Brazil Weaponised information and digitised hate

Diego Casaes and Tasodara Cordova

Brazil is the largest democracy in Latin America, with a population of approximately 208 million people. The country is classified as a “flawed democracy” by the Democracy Index 2018 (Economist Intelligence Unit 2016) and ranked 105 out of 175 on the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (Corruption Perception Index 2018). Although 66% of Brazilians have access to the internet, 49% access the internet only through mobile phones. According to a survey developed by the Center of Studies on Information and Communication Technologies (CETIC. br), a majority of low income citizens who do not possess a university degree predominantly access the internet through mobile, having very little access to computers (Domicilios, T.I.C. 2018). These data reflect a continental country with one of the highest rates of inequality in the world and an equivalent violence rate. Brazil’s disinformation phenomenon is deeply connected with its social and economic contrasts.

Brazil is not a mature or steady democratic system. (Power 2010). Brazil has cycles that alternate between violent and repressive governments and more democratic and participative periods. Even within the latter, repression and violence take place from the perspective of minorities, like LGBTQ and indigenous peoples. Structural violence and inequality, not yet fully addressed by government authorities, continue to rise, and it is now accompanied by a strong political polarisation (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2003) and social media dynamics, including the weaponisation of certain platforms. Key stakeholders use the internet ecosystem, especially social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, to spread disinformation and incentivise hate and prejudice against minority and marginalised groups. This is a role that has been historically conducted by traditional institutions, such as the legacy media, which has created harmful images and narratives against African-descendants, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ communities and women, depicting them in a way that creates division and prejudice. The role of the media in spreading prejudice and boosting hate has therefore been replaced by new/digital media, due to stronger regulations and public and government scrutiny over TV, radio and newspapers. The same dynamics apply to certain religious groups that also maintain a misogynistic and homophobic discourse. These old systems were easily transferred to social media, where there is fertile ground for the fortification of previous/offline networks.

The Social Confidence Index, which measures the Brazilian general public confidence in institutions has seen traditional media outlets lose 20 points in less than ten years, from 71% in 2009 to 51% in 2018 (“Confianya Do Brasileiro” n.d.).

In 2016, a Buzz feed Brazil report (Aragao and Silverman 2016) showed that the top 10 disinformation stories on Facebook outperformed verified stories, in the case of news on the anti-corruption operation called “Car wash”, (or Lava Jato). Anti-corruption motivated populist campaigns feed rising demands for responsive institutions (Bertozzi 2001) but also transform these demands to hate mongering using internet campaigns. As the economic crisis worsened, a 2017 report by the Public Policy Research Group on Access to Information of the University ofSao Paulo (GPOPAI/USP), led by Professor Pablo Ortellado, mapped over 400 Facebook groups deemed “political” and claimed that 12 million people (Martins 2017) in Brazil were, at some point, involved in spreading “fake news” in that social media platform alone. Facebook is part of an ecosystem composed mainly ofWhatsApp, the most used chat app in Brazil (120 million users); Ins- tagram, an images platform fuelled by sub-celebrities; YouTube, for free videos; and alternative sites, blogs and forums, used to host and nurture the core of a growing hate community.

Social and economic factors play a key role in setting the stage for disinformation campaigns in Brazil. Elite sectors in the country hold an advanced capacity to use and control social media. There is also an inequality in education and distribution of computational resources (Abdin 2019), allied to the high functional illiteracy rates; 29% of Brazilians are functional illiterates [INAF Brasil 2018]. In addition, there are strong networks formed by churches promoting discrimination, sexist and misogynist or white supremacist messages.

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