Ariane Paquet-Labelle

With its polarizing candidates, tense political climate and rampant spread of fake news, the 2018 Brazilian Elections have caused quite a stir on the global stage. LSE post-graduate student Ariane Paquet-Labelle reports on what is a critical moment for the media as well as democracy.

An especially interesting aspect of this election is how candidates have chosen to run their campaigns on social media. It is where they can have the most control over messaging.

According to the 2018 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, the top three social media platforms used in Brazil are respectively: Facebook, WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook in 2014) and YouTube. The same report also states that more than 60 % of Brazilians said they used social media as a news source.

Social media

And so, Jair Bolsonaro, the populist candidate, chooses to live stream a speech on Facebook, instead of joining debates. What are the benefits of this decision? He avoids media scrutiny and criticism. He is less likely to be called out on what he says on a social media platform. In this way, Bolsonaro gains coverage in traditional media while also reaching a wide audience with direct messaging.

WhatsApp has been used to spread fake news, which are stories that are not based on facts. The spread of these stories about Fernando Haddad (who represents the Workers Party) have allegedly been linked to a network supporting Bolsonaro. Reports also indicate that phone numbers had been scraped from Facebook to be used on WhatsApp for bulk messaging.

On the other hand, we see prominent YouTubers with no previous experience, being propelled by their online platform onto the political arena. At only 22 years old, Kim Kataguiri is one of them; he just became a member of Congress. He talks about current affairs through memes, satirical videos, WhatsApp messaging, and continuously builds his audience. With this base, he created the “Free Brazil Movement”.

Social media is the focus for revelations of misinformation in Brazil [Image from boingboing.net]

What about the press?

Journalists in Brazil covering the elections have received many threats. Public Security Minister Raul Jungmann said he ordered an investigation into the threats directed at Folha de S. Paulo journalists (the ones who exposed the WhatsApp bulk messaging story with links to Bolsonaro). Similar threats have led a small newspaper called Divinopolis to stop covering the elections.

Media organizations are joining forces in fact-checking services, like on Comprova or Prove it, to try to fight fake news. But it is not enough to keep the conversation around elections healthy.

Social networks admitted they failed to stop foreign influence and spread of fake news during the 2016 American Elections. It’s not just in North or South America. There have been similar reports in Europe and Oceania, like most recently in New Zealand where China’s influence is growing. But the solution is not in the technology. Improving algorithms and filters on social media will only take us so far. It is the people who can stop the spread of fake news and demand more transparency.

This article byLSE post-graduate student Ariane Paquet-Labelle @Labell_A

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