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Sao Paulo: Last Monday, on the eve of Brazilian Independence Day, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a provisional measure (MP) which prohibits social media firms from removing certain content, including fake news, from their networks. The order was signed by Bolsonaro just ahead of his September 7 rallies in Brasilia and Sao Paulo, where he said that he would lose the next year’s presidential election only because of fraud – a claim he has made repeatedly with fake news on social media. This has put the president on a collision course with the Congress and Supreme Court which are both investigating Bolsonaro and his sons for running a fake news racket.
Fake news sits at the heart of Bolsonaro’s presidency. With the new decree, which will lapse if not approved as full law by the Congress in 120 days, he trying to protect fake news from any oversight and removal by social media firms. The MP could be a major change in the Brazilian internet law of 2014 as it makes it impossible for social networks to control the dissemination of false information. As per Bolsonaro’s MP, tech firms can only act for a “just cause”, which does not include fake news; the decree also allows social media users to ask the government to punish the web platforms and restore a post if it is removed for being fake news.
According to the new measure, social networks can only delete posts or suspend accounts in the cases of fake profiles, accounts run by robots, posts that contain nudity, incite crimes and “acts against public security, national defence or the security of the State”. It prohibits action against any post on “political, ideological, scientific, artistic or religious” grounds.
By signing the decree a day before a major political showdown, the unpopular leader managed to fire up his far-right base which thrives on fake news. But it is also part of the long-term strategy of the president whose habit of spreading fake news has been challenged by the judiciary. Patricia Campos Mello, a journalist and author of the book The Hate Machine: Notes from a Reporter on Fake News and Digital Violence, warns that the measure will prove to be “an apocalypse” in the 2022 elections, if it is not rejected by the Senate. “This MP gives a free pass to politicians to say whatever they want on social media. It will be a free pass for disinformation; it is a blow to electoral integrity,” says Campos Mello, who sees it as a move by Bolsonaro to protect himself and not to meet the same fate as former US President Donald Trump, who was suspended by Twitter and Facebook after inciting violence at the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 6.
Campos Mello, whose best-selling book compares the use of social media for disinformation campaigns by populist leaders in Brazil, India, the US and other countries, fears a Capitol-like scenario in Brazil if the MP becomes a law. “Bolsonaro could post on his social networks with millions of followers that the election is being stolen in certain places and ask his followers to go wherever he points to,” says the journalist, adding that the social media firm will not be able to do anything as the law would restrict their options.
Another problem, says Campos Mello, is that the Big Tech have much stricter parameters for monitoring fake news in the US than in other countries. Earlier this year, the journalist wrote a story about how Bolsonaro’s Facebook lives had violated the community’s rules regarding COVID-19 more than 20 times. “But the platform has done nothing. In the US, especially after January 6, they know everyone is paying attention. But countries that are not so much in the spotlight, like Brazil and India, they don’t do anything because they don’t want to pick a big political fight,” said Campos Mello, speaking to The Wire.
Fake new factory
Brazil survived Bolsonaro’s raucous show of strength last Tuesday, organised mostly through social media, as he threatened to disobey the Supreme Court orders but stopped short of asking his supporters to storm the court building in the capital. As many of his far-right backers went back home dejected, it became clear that Bolsonaro’s rallies were more a dry run for the post-election scenario, as reported by The Wire, next year than a violent overthrow of the judiciary right now.
But with his high-pitched discourse in front of a restive crowd of his supporters – known as Bolsonaristas – in both Brasilia and Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro made it clear that there was only one thing on his mind: fake news. After raving and ranting about the “fraud” in next year’s elections and vowing to leave office only “prisoned or dead”, Bolsonaro turned his focus to Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who is presiding over a major investigation into fake news. Calling the judge a “scoundrel”, Bolsonaro declared he would not obey any decision by Justice de Moraes.
Bolsonaro has been clashing with the judge since the beginning of 2019, when he was appointed as rapporteur of the probe into the dissemination of fake news against the Supreme Court and its 11 judges. The investigation is looking for the persons responsible for a series of attacks – with fake news – on judges on social media. After sending several of Bolsonaro supporters to jail for the crime, Justice de Moraes made the president a target of his investigation after he made allegations of fraud in the last election, which he had won, and attacked the chief of the Federal Election Commission (TSE) with slanderous allegations in a Facebook live.
The Brazilian president’s problems with the top court do not end here. The Supreme Court is conducting another inquiry, also under Justice de Moraes, about groups that attack democracy on the internet. Known as digital militias, many of Bolsonaro supporters are a target of this major investigation, which is giving sleepless night to the president whose ratings are in a free fall as he fails to control the pandemic and check an economic meltdown.
In such a gloomy scenario, as Bolsonaro stares at defeat in 2022 elections, he is ramping up a false narrative about the election fraud – just like Trump – with quite a sophisticated social media machinery. Campos Mello, the author of The Hate Machine, explains how the ecosystem of false news functions in Brazil. At the core of this system is the so-called Hate Office, a digital strategy team that operates from a room in the presidential palace. “They do the network analysis, choose the issues they should attack and curate themes. This office works together with Bolsonarista bloggers and Youtubers and profiles on social networks, including Bolsonaro, his sons and supporters. This is done in a coordinated way and it works because the content is amplified at several levels. With that you can shape the narrative. That way they guide the discussion on social media,” says Campos Mello, who exposed the funding of a mass messaging racket on WhatsApp before the 2018 elections by pro-Bolsonaro businessman who swarmed the mobile phone app with hundreds of thousands of messages favouring the far-right leader.
After this series of reports, Campos Mello was attacked so virulently by Bolsonaro’s digital militia that she needed police protection as she was faced online harassment of a sexual nature. Bolsonaro himself and his third son, federal deputy Eduardo, made comments of a sexual nature about the journalist who works with the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. She went to court against them and won the case. “In January, right after I won a lawsuit against Eduardo Bolsonaro, he repeated his sexual comments in a podcast. Even today, I am being attacked by Bolsonaro’s digital shock troops, but it’s not as bad as before. Every time Bolsonaro targets me, hundreds of people call me names. They keep talking because they are sure of impunity,” said the journalist, who has won several awards, such as the International Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia University, the King of Spain International Journalism Prize and the ICRC Award for Humanitarian Journalism.
For the Bolsonaro clan, which includes the president and his three sons from his first marriage, fake news has turned into a double-edged sword. Having largely built their base and politics on social media with an incessant supply dubious information, the first family of Brazil is facing the heat from the two other wings of governance. Since March 2020, a joint parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI) has been probing the fake news phenomenon in Brazil. Interrupted due to the pandemic, the CPI will resume its work at the end of September and should go on till April 2022, when the campaign for next election begins. In addition to Bolsonaro, who is under the scanner for spreading lies about electronic voting machines, his second son Carlos, too, is in the crosshairs of parliamentary investigators.
As tensions rose in Brasilia in the past few weeks, the capital was abuzz with rumours that Justice de Moraes was about to issue orders for arresting Carlos in the fake news investigation as he is suspected of heading the Hate Office at the presidential palace. Carlos, a municipal corporator in Rio de Janeiro, spends most of his time in Brasilia and has even been seen attending official meetings with the president. Publicly credited by Bolsonaro for his victory in the 2018 elections, Carlos is known to handle the president’s social media strategy.
In May 2020, a report had revealed that Carlos had interfered in a bid by the Ministry of Justice to buy the controversial software Pegasus made by the Israeli defence firm NSO Group. A report had revealed that the president’s son wanted to create a “parallel” ABIN (Brazilian intelligence agency) with the snooping software. As the Pegasus scandal was exposed recently in many countries, including The Wire in India, a report here revealed that Carlos tried to import one more spying software, called Sherlock, from Israel. Carlos wanted to, according to the report, use the two tools together: While Pegasus would feed information to the “parallel” intelligence body; Sherlock would be used to monitor the government itself, said the report which has not been independently verified by The Wire but has been widely reported in the local media.
One step backwards
Damaged badly by the ongoing Senate probe into the handling of the pandemic by his government, the prospect of another parliamentary probe into fake news resuming soon is too unnerving for the president, whose approval ratings now hover around 23% and are likely to fall more as even as his core supporters desert him after the September 7 rallies. As Bolsonaro didn’t keep his promise of storming the Supreme Court on Independence Day, he has now become a target of far-right extremists who came all prepared for a violent showdown. On the other hand, the president is getting a major pushback from other institutions. A day after the rally in Brasilia, Supreme Court Chief Justice Luiz Fux accused Bolsonaro of committing a “crime of responsibility” – an impeachable offence.
Isolated and humiliated, Bolsonaro issued a 10-point “Declaration to the Nation” on September 9, claiming that he had no “intention to attack” the other centres of power. The same day, Bolsonaro spoke with Justice de Moraes over the phone, leading to speculation that he was trying to make peace with the judge who can undo his presidency. But the move evoked a sharp reaction from his base, with many calling him a “coward” and claiming that they were “betrayed” by the president.
As Bolsonaro can’t afford to lose his fanatic base amid the crises plaguing his government, he is back to pleasing them with the promise of more fake news. On Saturday, after a Supreme Court judge sought clarifications from the government on the provisional measure signed by Bolsonaro to regulate the removal of content by social networks, the government responded by saying the move was designed “to protect the freedom and rights of users”. “The companies that control the big social networks cannot have the absolute power to freely define what citizens can or cannot say in the virtual environment… Furthermore, the big techs cannot impose on society the lines of thought that interest them the most,” the presidential secretariat responded.
In Brazil under Bolsonaro, fake news is all about the freedom of expression and his supporters must have it. That is also the only way he can sustain his false narrative and remain in power.
Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.