Brazil’s Fake News Problem is Made Worse by Federal Police Oversight

Brazil, like many countries, has a fake news problem. In fact, a BBC World Service poll last year indicated Brazilians are more worried about fake news than citizens of any other country. Of more concern than simply the proliferation of fake news is the way that Brazil’s government has recently chosen to combat it ahead of the October elections. Brazil’s Federal Police, backed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal which oversees elections, announced it has formed a task force to take on fake news and punish its authors. (This declaration came in, of all forms, a tweet.)

Image courtesy of André Gustavo Stumpf, © 2011, licensed under CC BY 2.0. No changes made.

This aggressive stance adopted by Brazil’s government to tackle fake news merits serious scrutiny. As the Committee to Protect Journalists notes, deciding what is “fake news” – and who decides this – is “extremely thorny.” For the government (via its militarized police force) to be in a position where it may be deciding what is true and what is false – and therefore punishable – is simply dangerous.

Officials are pointing to 1983 laws created under dictator rule as basis to justify any action. Just what such action would look like is presently vague, but ominous enough to cause concern: would simply an amateur blogger generating fake sensational smears for click revenue face charges? Or could an investigative journalist reporting on corruption within the government for a major news source also be silenced and jailed?

Why fake news thrived in Brazil to such an extent is in part due to its political climate, which has been exceptionally divisive in recent years, as the Operation Car Wash scandal and connected schemes continue to play a significant role in the country’s narrative. The massive scandal that began in 2014 has resulted in the conviction of nearly 100 politicians and officials and the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff; 238 of 594 members of both houses are being investigated on corruption allegations.

At the height of the Operation Car Wash revelations, fake stories received more engagement than real ones, according to analysis by BuzzFeed Brazil. When former President Dilma Rousseff faced impeachment in 2016, three of the five most shared stories on Facebook were false.

Political biases have become all the more entrenched in this current election as two divisive candidates lead in the polls, making it fertile ground for the spread of fake news on all sides. The Workers’ Party candidate, former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, served consecutive terms from 2003 to 2011 and garnered popularity for his social welfare programs (and for the commodity boom that coincided with his rise). Last year, he was convicted of corruption and money laundering, charges which he not only denies, but also says will have no effect on his presidential bid. But Da Silva faces prison time for these charges. Recently, Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice denied his request to avoid jail; he will likely appeal the decision to the country’s top court.

Polling in second place is Representative Jair Bolson, “Brazil’s Donald Trump.” Infamous for his incendiary remarks against women, the LGBT community, and Afro-Brazilians, the former military paratrooper once called for a return to dictatorship. Recently, he has been implicated in a corruption scandal of his own; he calls such allegations fake news.

As the United States reconciles with the elaborate fake news operation launched by Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, inevitably there will be more calls for accountability for the fake news crisis around the world. Elections this year will take place in the Americas not just in Brazil, but also in Mexico, Colombia, and, of course, in the United States’ on the legislative side. The impact of fake news is a consistent and real concern throughout.

So if not through restrictive government clampdowns – how ought fake news be addressed? Technology giants like Facebook and Google should be part of the dialogue to determine a solution, as should academics, news organizations and civil society. But, even as Google and Facebook are taking some measures to tamper fake news, they consistently deny a role in discerning what is truth and what is fiction.

As easy as it may be to blame fake news on an algorithm, it is important to remember what drives these algorithms: readers’ choices. Fake news may be a new label – and indeed, we may be seeing new repercussions on the democratic processes – but sensationalized scandals and false conspiracies have long existed. Ultimately, the solution to fake news will have to be in part driven by demand: we, as news consumers and as citizens of democracy, must take ownership of what we read, click, and share.

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