WhatsApp skewed Brazilian election, proving social media’s danger to democracy

Misinformation via social media was probably the main winner in Brazil’s October 2018 election, playing a troubling role in boosting far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro to presidency.

Bolsonaro did not win 55 percent of votes thanks to misinformation alone. A powerful desire for political change in Brazil after a yearslong corruption scandal and a court decision compelling the jailed front-runner Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to withdraw from the race both opened the door wide for his win.

But Bolsonaro’s candidacy benefited from a powerful and coordinated disinformation campaign intended to discredit his rivals, according to the Brazilian newspaper Folha.

Days before the Oct. 28 runoff between Bolsonaro and his leftist competitor, leftist Fernando Haddad, an investigation by Folha revealed that a conservative Brazilian business lobby had bankrolled the multimillion-dollar smear campaign – activities that may have constituted an illegal campaign contribution.

Election scandal fallout

Using WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging service, Bolsonaro supporters delivered an onslaught of daily misinformation straight to millions of Brazilians’ phones.

They included doctored photos portraying senior Workers Party members celebrating with Communist Fidel Castro after the Cuban Revolution, audio clips manipulated to misrepresent Haddad’s policies and fake “fact-checks” discrediting authentic news stories.

The misinformation strategy was effective because WhatsApp is an essential communication tool in Brazil, used by 120 million of its 210 million citizens. Since WhatsApp text messages are forwarded and reforwarded by friends and family, the information seems more credible.

The fallout from Folha’s front-page report compelled WhatsApp to issue an apologetic op-ed.

“Every day, millions of Brazilians trust WhatsApp with their most private conversations,” wrote WhatsApp’s vice president, Chris Daniels, in Folha. “Because both good and bad information can go viral on WhatsApp, we have a responsibility to amplify the good and mitigate the harm.”

The company announced that it would purge thousands of spam accounts in Brazil, clearly label messages to show that they had been forwarded, tighten rules on group messaging and partner with Brazilian fact-checking organizations to identify false news.

Brazil’s highest electoral court also created an advisory board on internet and elections to investigate disinformation in Brazil’s 2018 election and propose regulations to limit its impact in future political processes.

It’s a WhatsApp-defined world

Brazil is only the latest country to learn that social media can undermine the democratic process.

Numerous studies have confirmed that a toxic blend of data mismanagement, targeted advertisement and online misinformation also influenced the outcomes of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Brazil’s WhatsApp election scandal should be a wake-up call particularly for other developing world democracies, as revealed in research I recently presented at the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum.

That’s because the conditions that allowed fake news to thrive in Brazil exist in many Latin American, African and Asian countries.