With just two days to go before the run-off vote on Sunday, Jair Bolsonaro is poised to win Brazil’s WhatsApp election. The far-right candidate, who is perceived by many to openly long for the return of military dictatorship, has been leading by double digits in the polls and benefitting from a seemingly spontaneous social media campaign that has overwhelmed the digital operation of his opponent, leftist Fernando Haddad.
Then, on October 18, Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported that a campaign to inundate voters with anti-Haddad propaganda, spread via hundreds of millions of automated WhatsApp messages, had been bankrolled by a consortium of businessmen. Undeclared campaign donations are illegal in Brazil, and the federal police are now investigating. WhatsApp has banned thousands of accounts, and although Bolsonaro remains the favorite, Haddad’s accusation that he is running an “industry of lies” has gained traction in recent days.
Brazilians are obsessed with social media. WhatsApp in particular is an indispensable tool—it can be used to schedule a doctor’s appointment, order a pizza, send anonymous tips to the police, and access public services. The app has 120 million users, communicating in groups of up to 256 people. It’s also a peerless platform for spreading misinformation.
“In other social media platforms, there is an algorithm selecting what content goes where. With WhatsApp you usually get content direct from people you know, and therefore you’re going to pay much more attention to the message,” says Mauricio Moura, the founder of market and polling research firm Idea Big Data. He notes the app’s role in the Colombian and Mexican elections—countries where people have similar online habits to Brazilians.
Although Facebook, which is more regulated in Brazil during election campaigns, is also widely used, fake news has flourished primarily on WhatsApp. A Brazilian study selected the 50 most shared political images from 100,000 posts, circulated among 347 public WhatsApp groups. Its stunning conclusion: only 8% of them were fully truthful.
As a result, though Facebook was a dominant source of fake news in the 2016 U.S. election and subsequent elections in Germany and France, WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) is the main source of misinformation in Brazil.
“Brazil is the first case of the use of fake news en masse via WhatsApp to influence an election,” says Laura Chincilla, the head of the OAS mission observing Brazil’s elections.
The sheer scale of fake news has been staggering. In one post, Haddad was “revealed” to have written a book defending incest. In another, his running mate, Manuela D’Avila, appeared with photoshopped tattoos of Che Guevara and Lenin. In a bid to dissuade Catholics from voting for Bolsonaro—who counts on an evangelical base of voters—a mocked-up newspaper article claimed that he would change the country’s patron saint.
The study’s authors are pressuring WhatsApp to limit the number of times a message can be forwarded and reduce the size of new chat groups. “These measures should be implemented temporarily during the campaign–it’s like putting a patient in quarantine to control the spread of disease,” says Fabricio Benevenuto, a computer science professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. The company says this cannot be done in time, although similar steps were taken in India after viral WhatsApp rumors of a child kidnapping prompted mobs to kill dozens of innocent people.
In one online video, Bolsonaro scrolls down a huge list of WhatsApp discussion groups praising his “spontaneous” support. According to Moura, there are 40,000-50,000 groups dedicated to Bolsonaro alone. These are incubators for pro-gun, pro-torture, and anti-abortion memes (and racist, homophobic, and misogynist comments that often originate with the candidate himself).
“Lies are sexy,” says Sergio Ludtke, the executive editor of Comprova, a consortium of 24 Brazilian media outlets created to cross-check information posted on social media, inspired by Harvard University’s First Draft project. The group encourages people to submit tips, via WhatsApp, about false content related to the election. Ludtke acknowledges that it’s hard to fight disinformation, but they are trying to make people doubt what they are receiving online. It’s the responsibility of all of society, he notes.
In one viral video, seen by 2 million people in two days, a statistician “proved” that Bolsonaro could be cheated of outright victory in the first round. The candidate, in a move ripped from Donald Trump’s playbook, has repeatedly warned that the election is rigged.
The Folha article is unlikely to change the eventual outcome, but it did interrupt what had become a virtual procession to the presidency. Several thousand groups have been suspended by WhatsApp (including, temporarily, the candidate’s son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro) due to “spam behavior” associated with their profiles.
In August, Eduardo Bolsonaro posed with former Trump aide Steve Bannon and posted the photo on Twitter: “We are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural Marxism.” The candidate himself denies any ties to Trump’s former strategist. “The workers’ party isn’t being harmed by fake news, but by the TRUTH,” he claimed.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro promises to “drain the swamp,” defends family values, and presents himself as the candidate of law and order. And just like the U.S. president, he constantly attacks the press. In a recent Datafolha survey, 61% of his supporters said that they got their information through WhatsApp, whereas only 38% of Haddad’s supporters cited the messaging app as their primary source of news.
The largest backlash, both online and on the streets of Brazil, has come from women organizing around the hashtag #elenao (#nothim). But for much of the electorate, fed up with rising violence, an economy in crisis and decades of endemic corruption, that Bolsonaro represents change is enough. As the candidate of former president Lula da Silva, controversially imprisoned on corruption charges, Haddad is tainted in the eyes of many.
After being stabbed in the stomach at a campaign rally, Bolsonaro could not take part in TV debates in the first round of the election. For a candidate short on concrete legislative proposals, this proved a blessing. “God has just given us another sign that good will triumph over evil,” tweeted his son, after the attack.
Despite being discharged from hospital, Bolsonaro has declined to participate in a debate on TV against Haddad before the vote on Sunday, October 28, confident that he is winning the debate on social media.