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Fake news risks plaguing Brazil elections, top fact checkers say

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Brazil’s combination of political polarisation and passion for social media offers fertile ground for fake news in the run-up to this year’s elections, leading fact checkers have warned.

Claire Wardle, a Harvard fellow and the director of an organisation that coordinated fact-checking efforts during the French and UK elections, said political division combined with widespread use of WhatsApp, a closed-network messaging app, leaves Brazilians particularly vulnerable to misinformation ahead of this year’s elections. She is convinced the country will be a “fascinating” case study because, in some ways, it is more susceptible to propaganda than the US.

“Brazil has real challenges; it’s a very polarised landscape and closed messaging apps will be the biggest concern,” Wardle, the director of the Harvard-based First Draft, said in an interview. “The conditions that exist in Brazil are just ripe for people’s selective exposure, their confirmation bias, their tribalism.”

The fake-news debate that escalated in the world over the past year has left social media companies trying to fend off accusations that their platforms have been used to unfairly influence elections.

A similar discussion is growing in Latin America’s largest economy as Brazilians, among the world’s heaviest internet users, are set to elect a new president in October amid the dramatic fallout from the 2016 impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

Two populist-leaning candidates on the left and right of the political spectrum are leading opinion polls: former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party and ex-army captain Jair Bolsonaro, respectively. More moderate candidates trail well behind.

“When you have a polarised electorate, people want to connect with others who share the same worldview,” she said. “The emotional response to these issues is so strong, they’re a lot less likely to be critical.”

Fighting misinformation

Brazil’s electoral authorities are moving to tackle the problem. Luiz Fux, incoming president of the country’s electoral tribunal, will create a task force comprised of various authorities to combat the proliferation of fake news and draft a bill to curb the practice, local media reported. A law Congress approved last year also aims to fine Internet users who publish content aimed at influencing the election under a false identity.

Ahead of France’s presidential race last year, online, real-time fact checkers such as First Draft worked with newsroom partners to clarify false, misleading and confusing claims made online. That included stories, comments, images and videos. Bloomberg News was one of the organizations that partnered with First Draft.

Facebook And Twitter are newest battlegrounds in Brazil election

In Brazil, Facebook announced Jan 4 that it had selected Aos Fatos, part of the International Fact-Checking Network, to partner on the creation of a chatbot for the company’s messenger service. Wardle said that, while such a fact-checking bot can be created for Facebook Messenger, it can’t be done for Whatsapp because of the app’s closed nature. Facebook also owns WhatsApp.

Tai Nalon, director of Aos Fatos, sees WhatsApp as the most worrisome social media platform, particularly because shared audio files cannot be verified. Brazil is WhatsApp’s second-largest market, with 120 million users – more than half the nation’s population.

“Facebook worries me, too, but not as much as Whatsapp,” Nalon said in an interview last year. “It’s a black box. You don’t know how many people were touched by information, nor where it originated. It’s untraceable.”

A WhatsApp spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.

The good news, Wardle said, is there’s still time to counter the threat given Brazilian media organisations’ large footprint. She’s reaching out to them to share lessons learned in France and to see if First Draft can support a similar project in Brazil. Ideally, a collective operation could be up and running by May, she said.

“As we know about the psychology of misinformation debunking, familiarity plays a really important role,” Wardle said. “If you’re having repeated debunking claims being made across the landscape, that could make a massive difference.” — Bloomberg