Disinformation and fake news spreads over WhatApp ahead of Brazil’s presidential election

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Over the past few months, the 120 million Brazilians who use WhatsApp, the smartphone messaging application owned by Facebook, have been deluged with political messages.

The missives, spread through the country by the millions, have targeted voters before Brazil’s fiercely contested presidential election. A final runoff between a far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, and Fernando Haddad, the leftist Workers’ Party candidate, will be on 28 October.

One popular WhatsApp message displayed the name of a presidential candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, next to the number 17. When Brazilians vote, they punch in a number for a candidate or party in an electronic voting machine.

But the information in the photo was wrong. The number 17 was for Bolsonaro’s party. Da Silva was no longer even in the race. His running mate, Fernando Haddad, had taken his place. Brazil’s top electoral court ruled on August that da Silva, who is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption, cannot run for a third term.

The misleading message was just one of millions of photos containing disinformation believed to have reached Brazilians in recent months. A study of 100,000 WhatsApp images that were widely shared in Brazil found more than half contained misleading or flatly false information.

Whether the tide of disinformation can be curbed before the election is a crucial test for Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company. As the midterm elections in the United States grow closer, Facebook sees its handling of Brazil’s election issues as a way to convince the public it is far more prepared to deal with organised disinformation campaigns than it was before the presidential election two years ago.

Brazil is the latest in a string of countries where social media disinformation has been used to influence real-world behaviour. In India, the spread of false news has led to violence in a number of parts of the country. In Myanmar, Facebook has been used as a tool of the military to aid in the ethnic cleansing of thousands. And in the United States, disinformation continues to be an issue on a range of social media platforms.

WhatsApp presents particular challenges for people trying to prevent disinformation, which is usually spread among small groups of up to 256 people, lending it a sense of authenticity.

The app is also an end-to-end encrypted service, which means outsiders cannot see what is in a message — including WhatsApp and Facebook. This makes it impossible to determine the true amount of false news. Fact-checkers cannot rebutt viral hoaxes and misinformation they cannot see.

It does not help that many Brazilians view the work of the fact-checkers as part of a nefarious effort by big corporations like Facebook to shield Brazilians from the truth.

“When we do the debunking, a lot of times people just don’t trust the debunk,” said Leonardo Cazes, an editor working on the “Fato ou Fake” news literacy project with O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper.

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