Photo Credit: REUTERS/Nacho Doce
In November, Brazil held municipal elections with a number of surprising results, many from candidates who made strategic use of social media as a major campaign tool. Approximately 140 million Brazilians are regular social media users—roughly two thirds of the total population—which is to say that the political opinion and preferences of the electorate are modeled by their digital content. However, together with that trend, comes a dangerous upsurge of disinformation, which threatens the very democracy that the November elections sought to uphold.
Brazil’s controversial “fake news” bill is an example of how complex it is to address the inundation of disinformation and propaganda. Additionally, it also triggers reflections on the quality and flaws of both the Brazilian system and democracy in general.
The Internet Freedom, Responsibility, and Transparency Bill, popularly known as the “fake news” bill, establishes norms aimed at creating transparency on social media and private messaging. Its goal is to prevent the dissemination of disinformation on the internet, especially on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram. It does so by making telecom providers responsible for combating disinformation, increasing transparency of online sponsored content, and determining the mechanisms used by state authorities in implementing sanctions on companies in case of noncompliance.
The bill was introduced by Senator Alessandro Vieira (Cidadania-SE), and its first version was approved by the upper house in June of 2020. During its analysis phase in the Senate, more than 150 amendments, modifications in provisions, and attachments were made. Some of the crucial changes were: the bill would not criminalize the dissemination of false information; the penalty of USD $191,240 for political candidates who shared misinformation was removed; and collection of data from individuals would be limited.
After the approval of the proposed legislation—which consisted of 44 votes in favor and 32 against—the head of the Senate, Davi Alcolumbre (Democratas-AP) expressed his contentment saying that “the new bill is indispensable for protecting everyone’s honor and dignity [and that people should] acknowledge that freedom of expression cannot be confused with aggression, violence, or threat.” Although the bill was submitted to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber, it is still pending. Regardless, President Jair Bolsonaro already signaled that he would carry out a popular consultation before vetoing it.
By now, the bill has lost some of its traction. There seems to be no other reason for it to be held up in the lower house other than its highly controversial content that has led to divided opinions, not only between congressmen, but Brazilian society. Whereas some people think that the bill proposes reasonable and necessary measures to combat disinformation, others worry that it could be misused as censorship. What is more, some also argued that, even if it were adopted, the problem of disinformation would not be solved because of the inherent difficulty in identifying and collectively agreeing on what is considered fake news. The definition employed in the bill is ambiguous, which enables the state to arbitrarily sort out what types of information might be deemed false or offensive. Moreover, the bill disregards a bigger issue: the users that further spread harmful content. Rather than directly approaching the responsible accounts disseminating false information, it aims to “discourage the use of inauthentic accounts.”
On June 29, shortly before the bill was approved by the Senate, the Freedom House released a joint statement signed by more than 50 civil society entities—including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—referring to it as a “fast-tracked draft bill [that] brings concerns about undermining online speech and privacy.” In the statement, the organizations shared the view that the bill’s provisions were “poorly drafted” because some definitions were deemed “vague and extensive.” The statement warns that the provisions might lead to the detriment of the freedom of expression, as some of them impose a mandatory identification that would occasionally require users to present their national IDs and personal phone numbers.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google also released a joint statement opposing the bill. They refer to it as a “project of mass collection of data from individuals, resulting in worsening digital exclusion and endangering the privacy and security of millions of citizens.”
Civil society warnings about the potential threats posed by proposals addressing disinformation date back to April 2018 during Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign. Similar bills had already proved to be troublesome because they constrained private and intermediary platforms by urging them to check, and possibly remove or block, users. Yet disinformation’s definition has also been seen as a complicated matter given its comprehensive range of elements that can simply reflect everyday online forms of expression. Irrespective of how much transparency these proposals might promote, it is arguable that the approval of a bill of this kind could be used to endanger democracy, as much as it might seek to protect it, should leadership decide to take advantage of subjective legal verbiage to support partisan or biased decisions or constrain opposition voices.
The controversies and debates about the adoption of these tentative legislative mechanisms also enable us to shed some light on something that experts have pointed out as one of the causes for the spread of disinformation: confirmation bias. Humans are psychologically inclined to “seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.” This natural human feature is exacerbated by deceptive information, the manipulation of bots, and intelligent algorithms that try to feed us results that match our preferences with one-sided—and even legitimate—sources that create “filter bubbles,” another term used by digital analysts that essentially is a contextualized, online form of confirmation bias.
The 2020 Reuters Digital News Report evaluates the proportion of people in a given country who obtain their news from neutral sources. Out of a selected list of nine countries, Brazilians’ preference for “neutral” news sources was the lowest in the group, with 43 percent of the respondents affirming that they preferred sources that shared their point of view. All three surveyed media channels—television, print, and especially social media—gave preference to “partial news.” Interestingly, the same report indicates that 84 percent of Brazilian respondents said that they are concerned about what is real and fake in their online content. This proportion is the highest in the world and well above the global average of 56 percent.
This information becomes especially concerning when paired with another report released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), that finds that the top one percent of false stories are disseminated to between 1,000 and 100,000 people, while genuine news stories rarely reach even 1,000 individuals. The report also indicates that both the likelihood and velocity of the spread of falsehoods are higher than that of authentic information.
While disinformation and propaganda have long existed, the power and speed of modern-day information channels have magnified their dissemination to a threshold at which they have become a force of their own. In the case of Brazil, the expansion of digital access, and consequently that of social media, has magnified an already overwhelmingly vast social stratum with differing ideologies, education, political interests, and levels of contentment with government institutions. Now, social media has removed even this distance as people connect in a virtual free-for-all. The ensuing chaos of this digital Big Bang has allowed special interests and savvy influencers, both public and private, to promote their own agendas that are perpetuated through confirmation bias and the resulting creation of filter bubbles and echo chambers. The question is, however, whether it is prudent to create a legal measure—like the “fake news” bill, which could have unintended ramifications—rather than attempting to fix the root problems, such as education, that create a breeding ground for disinformation and propaganda to spread in the first place. In the end, a democracy is only as strong as its electorate is well-informed.
Diogo Tulio dos Santos is a Brazilian citizen pursuing an LL.M. in Transnational Crime and Justice at the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. He has a range of academic and professional experience in Brazil, the United States, Italy, Belgium, and Austria. You can connect with him via LinkedIn.