Why WhatsApp and Facebook are shaping the political future of Brazil

Pedro Doria, the former executive editor of O Globo, explains how WhatsApp and Facebook have been affecting the country’s political environment and influencing the results of the upcoming election.

Brazil is the second largest WhatsApp user in the world, with 120 million people actively using it to communicate — the population of Brazil is around 200 million people. But Brazilians are also heavy users of Facebook, with 127 million accounts registered. With the daily use of social media to share pictures and stay in touch with friends and family, Brazil has also been witnessing in this presidential race its downfalls with the spread of misinformation and the increase of online threats against those speaking up about their political views.

The first round of the elections gave an edge to Jair Bolsonaro (46,16% of the total votes, just a few points short of 50% that would have give him the presidency right away), the populist candidate with a military background that has been denominated as far-right and even the ‘Brazilian Donald Trump’. The second round of the Brazilian elections will happen Sunday, 28 October 2018.

The O Globo Home page 3 days before the second round of the general election

Pedro Doria, the former executive editor of O Globo — the largest Brazilian newspaper — , recently published two different columns in that newspaper discussing how WhatsApp and Facebook have been damaging the country’s political environment and serving as a vehicle for Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters to breakdown democratic values. You can find the original columns in Portuguese here and here.

The Global Editors Network merged his two columns and translated them to give an overview of the situation in Brazil, how social media has been playing an important part in politics and how there are lessons for the rest of the world when it comes to counterbalancing giants such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Our thank yous to O Globo for these valuable insights.

Brazil as an international case study

This election won’t stop surprising us. A few days ago, the most debated topic on Twitter was #caixa2doBolsonaro. On Google, it was the most researched topic relating to the elections. A news article by Patricia Campos Mello for Folha de S. Paulo accused companies — amongst them Havan, the largest chain of department stores in Brazil, whose CEO was fined for forcing employees to vote for Bolsonaro — of paying to send out millions of WhatsApp messages supporting Jair Bolsonaro for the presidency. Since this was not official, it would be considered an illegal donation [financial resources used to influence public opinion that are not declared to the official institutions are commonly known as caixa dois or caixa 2 in Brazil]. And so, with less than a week to go, the Brazilian election has become an international case study.

How do you measure the influence of fake news on people’s votes? It is not a simple question, but the impact is real and this election, brutally polarised, was marked by misinformation all the way through. WhatsApp has serious responsibilities in all of this.

Five years ago, when the messaging service became popular, the press used it to engage directly with readers and to distribute news articles. This was soon over for a few reasons. First because WhatsApp belongs to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg wanted to use Messenger to do this. And also because there was a real fear that if media were to spread information on the platform, WhatsApp would be drowning in spam — in Brazil, some newspapers as Extra were blocked from sending news articles to their readers and reported as spam by the platform.

WhatsApp is a digital environment where the press was not allowed and that was due to Facebook’s strategy. This decision is directly connected to the nasty campaign that we are witnessing in Brazil.

Since the press can’t use WhatsApp to distribute its legitimate content to millions of people, the ones using it to do so are unknown individuals or companies that work in the shadows. It is not possible to spread news articles, but it is more than possible to spread misinformation. And it is being done on a large scale.

WhatsApp implemented some rules to contain fake news by, as an example, diminishing the number of authorised resends. But those obscure individuals or companies realised that this could be overruled if the message was sent from foreign phone numbers. For the professionals of spreading misinformation, this measures meant nothing.

Political opponents of the front runner candidate are going to the Superior Court of Elections to contest PSL — the party that supports Bolsonaro — candidacy for caixa dois. It is not yet clear if they can prove it really happened. Jair Bolsonaro only said he has no say in what companies do to help his campaign.

The new age of censorship

Facebook was accused of irregularities during the US campaign of 2016, which led Donald Trump to the White House. Its tools to promote posts were utilised by companies such as Cambridge Analytica and allegedly by the Russian government to spread fake news that may have influenced the final result of the election.

Although Facebook denied taking part in any of this, since then they are reviewing their best practices. At the beginning of our electoral campaign, they got rid of profiles and different pages and changed the algorithm to prevent any kind of propagation of deceitful information. The American disaster did not repeat itself in Brazil.

The now cancelled Facebook group ‘Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro’

But we are witnessing a different kind of movement on this platform. Back in September, some of the administrators of the Facebook group “Women Against Bolsonaro” started to receive anonymous threats. By night time, they had lost control of the group. A few supporters of Bolsonaro took over, changed its name and started spreading campaign posts supporting the ex-military captain. By the end of it, Facebook blocked access to the group to everyone. This small story is incredibly revealing.

China no longer erases online comments that don’t please the government. Erasing would only make them more popular. Russia either, or even Turkey. The tactics of each regime differ in some aspects, but they all have the same goal: to confuse people by posting contradictory information.

Dissidents are then threatened. Photos of their families are leaked, personal adresses are published. They are bullied into silence, rendering them too afraid to write or say anything.

If previously censorship was to prevent publishing something, in the digital era it is impossible to do so. The tactic now is to generate confusion and make people move quickly to something else. Or by threatening dissidents aggressively. This makes the majority of our society question whether it is even worth to publish anything at all.

This is called censorship. Nothing that really surprises me from a campaign where torture, violence and dictatorship are amongst the most used words.

Pedro Doria is a journalist and an author. He has regular columns on CBN, O Globo and Estadão. He was executive editor of O Globo and editor in chief of online content at O Estado de S. Paulo. He is also Knight Latin American Fellow at Stanford University. He is also a published author, writing mostly about Brazil’s history.

The columns were translated and adapted by Catarina Falcao.