the circles denotes which accounts or Facebook pages generated more interactions. It is possible to see that the satirical website Sensacionalista generated the most engagements, followed by “Quebrando o Tabu” (“Breaking Taboos”), a human rights Facebook page, and MBL, the right-wing activist group.
The analysis of the top 20 corruption-related articles in Brazil suggests implications on three key issues.
First, regarding the type of articles being created and shared, it is visible that the content within some of the most viral articles online reveal several instances of inaccurate information. Some articles were completely fabricated, such as the fake military intervention piece. There were also false connections, such as the judges’ housing allowance, in which the title did not match the content, and the satirical Sensacionalista piece, which did not intend to do harm but nevertheless caused some misunderstanding among readers. These different cases are indicative of a deeply divided and polarized political environment that has become fertile ground for the spread of unreliable reports.
Second, concerning the motivation behind content creation, most of the websites mentioned only publish political news, which could suggest their main objective is to politically influence people. In some cases, nonetheless, poor journalistic practices could also have played a role. Two exceptions to the mostly political trend are “Olho Aberto Paraná,” which publishes hyper-local news and advertisements, and “Sempre Questione,” which publishes articles on a wide array of issues. That might indicate that they are only looking for clicks to increase their audience, which suggests a profit-seeking motivation behind the production of news. Finally, Sensacionalista is a satirical website that has the clear intention of providing biting political satire.
Finally, with respect to content distribution, the analysis points to two different types of distribution. Most of the articles were distributed by social media users who shared the content without any verification. However, the “O Diário Nacional” article seems to be part of an organized network, with pages aiming at disseminating a specific type of content. Deep polarization also plays a role in distribution, with two identifiable groups being front and center: the anti-corruption and sometimes pro-military right wing, as well as the pro-Lula left wing.
These findings illustrate the severity of the challenge that inaccurate information represents in Brazil and the risk it poses to the upcoming elections. The multitude of sources of inaccurate information and the variety of motivations behind the production of content shows that multiple strategies are needed to tackle this issue. Furthermore, regarding the ways misinformation spreads, not only will it be necessary to increase vigilance over organized groups that spread misinformation, but also to increase media literacy so that each person can independently check — or at least suspect — the veracity of information they receive online.