Natália Leal, director of Agencia Lupa, in her office and home in Rio de Janeiro.Leonardo Carrato
The bottles of penis nipples that the Labor Party (PT) planned to deliver to day care centers in the event of victory were the protagonists of some of the most notorious fake news of the 2018 election campaign, decisively scaring many voters and propelling Jair Bolsonaro to power. Four years later, fake news is once again spreading like wildfire on Brazilian cellphones, though instead of the threats of a perceived “gay dictatorship” or the return of communism, what’s more is the attack on e-voting, as explained in an interview at her home in Rio de Janeiro Natália Leal, Executive Director of the Lupa agency.
Leal leads a team of 30 journalists scattered across Brazil dedicated to the task of matching information, going to the source, searching for data, correcting or refuting political statements, and warning about fake news circulating on the internet like… snowballs grow. Today, these and other fact-checking agencies are furious. With candidates making dozens of declarations each day, the work piles up. TV debates, for example, are accompanied by these fact checkers in real time.
Much of the Leal team’s effort is to deny that a Venezuelan company will count the votes, that Brazil is the only country where votes are not printed, or that the electronic ballot boxes (which Brazil has been using for more than March 25) years and now Bolsonaro issues) cannot be examined. According to a recent IPEC poll, 85% of Brazilians believe that fake news can influence the outcome of the election. “It is the far right’s way of undoing things that are pillars of democracy. This work of destroying the institutional consensus has consolidated over the past four years,” laments the journalist.
During this time there has been tentative progress in the fight against disinformation. The Supreme Court launched an investigation to find out how the lie-spreading machinery installed around Bolsonaro, the famous “Cabinet of Hate” is funded, and a few months ago the electoral justice system signed agreements with the main platforms ( YouTube, Facebook, Instagram , etc.), WhatsApp, Twitter, etc.) so that the same mistakes from years ago are not repeated during this campaign. Still, Leal believes the platforms are doing “very little” in terms of the extent of their responsibility, and regrets that well-intentioned statements with few details can be found. It is still difficult for them to remove deceptive content, and most importantly, quickly.
YouTube, Facebook or Twitter have removed some videos in which Bolsonaro lied, for example when he attacked the polling stations during a meeting with ambassadors or linked Covid-19 vaccines to the risk of HIV infection. That’s not always the case, more often than not the President’s lies get out for nothing. According to a count by another verification body, Aos Fatos, since taking office, Bolsonaro has made 6,298 lies or false statements, many of which have been constantly repeated.
“That’s the big challenge, because it’s not just about what your uncle writes on WhatsApp. It’s the institutionalized lie,” says Leal, who particularly recalls the difficulties she and her team faced when it came to matching information during the pandemic. Official sources could not be used as automatically because the official sources were, for example, a health ministry, which at times and by order of Bolsonaro said chloroquine was effective against Covid-19, something without any scientific basis.
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In the post-truth era, lying is not exclusive to Bolsonarianism. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, who argues that his government has done much to promote transparency and fight corruption, usually boasts about the creation of the Financial Activities Control Council (COAF), actually owned by his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso. MP André Janones, a prominent rising Lulista with millions of followers on social media, also tends to skew reality in his favor, even defending the use of opponent’s methods to win elections. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” he said as he asked for as much misinformation to be exposed as possible, attributing Bolsonaro’s cuts to nurses’ pay claims.
While no one is free from fake news, there is no possible equidistance. Misinformation, the power of social networks and the discrediting of the press are in the DNA of Bolsonarianism and, according to Leal, have a lot to do with historical and cultural issues deeply rooted in Brazilian society: “In Brazil, the dynamic of disinformation has to do with privilege and power, with maintaining the status quo. The extreme right that we see in power in Brazil today arose out of a sense of loss of privilege created in a middle elite,” he says, pointing out that false narratives are created as part of this strategy, um not losing privileges.
Accustomed to attacks and threats, like many Brazilian journalists have in recent years, Leal regrets having to spend time planning how to get her reporters out of the country quickly in the event of a greater threat. He posits that the work of fact-checkers is a drop in the ocean because the majority of the populace who consume and spread fake news don’t stop reading his work or that of the traditional press, but despite this constant frustration, he asserts This now at least gives an awareness that there is a problem and emphasizes the importance of educating the youngest in appearance so that they are alert. “The path is education, and it’s not for this generation,” he warns. The eye will have to become more and more attentive. In this campaign, for example, videos created with deep-fake technology have prevailed, which, using artificial intelligence, put in the mouths of the most famous TV news presenters that Bolsonaro leads the voting intention polls, which has not happened until date.
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