MA Jan. 6-style movement is gaining momentum on Facebook and WhatsApp Brazil. The eta has failed to prevent it, according to a report by rights groups.
Campaigning for Brazil’s next presidential election is currently underway, with the first round of voting scheduled for October 2. Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s rightwing populist president, has embraced comparisons to Donald Trump throughout his tenure and is now drawing from the former U.S. President’s 2020 playbook as he lags behind his leftwing opponent Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In recent months Bolsonaro has sought to sow doubt about the validity of Brazil’s democratic processes, warning repeatedly of the risk of fraud, and alleging without evidence that the country’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to interference. In speeches he has said that “only God” can remove him from office. Some of Brazil’s key military officials have echoed his claims of possible fraud, sparking fears that the world’s seventh most populous country could be vulnerable to a military coup if Bolsonaro is defeated at the polls in October.
“If need be,” Bolsonaro said at an election rally in June, “we will go to war.”
Content questioning the validity of the upcoming election is spreading rapidly on social media, according to a new report titled “Stop the Steal 2.0” that was shared exclusively with TIME by the non-profit watchdog SumofUs. The spread of this content is contributing to a Jan. 6-style movement gaining traction in Brazil—and Meta, which also owns Brazil’s most widely-used messaging platform WhatsApp, is not doing enough to prevent it, according to SumofUs. These findings are similar to a report by Global Witness published in August that found Facebook had approved countless ads with falsehoods regarding the Brazilian election.
Social media’s role in Brazil’s elections
It is difficult to understate the impact that social media has on Brazilian politics. The Reuters Institute estimates that 83% Brazilians receive their news online. WhatsApp is Brazil’s most widely used social media platform with 78% of users using it on a regular basis. 67% use Facebook. “Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian president, probably one of the few leaders in the world, who governs by social media, much more than Trump ever did,” says Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian journalist and political analyst who served as a spokesperson for Dilma Rousseff, one of Bolsonaro’s predecessors as president.
In the report shared with TIME, SumofUs identified posts, ads and private messages on Facebook and WhatsApp that it said contributed to “inciting a violent coup.” The report also identified ads from Bolsonaro supporters spreading electoral disinformation, with targets including Brazil’s Supreme Court and Bolsonaro’s political opponents. SumofUs asserts that ads published on Facebook during August violated Brazilian laws regarding political advertising beyond the campaign period.
“Meta has learned absolutely nothing since January 6 in the U.S.,” says Flora Rebello Arduini, a campaign manager at SumofUs and the author of the report. “We are seeing ads that are pushing not just for a violent coup in the country, but also narratives discrediting the electoral processes in Brazil.”
SumofUs identified 16 “problematic” Facebook ads that promoted the Sept. 7 rally, including one that included a picture of a combat knife along with military gloves and goggles. The report states that the 16 ads had been viewed more than 610,000 times. According to SumofUs, Meta deleted the advertisement with the combat knife but a similar post is still available on a smaller site. Rebello Arduini says while the report’s sample size is small, the ads it details are “just the tip of the iceberg” of the narrative being developed across social media.
Rebello Arduini also stated that Facebook seems to have lost sight of the larger significance of Sept. 7, and is addressing each post individually rather than considering them as part of an overall threat to Brazilian democracy. “You cannot assess specific isolated pieces of content or ads without actually putting them in the context of the country,” she tells TIME. “One size doesn’t fit all, unfortunately.”
Bolsonaro’s supporters are also using WhatsApp to undermine confidence in the election, according to the report. SumofUs monitored large groups of chats across the platform for a week. They found violent memes Sept. 7. “A war is not won in hours,” one example reads. “Sept. Sept. 7 is only the beginning […] Want freedom? FIGHT. Want your job? FIGHT. Do you want to defend your family’s interests? FIGHT.”
“We cannot comment on a report that we have not been given access to,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. “We’ve prepared extensively for the 2022 election in Brazil, working closely with local electoral and law enforcement officials. We remove content and accounts that constitute a credible threat to public or personal safety.” In mid-August, Meta announced it was banning ads that question the legitimacy of the upcoming election, and announced plans to activate an “election operations center” closer to voting day to “identify potential threats in real time and speed up our responses.”
“The concern of violence on the street is absolutely real,” says Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former head of elections who spent time in Brazil for the company during the 2018 election campaign in which Bolsonaro swept to power. Harbath states that Facebook has improved its policies significantly since last year’s election. This includes introducing labels to direct users towards reliable information from the electoral boards and improving its AI systems for detection of harmful language.
“What has not changed is the difficult question about where you draw the line with some of this content, and the question of when something rises to the level of imminent harm,” says Harbath, who now leads a tech policy consultancy called Anchor Change. “To me, that’s a story of how AI is not nuanced enough yet to know the difference between when somebody says, ‘let’s take to the streets and defend our democracy,’ whether they are intending to be violent or not.”
Meta’s own policies may be making it harder for researchers to point out the company’s flaws. Harbath warned against taking only the SumofUs’s findings as proof of its limitations. But the report’s authors told TIME that Meta had made it harder for them to do more wide-ranging research by rejecting their requests to access CrowdTangle, a tool that allows researchers to monitor the reach of posts and hashtags. Meta is reportedly planning to shutter CrowdTangle, following a slew of bad press stemming from researchers’ and journalists’ use of the tool. “That limits the ability of researchers to better look through what’s happening on the platform,” Rebello Arduini, the author of the SumofUs report, told TIME. “Facebook is again closing the circle and limiting the possibilities for researchers, civil society, and academics.”
Analysts in Brazil are worried that tensions will rise as a result of social media. “I don’t expect a coup attempt on Sept. 7,” says political analyst Traumann. “Bolsonaro wants to show the people are behind him, and then we’ll see what happens on Oct. 2. The danger will come on election day, the days before, and the days after.”
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