Fake news spreads over WhatsApp ahead of Brazil's presidential election

Federico Mansilla
Octubre 22, 2018

WhatsApp banned hundreds of thousands of accounts in Brazil as the Facebook Inc. messaging service struggles to contain political shenanigans ahead of a runoff election in Latin America's largest country. "I know that this violates the law but I can not learn about it [in advance] and take measures [to prevent it]", Bolsonaro said, as quoted by the Antagonista news outlet. But WhatsApp has been flooded with falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

WhatsApp has more than 120 million users in Brazil, a country of almost 210 million, rivaling the reach of Facebook's main platform in one of the company's biggest global markets.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is the preferred social media service for Brazilians.

The election's first-round vote on October 7 underscored the major role that social media now plays in Brazilian politics.

Polling firm Datafolha found that two-thirds of Brazilian voters use WhatsApp.

The messaging app allows groups of hundreds of users to exchange encrypted texts, photos and video out of the view of authorities or independent fact checkers, enabling the rapid spread of misinformation with no way to track its source or full reach. That would amount to soliciting illegal campaign contributions in what they call an "abuse of economic power" undermining the election.

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On Thursday, newspaper Folha de S.Paulo had reported that supporters of the far-right candidate had funded mass messaging attacks against leftist rival Fernando Haddad. Haddad said his party had witnesses who heard Bolsonaro encouraging business leaders to fund the efforts.

Bolsonaro, who is expected to win the Brazilian presidency by a landslide in the second round of voting on October 28, has denied the accusations, saying he is not responsible for what his supporters might do.

Brazil's federal police also opened an investigation into allegations of spam message campaigns on WhatsApp related to the election.

Haddad's allies argue that the scandal should invalidate the election. The latest survey, taken before the initial report was published, showed Bolsonaro enjoying 59 percent of the vote, compared to Haddad on 41 percent.

Still, the allegations have tensed up an already angry and polarized electorate and are likely to hang over the next government.

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