Social media platforms are failing Brazilian voters
The stakes couldn’t be higher in from Brazil election. Yet tech platforms are predictably failing to keep up with the moment.
More than 120 million Brazilians voted in the first round of elections on October 2. A runoff on October 30 will determine Brazil’s next president.
This election is likely to be a critical essay for democracy and the rule of law in the country, with consequences that go beyond its borders, given the size and influence of Brazil. In recent years, President Jair Bolsonaro, who is running for re-election, has sought to undermine trust in the electoral system, alleging, without providing any evidence, that it is unreliable. On October 17, just two weeks before the second round, Bolsonaro once again interrogates reliability of the electoral system.
As we have seen in elections around the world, social media platforms and private messaging apps have become the de facto public square for campaigning and public debate in Brazil. Technology platforms have a responsibility to respect human rights. This includes the right to participate in democratic elections.
Brazilian civil society warned on the spread of election-related disinformation. And in February, the Superior Electoral Court signed memos agreement with Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Instagram, YouTube and Kwai in an effort to stem misinformation during the election process. But the platforms have largely failed in their responsibilities. And as expected, the spread of electoral disinformation risks undermining Brazil’s democratic process.
On election dayand that the vote count was in progress in the following days, posts and videos containing misinformation and allegations of voter fraud began circulating on social media. WhatsApp and Telegram groups with supporters of President Bolsonaro circulated messages saying that “if Bolsonaro did not win in the first round, it would be because the elections were fraudulent”. According to the Superior Electoral Tribunal, misinformation reports significantly increased compared to the first round. The TSE reported receiving 5,869 complaints in the first 11 days of the campaign resumption, representing almost half of the complaints received for the campaign at that time. Complaints increased by 1,671% compared to the 2020 municipal election.
People with hundreds of thousands of followers claimed the count was fraudulent. This Tweeter, for example, suggested the “cheating” began on a 15-minute break by the electoral tribunal, insinuating it would favor Bolsonaro’s opponent. The tweet is still live, has over 30,000 likes and contains no links to information from election authorities, official election results or other specific information. Other tweets remain online that explicitly claim voter “fraud” without any credible information, and do not contain a label or link to authoritative information.
There are three key dimensions to this problem:
First, Brazilian civil society groups noted that no platform outside of Twitter has a policy of preventing calls for insurrection against the democratic order or interference with the peaceful transfer of power that do not explicitly call for violence. This means that platforms could be used to organize and promote anti-democratic actions in the event of an institutional crisis after the elections.
Second, when it comes to voter fraud, the platforms have very different policies, and even the strongest ones are not always enforced. Meta publicly available Strategiesfor example, prohibit the promotion of paid content alleging voter fraud, but do not address similar unpaid content.
A investigation by the Netlab of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro found that Meta allows certain content to circulate on Facebook and Instagram, even after it has been classified as election misinformation by independent fact-checkers, in some cases without a label. Most of the research messages argued that electronic voting machines are unreliable and that it would be easy to rig the election. The study also found that the profiles of those posting the most election misinformation were politicians.
Another netlab study documented at least four instances of paid advertisements on Meta services containing unsubstantiated claims questioning the reliability of the vote count.
Twitter has a Politics on civic and electoral integrity. But as the tweet repeating false claims of voter fraud shows, the company doesn’t always enforce the policy correctly. YouTube’s Election Integrity Policy is limited to false allegations of voter fraud in past elections.
A survey by data analytics consultancy Novelo Data published by Folha de São Paulo found that from October 2 to 15, 16 live streams and 137 videos were posted on YouTube with allegations of fraud without evidence. In total, the content had at least 3.3 million views. A lot of that contents is still available. Telegram is an outlier. He has not published a policy to combat misinformation and attacks on democracy, and he failed act on his March Commitments. Telegram and WhatsApp would be the main platforms used to spread disinformation about the electoral process, with groups and channels with tens and thousands of followers dedicated to spreading this narrative. Closed messaging platforms pose distinct challenges for detecting and reducing misinformation.
Third, technology platforms have a history of bend their rules for powerful players, and allowing politicians to get away with speeches that violate their policies. Access to what politicians say is indeed crucial to holding leaders accountable. But being more permissive of powerful actors can allow them to incite violence on these platforms, or cause other harm, with little consequence.
Since politicians have more influence in society than ordinary people, their statements actually have much more potential for harm. Many of Brazil’s biggest fake news spreaders are at the highest levels of national politics. Much of the distrust of Brazilian electoral system was propagated by President Jair Bolsonaro and his sonswho are also politicians.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Google/YouTube, Meta, Telegram, and Twitter to inquire about their efforts to mitigate voter disinformation during Brazil’s elections. No company answered our specific questions directly, but Meta said it had established tools that promote reliable information and label election-related messages, established a direct channel for the Superior Electoral Tribunal to send potentially harmful content to it for review, provides data access on content removed from Facebook and Instagram during the campaign period, and continues to work closely with Brazilian authorities and researchers.
Twitter’s written response pointed out its Civic Integrity policywhich deals with misleading information that could impact the integrity of civic processes, says it remove and/or add tags and context to misleading and harmful Tweets and reduce their visibility. Twitter notes that opinions and differing views and interpretations are not necessarily actionable under its policy.
To fulfill their responsibilities, platforms must promptly comply with orders from the Superior Electoral Tribunal to remove election disinformation. They should also fill gaps in their policies and make them respect to ensure that they comply with Brazilian law participate in democratic elections. This requires adequate resources to protect the integrity of elections and civic discourse and to be transparent with and responsible for their actions. Platforms should also hold politicians to a higher standard for speech that could incite violence or spread harmful misinformation that could undermine the democratic process.
Targeted efforts to counter election disinformation are necessary but insufficient. More generally, platforms need to address their chronic underinvestment in user security around the world. Regulators should address rights violations facilitated by underlying business models of dominant platformsthat rely on massive collection of personal data to sell access to people’s attention and are largely designed to prioritize their “pledge” over human rights.
*A version of this article was originally published at UOL.