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Election Disinformation in Brazil Concerns Analysts, Media

FILE - A demonstrator dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag stands in front of towels for sale featuring Brazilian presidential candidates current President Jair Bolsonaro, center, and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sept. 27, 2022.
FILE - A demonstrator dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag stands in front of towels for sale featuring Brazilian presidential candidates current President Jair Bolsonaro, center, and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sept. 27, 2022.

From claims of rigged polls to accusations that the presidential front-runners are cannibals or Satan worshippers, Brazil’s election has been marred by disinformation.

With millions heading to the polls on October 30 — and the result expected to be very close — analysts warn that Brazil could see a repeat of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, when supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol after false claims by former President Donald Trump and others that the election had been “stolen.”

Brazil’s incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro has similarly criticized the system of electronic polling, casting doubt on its reliability to record a fair result.

More recently, the right-wing candidate turned his attention to polling firms, which he accused of “lying” by putting him behind his rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Allies of Lula, meanwhile, made use of a 2016 video of Bolsonaro, in which the then-deputy said he would engage in cannibalism during a visit to an Indigenous tribe. Election officials banned the campaign video.

Philip Friedrich, senior research analyst for technology and elections at Freedom House, told VOA that disinformation from both sides is affecting the campaign.

“The nature of election disinformation has changed over the last month. Before the first round of voting, it was primarily about Bolsonaro and his supporters using election-denial tactics. For example, claiming fraud around voting machines without evidence to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote,” he said.

“Now, disinformation narratives are making sensational, decontextualized and potentially harmful claims about candidates. For example, that Lula consorts with Satan, and Bolsonaro embraces cannibalism,” Friedrich said.

A 2022 study for Britain’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that more than 70% of Brazilians think disinformation is a problem on Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and YouTube.

Friedrich said Brazil’s national electoral authority has taken “aggressive” action, including temporarily suspending the messaging app Telegram in March, after Telegram failed to comply with requests to remove disinformation.

Last week, in response to a series of online attacks on the candidates, Alexandre de Moraes, head of Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, was delegated power to order social media companies to remove disinformation.

But Friedrich said an approach that gives one person control over content can be problematic.

“Disinformation is obviously a major problem for Brazil’s democracy, but investing too much power over content moderation decisions in one person, so late in the election, could threaten people’s right to speak openly about the election during a critical moment,” he said.

Thiago Alves, a journalist with CNN Brazil and the online English-language Brazil Reports, has witnessed how false claims affect voters.

In September, one of Bolsonaro’s sons falsely claimed that Lula would close all churches. It appeared designed, Alves said, to stir fear among members of the Evangelical Church, a powerful political lobby.

“People like the Evangelicals were getting very scared about that. So, Lula released a statement stating his support for the freedom of religion,” Alves told VOA from Sao Paulo.

“There is a lot of other fake news, but I think this one got the biggest impact. Bolsonaro said Lula is a friend of [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega, and he is going to close the churches.”

Alves said that in his opinion, voters believed the messages in the “fake news machine” — a situation that can make interviews tricky.

“Bolsonaro supporters are very aggressive. They don’t like the media at all. If you ask them if they think Bolsonaro is a corrupt politician, you can find yourself in a dangerous position,” he told VOA.

During an October 12 rally appearance by Bolsonaro in Aparecida, a city in the Sao Paulo region, a crowd of 40 to 50 people surrounded a reporter and video journalist.

Alves was not at the event, but he said reporters there told him the crowd was “intimidating and shouting at them because they work for a local media affiliated to Globo TV,” one of Brazil’s largest broadcasters.

“Other professionals had to help them to get out of there,” he said.

Alves said he is careful with how he interviews people at Bolsonaro events.

“I already knew the questions I would ask them and the questions I would not ask them. In a demonstration of 60,000 people, they can become really aggressive in the blink of an eye,” he said.

“You must choose the right people you talk to, like families or elderly people. I interviewed a man with his family. But if you see a young man or a group of three young men, it is not a good idea to approach,” Alves said.

Alves conceded that choosing neutral questions meant he was exercising a kind of self-censorship.

VOA sent an email requesting comment to a spokesperson for Bolsonaro but did not receive a response.

Sergio Khalili, a representative for Sao Paulo’s journalists union, said journalists came under fire in much the same way as happened during the Trump presidency.

Journalists are harassed and threatened, “just like with Donald Trump because Bolsonaro says that we are lying,” he told VOA from Rio Janeiro. “It seems scary. We are targets of Bolsonaro and his supporters.”

Trump had a hostile relationship with the media, referring to them as the “enemy of the people.” Journalists were harassed at his rallies and online, and “credible threats” were made against news outlets, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The possibility of a close result amid large-scale disinformation and claims that the vote will be stolen has observers on “tenterhooks” that Brazil could be a repeat of events in the U.S., Friedrich said.

He also sees parallels with the election in Myanmar in November 2020, when there was a coup three months after the vote.

“Brazil’s democratic institutions are certainly more robust than those in Myanmar, and they have shown considerable resilience in the face of Bolsonaro’s attacks on the judiciary, opposition leaders and the media. However, social media activity offers an important window into emerging political movements, and the warning lights are flashing red in Brazil,” he said.

Some information comes from Agence France-Presse.