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How WhatsApp got Bolsonaro elected president in Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign tactics sounded familiar to anyone who has been exposed to Donald Trump’s own election trail: he promised to return to “traditional values”, to rid the country’s political system of corruption and uplift the economy out of a long and suffered economic slump. He held rallies and televised ads, and his presence on the major social media platforms was evident. What is less known to the international crowd is how the messaging platform ‘WhatsApp’ might have helped the far right candidate spread falsehoods and embolden his political momentum.

WhatsApp is extremely popular in Brazil: According to ‘Statista’ circa 68% of Brazilians were users in 2017, and a staggering 44% of voters use the social media platform as a source of political news. With the possibility to create groups of up to 256 members, end-to-end encryption on conversations and no third-party fact checkers, WhatsApp is the perfect platform for Brazilian propaganda spreaders. They have been forced out of other sites such as Twitter and Facebook thanks to stricter policies on the sharing of factually incorrect news and automated accounts, but have content running rampant on WhatsApp.

But just how false is the news spread on the platform? To determine the nature of information spreading through WhatsApp, the New York Times monitored posts shared in 347 politically-focused Brazilian group chats from August to October 2018. They concluded that of about 100,000 political images that circulated, only 8% could be considered fully truthful. And thanks to the app’s popularity, these images are thought to have reached millions of users.

The propaganda system operates on a complex pyramidal structure, according to experts from the ‘Institute for Technology and Society. A few content creators rely on coordinated efforts from group admins to ‘broadcast’ messages to their entire contact lists, which are then picked up and forwarded by the public.

Researchers from the institute have also found that at least 2 individuals in most groups showed signs of being bots used to catalyse information across the network of political group chats.

These coordinated propagandistic strategies reveal a purposeful effort to promote conservative party candidate Bolsonaro and his agenda. In fact, according to Brazilian newspaper “Folha de S.Paulo” the costs of this illegal campaign are being handled by a group of wealthy Brazilian company-owners sympathetic to Bolsonaro’s cause. On his part, the president has revealed to be fully aware of the practice, but declared “[he] has no control” over what wealthy supporters choose to do with their money.

Source: Unsplash

The Facebook-owned company has been widely criticized for its failure in controlling the spreading of false news on its platform, and refusing to partner with third-party fact checkers. Brazilian law enforcement had requested WhatsApp to limit users’ ability to forward messages for the period of time leading up to the election, as the company had already done in India. However, the app has declined to take action citing possible litigation over user privacy and rights and holding that any intervention from their part at such late stages would be inconsequential anyway. The only measure in place on the platform is spam detection, but this has been proven to be easily circumvented and does little to deflect the company’s accountability.

So, to what extent should be the messaging platform be held responsible for the spreading of false information on its app? For their part, Brazilian laws have done very little in protecting the public from the barrage of “junk news”. Their ‘Net Neutrality’ laws tolerate the practice of zero-rating, which allows internet operators to provide unlimited connection only to certain sites and apps, while charging users for any internet usage beyond them. This means that fact-checking information received through WhatsApp effectively costs them extra money, discouraging many from the practice. Furthermore, because the new personal data protection law has not been yet implemented, users’ personal info has been bought and sold by third parties paid to target them with advertisement, which included pro-Bolsonaro blasts on WhatsApp.

The Brazilian example has shown how thanks to more scrupulous regulations on the propagation of false news stories on the main social media platforms, propaganda diffusion efforts have shifted to more ‘underground’ channels such as WhatsApp. This reaffirms the responsibility that such companies have towards their users’ security: if the impact of your platform is so far-reaching that it is used to promote a political agenda, then measures to ensure that the news spread on the platform is a requirement to ensure a fair democratic process.

Valentina Calvi


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