People on social media say, wrongly, that the leftist candidate in Brazil's presidential election wants to shut down churches. There are rumors that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wants to let men use the same restrooms as little girls in public schools. They are also saying things that aren't true like that right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has admitted to cannibalism and pedophilia.
In Latin America's largest democracy, rumors that aren't true and are spread for political reasons are circulating on social media, shaking up Brazilian politics in the same way that they have shaken up U.S. politics. Last week, Brazil put in place what some experts call the strictest limits on speech in the country's young democracy. This was partly because of the flood of false rumors.
It's a problem that social media brings up all over the world, especially in places where people are still trying to figure out how to balance modern technologyand free speech. Brazil has taken an especially harsh approach. Experts say that by doing this, the government has made people wonder how serious the country is about free speech.
According to Vicky Wyatt, a campaign director at the U.S.-based activist group SumOfUs:
What is happening in Brazil, on Facebook, on YouTube and other platforms looks awfully similar to what was happening in the U.S. around the 2020 election. An individual post might not have that much reach, but cumulatively over time, having this constant drip-drip has negative consequences.- Vicky Wyatt, a campaign director at the U.S.-based activist group SumOfUs
Overall, conservative channels make more content, and they also make more content that is false or has problems. According to a count by the Igarape institute, there were 99 million views on far-right YouTube channels in the eight days before and after the first-round vote on October 2, but only 28 million views on left-wing YouTube channels. Political experts and Bolsonaro's opponents are worried that if he loses, Bolsonaro's internet army could help him challenge the results by making false claims of fraud.
The country's highest election court, the Superior Electoral Court, said on Thursday that it would ban "false or seriously decontextualized" content that "affects the integrity of the electoral process." The court will act even if neither the prosecutor nor the complainant asks it to.
A mobile phone showing different social media apps
In the days before and right after the second round of voting on Oct. 30, social media companies like YouTube and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, will have just one hour, which is much less time than they had before. If a platform doesn't follow the rules, it could be fined up to $28,000 per hour or have its servers in Brazil blocked for up to 24 hours.
The president of the electoral court, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, said that the measure is needed because "this information and hate speech are aggressive." Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras, who was picked by Bolsonaro and is widely seen as a government ally, asked the Supreme Court to undo actions he said were against the law.
Aras said that they were a form of "prior censorship" that violated the Brazilian Constitution's rights to freedom of speech and the right to give and receive information.
During a hearing on Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed with the Electoral Court. Luis Claudio Araujo, a law professor at Ibmec University, said that the way the Brazilian Constitution talks about freedom of speech is similar to the way the U.S. Constitution talks about it.
The tribunal also put a stop to paid political ads on the internet two days before the election and one day after it. Many people who backed Bolsonaro were upset by the new measures. Some people said they were right because of how bad the online dirty war was.
Since the 2018 presidential campaign, when far-right groups were said to have spread a lot of false information to help Bolsonaro win, misinformation has become more extreme and organized.
According to Guilherme Felitti, founder of Novelo Data, which monitors more than 500 conservative YouTube channels,
In 2018 it was a kind of playground thing. It was more honest, in the sense that they ideologically believed in what was happening and simply created channels as a way to be part of the conversation.- Guilherme Felitti, founder of Novelo Data
Some of them have since turned their online activism into businesses that depend on money from ads and donations from their growing audience. This year, some people ran for office on their own.