Brazil election shows it’s time for digital resilience

Brazil election shows it’s time for digital resilience
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On Oct. 28, Brazilians elected as their next president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a former army captain and far-right congressman with nearly 30 years in the Brazilian legislature. A controversial figure who represented for many Brazilians the change they sought, Bolsonaro will enter office at one of the most divisive moments for the country since the fall of its dictatorship in the 1980s. In today’s hyper-connected world, one way Bolsonaro (and his supporters) gained momentum at a polarized time was by harnessing digital tools to connect with the Brazilian population where and when they were most present and engaged — online and on social media.

Moving forward, it will be up to Brazilians to individually create for themselves a digital resilience — a critical consumption of information with an eye for nuance — or risk lasting damage to the democratic ideals and institutions underpinning the country.

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More so than in most electoral cycles to date, disinformation and misinformation made their rounds on social media in Brazil — deliberately-created false narratives, distorted news, edited images and biased videos, and piercing rumors gave fuel to the fire of polarization in Brazil as voters headed to the polls. Though this did not generate Sunday’s outcome, it played an important role.

In an effort to understand how such narratives happened, some blamed social media companies for the rapid spread. But while it may be tempting to put Brazil’s problems only in Facebook’s or WhatsApp’s corners, the disinformation and misinformation that surfaced during this election were a byproduct also of Brazil’s complex and difficult history.

In 2013, protests broke out en masse in Brazil over bus fare increases, and quickly metastasized to encompass general outrage over corruption, inequality and a host of other issues. Ever since, Brazilians’ anger and dissatisfaction with politics have risen to new levels in ways that have kicked opened doors for the circulation of false news. The left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) governed Brazil for more than a decade — and as Brazil descended into economic recession and sank under the wave of corruption that implicated nearly two-thirds of politicians, voters blamed the PT.

Jair Bolsonaro effectively tapped into this sentiment, using tactics of communication that few in and out of politics completely understood. Brazil is a hyper-connected country. Even before the age of WhatsApp, Brazilians were spending more time online and on mobile phones than nearly any other country in the world. Today, over 120 million Brazilians are on WhatsApp, most using the messaging platform as their primary means of communication with friends, family, coworkers and neighbors.

Using this connectivity, Bolsonaro embraced social media to reach his base even before most consumers were positioned to interpret narratives in a critical way — many Brazilians, for example, receive access to WhatsApp on their mobile data plans for free, but cannot access the internet without charge, preventing them from being able to effectively verify news. The result: many voters took what they received from their intimate circles as the facts, and shared narratives that reinforced their existing beliefs or justified their concerns.

Democracy relies on debate, but productive debates rely on facts. In any democracy, in a government for and by the people, facts are fundamental. Unfortunately, today, a somewhat blind or unbalanced consumption of information online has the potential to throw democracy off balance.

This is why in 2018, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and the Digital Forensic Research Lab partnered on #ElectionWatch Latin America to identify, expose and explain disinformation where and when it happened around elections in Brazil, as well as in Colombia and Mexico.

Going one step beyond fact-checking and working alongside partners in the region, including think tanks, media and universities, Atlantic Council researchers used open source data — anything publicly available online — to explain how cases of disinformation emerged, who they affected, who amplified stories, and what came out of that circulation.

Open-source information is accessible to both the writer and the reader. It has an element of transparency; the findings and tools around these investigations are available for anyone to verify. In parallel were capacity-building trainings that leveraged on-the-ground knowledge and built a sustainable community of local non-governmental actors in the information space.

But this is only the beginning. Each individual must protect democratic debates from those who would seek to undermine them in the digital engagement space. They can do this by being more critical of what they receive and taking steps to verify their own news.

Brazil is not the only country that has dived head first into the wave of online engagement, and the world no longer is where it was even five years ago. The ways in which we consume information have drastically changed — human beings are more connected today than ever before, a trend unlikely to reverse.

This is not the time to fight this trend, but it is the time to assure that our democratic ideals are upheld. Brazil’s administration, and others coming into office, must support the protection of democratic institutions and norms. Any sustainable solution to the problem of disinformation will have to come from honest conversations with governments, civil society, journalists and the private sector, but it will also have to come from us, the people. The time for digital resilience is now.

Roberta Braga, a native of Brazil, is associate director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter @RobertaSBraga.