An important part of the 2018 elections, fake news will still influence the electoral debate in this year’s cycle. Regardless of the debates happening in both Congress and the Judiciary, experts who spoke to Brasil de Fato are pessimistic about the fight against disinformation in the country.
“This process has expanded and is now influencing everything. For example, the covid-19 pandemic has generated news that favor those who discredit the disease, and a lot of people have died because of it. It’s not only influencing elections this year, but also behavior, and it will continue to do so”, explains Leda Gitahy, a political sciences professor at Campinas State University (Unicamp), located in the state of São Paulo.
For political scientist Rudá Ricci, legislation being proposed will no stop those creating fake news. “What is being suggested in Congress places some barriers to slow the spread of fake news, but the fact is that we actually have two problems, we recently had the Sara Winter case, whose Instagram account was deleted, but simply created a new one shortly thereafter. We need harsher actions being taken against the perpetrator, the criminal. Limiting their accounts online is not sufficient to stop them”.
Criticized by Ricci, Congressional Bill 2.630, formally called the Brazilian Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency Law, but widely known as the Fake News bill, may soon be adopted and is the closest thing to proper regulation of the production and dissemination of fake news.
The measure also displeased Leda Gitahy. “It strikes at the surface of the problem, not the structure, it doesn't go far enough, it places the responsibility on the ones spreading fake news. That doesn’t do anything, a pawn is removed and easily replaced. They make an algorithm that says certain words aren’t allowed, but news ones come up and the news keep circulating”, the expert criticizes.
The internet is already an important proving ground for elections, and will become more relevant in 2020 because of restrictions on movement due to the pandemic. This should favor the spread of fake news. According to Gitahy, there is a political movement that will exploit the use of fake news.
“The far-right is more prepared and mainly the ones using fake news, but they use disinformation in a sophisticated way. Look at Steve Bannon’s network, it works really well”, explains the professor, who is also the Online Disinformation Study Group coordinator at Unicamp.
Federal congresswoman Lídice da Mata, who leads the Parliamentary Fake News Inquiry Comission, is also pessimistic on the issue. “It’s very clear to me that while we don’t approve specific legislation to inhibit online disinformation campaigns, we will continue to witness the growth of this phenomenon. In my understanding the problem will persist in this year’s elections, influencing results, just like we saw in 2018”.
The Brazilian Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency Law was approved in the Senate on July 30th, and is now in the hands of the National Congress, where it awaits confirmation. Lawmakers are still debating the proposal, which may end up being altered.
The bill, which was introduced by senator Alessandro Viera, determines that social media companies must remove fake accounts, created “to impersonate or simulate third parties with the intent of deceiving the public”, thus avoiding the mass propagation of disinformation.
If approved in its current form, the bill also stipulates that social media platforms must limit the number of accounts per user. If reported, they must also identify the operators of these fake profiles. However, there is no punishment for the companies themselves in case of repeat offenses.
Ricci believes that only users can demand that social media networks commit to change. “Companies want profit, so if their target market, their clients, act in unison, the companies fall in line. If they perceive that their images is not being affected, they do nothing. There is no other way, only pressure from the average citizen will make these companies fall in line.”
The proposed measure also creates rules for chat apps, like Whatsapp and Telegram. Resending the same message will have restrictions and the number of participants in chat groups will be reduced. Furthermore, the companies will have to assure that users are consulted before having their phone numbers added to a mass text list.
On top of that, these apps must store, even if deleted by users, any message sent more than once, with data on the receiver, the date, time and how many times it was sent.
Lídice da Mata considers that “it’s hard to imagine we’ll have some silver bullet that will eliminate fake news from social media and chat apps”. For the congresswoman, cooperation from society at large will be fundamental. “It is necessary for users on social media and chat apps to realize that there are limits to freedom of speech. After all, freedom of speech cannot be confused with freedom to assault, to attack, to incite violence”, concluded the Fake News Inquiry leader.
Edited by: Mauro Ramos