Fake News

Telegram, fraud in the elections and far-right are the recipe for misinformation in 2022

In an election year, far-right groups are dominant on the platform, where they disseminate false information on fraud

Translated by: Ana Júlia Guedes

Brasil de Fato | Brasília |
The recent and constant roars of the president and his allies about the alleged fragility of electronic voting machines are a representation of it - Alan Santos/PR

If in the electoral year of 2018, the fake-news-messages that circulated the most on social media were somehow related to the candidates themselves, the ongoing now are the ones that question the electoral process itself, according to the specialists heard by Brasil de Fato. The recent and constant roars of the president and his allies about the alleged fragility of electronic voting machines are a representation of it

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It's no coincidence that the agenda is also "dominant" in the far-right groups from the deeper layers of Telegram. In these more underground platforms, such as Telegram, the far-right has complete dominance. "And the most shared [contents], the topics and narratives that have the most prominence in the groups that we analyze are not those directly connected with the allegation of frauds in the electronic voting machines, but with those that question the legitimacy of the institutions that guarantee the result of the election", affirms Letícia Cesarino, professor and researcher in the Anthropology Department and in the Program in Social Anthropology (PPGAS) of the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).

In his latest statement, the retired captain affirmed that the Liberal Party, of which he is part, will hire a private company to audit the elections. "The company will ask the TSE [Superior Electoral Court] for some information. What could happen? This company, that makes such auditing all over the world, can reach the conclusion that, with what they have access, it was not possible to audit. Look at how far this could get”, Bolsonaro said.


Bolsonaro's supporters at antidemocratic rally in 2021 september 7th  / Miguel Schincariol / AFP

“It has always been there, but this year the agenda gained strength,” says Leticia Cesarino. “On September 7th, for example, an agenda that gained prominence was the vaccine passport, but in a kind of crossover with the fraud at the voting machines. There were rumors that unvaccinated people would be unable to vote. So even if it was not their agenda [at that moment], the topic has always been circulating at least since September. "

His moves are lot alike those made by the former president of United States, Donald Trump. Even before losing last year's election to Joe Biden, the businessman had already pointed out to an assumed fraud in the election. "Anyway, nothing matters because the polls in California are totally manipulated", affirmed Trump back then. Even after being defeated, he did not recognize the results of the polls, provoking his electoral base to rebel, leading them to storm the Capitol.

Revealing truths

According to Cesarino, one of the characteristics of these far-right groups that inhabit the underground of social medias is revealing truths that the press and opponents want to hide. "The way they present themselves, as content creators, has to do with the idea of being the ones to reveal the reality media hides. And that's how they conquer the fidelity and loyalty of these followers ", affirms the researcher.

Revealing truth is also what the president Jair Bolsonaro affirms to do. In last year's July, for instance, he promised to show evidences that a fraud would've occurred in the voting system during 2018 polls. Back then, he says, he would've won the election already in the first round, against PT [Workers Party] candidate, Fernando Haddad. Right after, though, the so-called revealed truth was nothing but old and fake allegations that the electronic voting machines were automatically completing the vote on the Workers Party (PT) despite the actual voter's choice.
The intention to reveal truths is common to these groups, in these spaces, explains the researcher.

“The way they present themselves, as pseudojournalists, has to do with being the ones to reveal the reality media hides. That's their branding. It makes no sense for them to get out of it, because that's how they attract consumers and gain their loyalty, with this claim that 'after the internet the media will never be able to hide anything again'”, affirms Cesarino. Due to that, "it's a right wing niche, and it will continue to be, because that's where they work."

The left-wing, on the other hand, "has a contact with the mainstream media that this right wing, from Congress Man down, do not have. They have nowhere else to acheive such visibility other than on the internet. So for as much as the left-wing grows, this remains their niche ".


Fake news and misinformaction were Bolsonaro's government trademark in responding to pandemic

Organic and artificial flow

In addition to the unveiling the truth character, these far-right groups also work with people's insecurities, which makes them feel threatened. "The matter of the threat is also very important, because it keeps people connected, alongside to the question of the revelations. The right-wing has achieved its organic network through this normal appeal ", says Cesarino.

Flávia Lefèvre, lawyer, member of Intervozes and the Coalizão Direitos na Rede [Rights in Network Coalition], agrees: "the first thing to do is to identify the fears and insecurities", like the fear of losing their jobs, of violence and the suppression of individual liberty.

"Political marketing companies use social media users’ data to identify and form voters profiles, profiling people. And then they define certain messages and fake news to disseminate to these profiles, according to the identified fears and insecurities” explains Lefèvre.

A good example of it were the fake news directed to the United Kingdom population in a pro-Brexit campaign, Britain's exit from the European Union, during 2020. One of the most well-known lies back then was that immigrants would steal English people's jobs. Another example: "at the 2018 election, these producers and disseminators of fake news started spreading the news that if [Fernando] Haddad won, he would release all prisoners. Then people got scared to death", remembered Lefèvre.

With the artificial manipulation of those feelings, these groups can attract and trap people into believing in the generated contents, creating an organic flow on the circulation of misinformation.


Steve Bannon began to make tests with Cambridge Analytica support, consultant that exploited the Facebook data of 50 million users / Wikicommons

Telegram and Youtube

Leticia Cesarino explains that the production and dissemination of far-right content is directly connected to the structural connection between Telegram and Youtube. If until 2018, WhatsApp was the main repository of the contents that were produced on Youtube by the far-right, with Telegram, the circulation of these materials reached record numbers. That is because Telegram allows, for example, groups with up to two hundred thousand people. On WhatsApp, the maximum is 256. Message forwarding is also restricted on the Meta Group platform, but does not exist in the Russian app.

With this, the connection between YouTube and Telegram has become fundamental to the far-right dissemination of misinformation. "YouTube links are widely spread through Telegram. YouTube presumes that it has a control over the platform that it does not have, because it is connected with all the others. The Bolsonarism takes advantages of it", affirms Letícia Cesarino.

"We observe an incidence of YouTube within Telegram five to six times higher than the second platform, which is Telegram itself", says Cesarino. In other words, the contents that circulate the most within Telegram are Youtube links. In second place, there are links created on Telegram, which allows, for example, live broadcasts and etc. "There is, indeed, a structural relation between these two" remarks.


Jair Bolsonaro's Telegram Ad / Reproduction / Twitter

WhatsApp 

Despite the fact that Telegram has gained space in this sphere, WhatsApp is still more popular, and there is a reason for it. According to the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel), about 100 million telephone plans are prepaid. This means that people have a limited amount of Data, that is, they have a limited access to internet and to apps. After their Data Plan is over, the user has access only to WhatsApp and Facebook.  

“In these cases, the user receives a news and has no way to check, because he cannot access other websites and sources. That is why, in 2018, the strategy used for the misinformation campaign was to purchase prepaid chips, in that way one did not need to identify itself at the time of purchase and could spread fake news through WhatsApp in an unlimited way”, explains Lefever.

According to the Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (Cetic.br), which is a department of the Brazilian Network Information Center (NIC.br), linked to the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br), 95% of the D and E Classes only access internet through mobile network and mainly with Prepaid Plans. In Class C, the percentage drops to 65%.  

"So there are at least 120 million users with limited access to the internet and that are more vulnerable to these misinformation campaigns than those who can afford an unlimited Data Plan,” says Intervozes' lawyer.

One of the hundreds images that circulate through Bolsonaro Whatsapp groups supporting the paper voting in the 2022 elections / Reproduction

Other apps

WhatsApp remains important “but the ecosystem as a whole has diversified”, in Leticia Cesarino's point of view. "We have, for instance, TikTok, which despite not being so large, has an investment from Bolsonaro supporters network. However, they are usually under-covered content that lies in that gray area between entertainment and political propaganda. But TikTok videos also circulate on WhatsApp, so there is this flow too", affirms the professor.  

A study by media monitoring group Media Matters for America, released in March last year, showed that TikTok was directing users to far-right-related content in the United States. More recently, the group informed that the platform's algorithms are allowing the dissemination of misinformation amid the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory.  

Cesarino also says that "Instagram itself, which does not have much of this political use, has an incidence adjacent to Bolsonaro supporters, with misinformation about early treatment, alternative Sciences, the anti-vaccine agenda".

Over the years, other platforms have also emerged as alternative to the more traditional ones, especially after they have toughen their terms of service with moderation rules, banning channels, for example. Enter this list social medias like Gettr - created by members of the former US President Donald Trump's office -, Rumble and BitChute, to which far–right groups have migrated.

Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters created profiles on Gettr, days after it was released, names like the sons Flavio Bolsonaro (Patriota-RJ) and Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL-SP), alongside withe the allies Carla Zambelli (PSL-SP), Paulo Eduardo Martins (PSC-PR), the Brazilian Minister of Communications Fabio Faria and the blogger Allan dos Santos. Flavio Bolsonaro described Gettr as ”another social media in defense of freedom" when announcing his profile to his Twitter followers.


President Jair Bolsonaro profile on Gettr - social media that does not restrict fake news and stands for "free speech" / Reproduction

Crossing lines

In Cesarino's view, it is possible to “greatly increase” the reach of the left-wing in social medias, but getting to the level of the far-right groups is “difficult without crossing certain ethical and even legal lines”. "They will always be ahead, because they have no limit of distortion and sensationalism, because it is based on effectiveness, engagiment. If a media goes viral, then the content will follow the same logic, and what tends to go viral is sensationalism. This is the differential between this media and the mainstream media", affirms.

"The left-wing is improving its presence, but it is a matter of organicity. The Left wing organizations need organic channels. There is no point in PT [Workers Party] having a great communication strategy to speak the language of the internet if there's no network of organic content creators ", points out Cesarino.

Flávia Lefèvre sees another line separating the left-wing groups from this reach: the international funding and support to the production and dissemination of fake news that these Brazilian far-right groups have.    

“The industry is very well funded. Here in Brazil, the researches that have been done based on the 2018 elections and that have been done since have identified that these groups are financed by right-wing forces, not only from within the country, but also by international funds. There are international institutions that fund these groups which are focused on the defense of neoliberalism, and the demand to support neoliberalism does not happen only in Brazil,” says Lefèvre.

Brazil, a step backwards

Since 2018, however, Brazil has made little progress in identifying these sectors and groups that finance the production and dissemination of misinformation in the country, according to Lefèvre.

Recently, the Superior Electoral Court [TSE] enhanced its measures to fight fake news, considering this year's presidential elections, with the expansion of the Cyber Security Commission to include the incidence on fake news. Now, the Commission will also "monitor, elaborate studies and implement actions to fight the mass dissemination of fake news on social medias"


Responsible for suspending Telegram in Brazil, the Supreme Court's Justice Alexandre de Moraes conducts the fake news inquiry on STF / Nelson Jr / STF

Prior, TSE and Twitter, for example, signed a memorandum of understanding to join efforts to fight misinformation in this year's election process. Among the measures in the memo, Twitter committed to create a tool on its platform that allows users to seek information about the elections without leaving the social media.  

The changes, however, are still insufficient to address the spread of misinformation and are far from identifying the groups funding its dissemination in Brazil. "We still don't know these groups. We need the institutions, the Federal Police, the TSE and the Electoral Public Prosecutor's office to follow the trail of money and identify the forces that are financing it [misinformation],” says Lefèvre. “To confront these ultra-neoliberal right-wing forces, it is necessary to have a very well-articulated network between institutions, parties, civil society and the third sector.”

Between the first and second round of the 2018 elections, the then president of the TSE, Rosa Weber, stated that ”fake news is not news“, against which there is no miracle, and that those who had ”a solution to stop fake news" should present it.

Edited by: Rodrigo Durão Coelho