Brazil flag in "grunge" style.

Brazil Holds Election Amid Disinformation, Propaganda Crisis

Imagine, if you will: A presidential election in which even the most basic facts are riddled with confusing disinformation, a far-right candidate appealing to authoritarians and repulsing many women with misogynistic comments, and connections to political aspirants such as Marine Le Pen and Steve Bannon.

This is Brazil in 2018, and the person who was projected to win the race is in jail, which effectively kept him out of the election.

In the power vacuum that has followed Lula’s imprisonment, Jair Bolsonaro has more than a fighting chance at leading a country that has swung hard right. In the final days of campaigning, under a cloud of fraudulent news and in the aftermath of a stabbing attack, Bolsonaro has pulled ahead of other candidates.

Much is at stake in Brazil’s elections, which are for president, 27 state governorships, much of Congress and the majority of its Senate and Chamber of Deputies, and the races have been remarkable for their volatility and unpredictability — aided by various over-the-top statements from Bolsonaro and his running mate:

“From what I see in the streets, I won’t accept any result that is not my election,” the populist politician told Brazilian broadcaster TV Band.

Bolsonaro, a retired army captain, has led an ill-tempered campaign in what has been Brazil’s most polarizing election since the country’s return to democracy in 1985. He has previously said he doesn’t trust Brazil’s top electoral court and accused the rival left-wing Workers’ Party of resorting to fraud as its plan B in the upcoming vote.

His right-wing running mate, retired General Hamilton Mourao, has also said that Brazil’s armed forces should launch a coup if the judiciary is not ridded of political corruption.

The Bolsonaro campaign has so far not provided any evidence of potential voter fraud.

The race has been riddled with disinformation and propaganda spread by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but especially on WhatsApp. The social media landscape has become so divided that politicians are appealing for unity:

“Today, separating rationality from emotion is becoming almost impossible in Brazil,” writes Portuguese journalist Manuel Serrano. “Reason is increasingly unable to moderate political debate.”

Emotions are so high that an attacker tried to kill the leading candidate, Jair Bolsonaro of the far-right Social Liberal Party, on Sept. 6. From a hospital, Mr. Bolsonaro now campaigns over social media to his 8.5 million followers. But in a sign of how much fake news dominates social media, of the 1.7 million mentions on Twitter about the attack, more than 40 percent doubted that it happened.

The polarization of Brazil led a former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to make a public appeal for voters to use the campaign to build cohesion. He asked that people talk to all members of society, not only those they agree with. In addition, Brazilian news organizations as well as Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) have been working to counter fake news and hate speech that appears on social media.

Corrosive hoax stories have been a matter of concern for months. As the University of Texas’s Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas reported in June 2018, even measures against so-called “fake news” have been used against journalists:

The journalist Natalia Viana, director of Agência Pública, published in the May 25 edition of the weekly newsletter of the publication her account of the debate about “fake news” that happened in the Chamber of Deputies on May 22, the day before the launch of the parliamentary front. According to her, the event became “an arena for attacking journalists.”

Viana said that one of the guests of the event was Carlos Augusto de Morais Afonso, who, after a story from newspaper O Globo, was revealed to the public as the creator of the site Ceticismo Político (Political Skepticism). In March, the site helped to amplify fraudulent news about councilwoman Marielle Franco, of Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL), the day after her murder in the center of Rio de Janeiro. Anderson Gomes, driver of the car in which she was riding, was also killed in the attack.

According to the director of Pública, Afonso used his time in the debate in the Chamber of Deputies “to attack fact-checking organizations Agência Lupa e Aos Fatos.” The two agencies were targeted by online attacks due to a partnership with Facebook, launched May 10, against the spread of fake news on the social network.

In the debate, Afonso presented the results of a “dossier” with posts from Lupa, Aos Fatos and Pública journalists from their profiles on social networks. In the document, journalists are ideologically classified as “left”, “extreme left” or “undefined,” and this classification is used to question the reputation of the agencies. “That is, exposing and attacking journalists for doing journalism,” Viana wrote.

The few fact-checking outfits that are debunking Brazilian disinformation and misinformation are not enough, especially in light of a burgeoning human rights crisis that is taking place along its northern border, as the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate:

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the economic and social collapse that has led to runaway inflation (+2,600% in 2017 and an estimated +13,000% in 2018 according to the IMF and deficiency in several major social sectors such as health and education.

These inflation rates have brought about serious shortages that have led to problems of malnutrition and the development of diseases such as skin infections, malaria, and diarrhoea. The majority of medicine and surgical equipment is now lacking, and hospitals have problems with regular water supply.

From January 2017 to May 2018, an estimated 52,000 Venezuelans have entered Brazil and approximately 800 continue to cross the border each day. Authorities are expecting the continuation of a dense flow of arrivals on the territory.

The massive upheaval and demographic changes taking place against a backdrop of a long election cycle in South America’s relatively young democracies make Brazil especially vulnerable to far-right authoritarian messaging, such as that offered by front-runner Jair Bolsonaro:

Bolsonaro, a seven-term congressman who has praised the old military dictatorship here, has seen his support extend beyond the fringe amid a failure of Brazil’s traditional political classes, which have been deeply tarnished by corruption. Bolsonaro, in contrast, is viewed as a relatively untainted outsider. He has won backing, even among voter groups he has insulted, by zeroing in on the three issues Brazilians care most about: the economy, corruption and a crime wave, which he has vowed to tackle with zero tolerance.

“I voted for Bolsonaro because I’m tired of politicians being the same,” said Maria Aparecida de Oliveira, a 63-year-old housekeeper casting her ballot in an upper-middle-class district of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. “Even if he is a little crazy, someone needs to bring change.”

Notorious “political strategist” Steve Bannon, who has been tied to the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, has also made an appearance in Brazil’s election. “It was a pleasure to meet STEVE BANNON,strategist in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign,” tweeted Jair Bolsonaro’s politician son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who in the final days of the race was charged with threatening a female journalist. “We had a great conversation and we share the same worldview.He said be an enthusiast of Bolsonaro’s campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces,especially against cultural marxism.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro also claimed that his father is part of a “global movement” that includes, among others, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump. The Brazilian establishment is terrified, he says, “because they know how much we are going to change things.”