Brazil presidential election: Lula targeted by wave of disinformation

Bolsonaro’s online campaign is engaged in the mass production of ‘pure’ fake news for social media

Lula is a Satanist who will close Brazilian churches if he returns to the presidency. His Workers Party is allied with organised crime. His platform advocates instruction in masturbation in crèches and junior schools. And electronic voting machines are rigged to funnel votes his way no matter what.

Since former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva fell just short of outright victory in a first round of voting earlier this month he has been the target of an unprecedented wave of fake news ahead of a run-off on October 30th that will decide who will lead Latin America’s largest country.

“We are now seeing a stratospheric increase in the volume of fake news in all its forms since the first round of voting,” says Ana Regina Rego of the National Network to Combat Disinformation, an alliance of civil society groups devoted to tackling the problem.

Though in recent years the use of disinformation has become increasingly normalised across Brazil’s political spectrum, experts say the principal culprit is Lula’s rival, far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro as he seeks to overturn a six million vote deficit from the first round.


While Lula’s campaign has been ordered to withdraw video clips of Bolsonaro making statements about teenage prostitutes and eating human flesh because without the full context they allegedly sought to misrepresent him, the Bolsonaro campaign’s online effort, co-ordinated by his son Carlos, is engaged in the mass production of what experts call “pure” fake news for social media.

“With the campaign of President Jair Bolsonaro you have a very organised and consistent effort to use disinformation in favour of his candidacy. On the far-right there is a production line of fake news involving large scale producers, ad agencies and now partnerships with part of the traditional media,” says Rego.

As the scale of the problem has become apparent the country’s electoral court which oversees the campaign has belatedly moved to combat the dissemination of fake news across social media platforms. In a recent meeting with representatives of social media and messaging app companies the court’s president Alexandre de Moraes said the problem leading up to the second round of voting is “getting worse all the time”.

In a ruling he ordered increased fines for platforms that failed to remove fake news within two hours of being told to do so by the court. But there is deep frustration in the Lula campaign and among those involved in combating fake news that despite warnings about the threat it would pose to the election process the court has nevertheless been caught off-guard.

This is despite the fact Moraes has been in charge of a three-year long supreme court investigation into the use of fake news by President Bolsonaro and his allies that has come to focus on Carlos Bolsonaro.

The Bolsonaro campaign has responded to the latest efforts to combat the spread of disinformation by claiming it is the victim of censorship.

“The electoral court said those producing fake news in the campaign could be arrested and elected officials using the tactic could lose their mandates. But none of this has happened. All it does is order the taking down of fake news. But there is no real punishment and even then it is too slow in ordering its removal and the longer something is up the more widely it is viewed and shared,” says Gilberto Scofield Junior, a consultant with Agência Lupa, Brazil’s first fact-checking service.

Social media companies such as Google and Meta have also come in for criticism because of the role their platforms such as YouTube and Facebook have played in spreading disinformation.

The companies say they have a structural issue in identifying and removing content that violates their own terms of use. But critics say their failure to hire sufficient human monitors to complement failing artificial intelligence reflects a reluctance to remove content that generates huge engagement which they can monetise.

“I just don’t think the platforms are interested in tackling the problem because it would mean dismantling their own business model,” says Rego.

A 2021 survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found 82 per cent of Brazilians are worried about online disinformation, the highest among 46 countries surveyed. But in an increasingly tight race, with latest opinion polls showing Lula leading Bolsonaro by 49 per cent to 45 per cent, even people aware of the problem are engaging in the spread of fake news.

“Disinformation operates by manipulating emotions of fear and hate and in the current polarisation many people don’t care if it is true or not,” says Scofield. “Fake news is killing Brazilian democracy from within.”