October 12, 2018

When an InfoWars contributor shared a fake video of a Brazilian voting machine automatically casting ballots for a left-leaning candidate, it was just another day at the races for Tai Nalon.

“It was the main story last Sunday and was somehow predictable. Many hoaxes with conspiracy theories circulated in the weeks prior to the voting day,” the director of Aos Fatos, a Brazilian fact-checking organization, told Poynter in a message. “This was a hoax built on paranoia.”

The lead-up to Brazil’s contentious presidential election, which had its first round of voting Oct. 7, has been marred by misinformation on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. A deeply polarized society has provided fertile grounds for viral conspiracy theories about everything from the death of a politician to a rosary from Pope Francis. Fact-checkers themselves have become targets of the chaos.

The fake voting machine video, which both Aos Fatos and fellow fact-checker Agência Lupa quickly debunked, racked up thousands of retweets after being shared by Flávio Bolsonaro — the son of right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson also amplified the hoax. That doesn’t even take into account WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging platform where a good chunk of Brazilian misinformation comes from.

Over the past few weeks, Brazilian voters have expressed concern about the integrity of the election, which will enter its second round of voting Oct. 28 — despite assurances from both federal and external election officials that voting machines are safe to use. And that distrust has manifested itself in an onslaught of voter fraud-related hoaxes on social media.

“There are tons of hoaxes related to fraud in the system,” said Cristina Tardáguila, director of Lupa. “The Superior Electoral Court (TSE) informed us that only 0.33 percent of the system had any kind of bad functionality problems, so it’s very low. The (Organization of American States) came to Brazil to analyze the system, they probably already talked about it, and found that there is no fraud in the system, actually.”

“This is just bad, bad, bad information.”

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Among the misinformation is a false photo claiming that left-wing presidential candidate Fernando Haddad had received nearly 10,000 votes from only 777 people, which Lupa debunked the day after the election. Another photo falsely claimed that a former finance minister said ballot boxes were ordered to defraud the election, which Aos Fatos also debunked Oct. 7. There are even voting machine fraud memes.

Why? Nalon said hoaxers are trying to delegitimize the election.

“It’s the story of the election, actually — it’s the most relevant hoax, I think,” she said. “People are trying to attack the electronic polling system in order to delegitimize whoever is the winner of the election. It is something that was built by far-right influencers.”

While she hasn’t been able to prove it in a fact check, Nalon said she thinks much of the misinformation she’s seen related to election fraud is being pushed by the same political groups to cast doubt over the legitimacy of the election. Most of the videos were posted in the days leading up to Election Day, and the volume seemed above the capability of just a few bad actors, she said.

“I think it is coordinated by a political group that is interested in jeopardizing and delegitimizing the polling system here in Brazil,” Nalon said. “It was a very massive amount of videos during this Sunday, voting day. You can’t just circulate that fast a bunch of videos through WhatsApp unless you have a very broad net of groups and networks inside of it, and it was broadly shared on WhatsApp and also on Facebook.”

According to a group of researchers studying misinformation on WhatsApp, some of the top hoaxes on the messaging app have been about election integrity, many of which claimed that people couldn’t vote for Bolsonaro using the voting machines, Nalon said. But while it’s still unclear who specifically is peddling the bulk of hoaxes about election integrity in Brazil, a coordinated political effort wouldn’t be without precedent.

Because Brazil isn’t the only country to deal with hoaxes about election fraud.

During the 2016 presidential election, partisan groups and Donald Trump himself spread false claims and hoaxes about voter fraud to delegitimize the election. Tammy Patrick, a senior elections adviser at the Democracy Fund, said that since instances of voter fraud are extremely rare in the United States, claims about it are often indicative of larger partisan beliefs.

Brazil protest
Demonstrators protest Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right presidential candidate, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

“Sadly, I think it taps into some deeper issues in our culture,” she said. “And I think that’s just one way it manifests, and one way that people are more likely to believe a certain thing, because it aligns with their own beliefs on what’s happening in our greater society.”

When fact-checking claims about voter fraud, Patrick said fact-checkers should keep government officials’ contact information handy so that they can quickly stamp out any hoaxes that could affect people’s voting patterns. But in Brazil, fact-checkers are having a hard time getting in touch with election authorities.

“The TSE is not helping that much,” Nalon said. “They are taking too long to answer basic questions such as, ‘Was there any fraud in this location?’ or ‘Was this polling machine having trouble functioning?’”

She said the TSE ferried those questions to lower courts that were not able to answer them in the short term. That made fact-checkers’ debunking work a lot harder, Nalon said, because their main sources weren’t answering fast enough.

“Basically they spent the past year saying they were discussing (fake news), but during the voting day, they just didn’t do anything — they just basically didn’t answer the most trivial questions about fraud and the voting system,” she said. “So they were not sufficiently organized, and that’s bad.”

Beto Thomaz, a public relations officer for the TSE, told Poynter in a message that, since the court’s communications staff is pretty lean, it has been difficult to answer every inquiry in a timely manner. The TSE was also surprised by how much misinformation was aimed at electoral systems on Election Day, he said.

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“Due mainly to our limited resources, we are only able to focus on the most visible cases,” he said. “On the voting day, the Brazilian Electoral Justice was one of the actors that was surprised, to a certain extent, by the proliferation of information that sought to discredit the Brazilian electoral system as well. A detailed and individualized analysis of each misinformation article or video would be difficult to do on a large scale on such a day.

And sometimes fact-checkers don’t respond to the TSE either, he said.

“It’s been five hours since I provided fact-checkers with content about (a hoax), and they haven’t published our response yet,” he told Poynter on Thursday. “Even professional fact-checkers (and they are good in what they do) are having a hard time to respond to the hoaxes more quickly. Life has not been easy for anybody here.”

Beyond trying to serve as a resource for fact-checkers, Thomaz said the TSE has focused on using its social media profiles and official communications channels to debunk misinformation about the election and highlight work from fact-checkers. The body is also working with an advisory board that’s mapping the spread of electoral misinformation and tech companies like Facebook and Google to prevent inauthentic behavior. Finally, the TSE has or is currently examining 29 cases in which one candidate allegedly promoted misinformation to attack another, Thomaz said.

“In sum, we opted to work on solutions to avoid any type of censorship, by diluting disinformation with more quality news,” he said.

But Nalon said there’s more the TSE could do to prevent hoaxes about election fraud from going viral.

Chief among them would be a task force of journalists to debunk any kind of misinformation they see on social media networks using a database of fraud reports from the government; she said Aos Fatos has no idea which fraud allegations have been properly registered. Then Nalon would like the government to punish politicians that promote misinformation that incites crime, like recording a ballot box — which is illegal in Brazil.

But regardless of what the TSE does, Nalon said she doesn’t think election fraud-related hoaxes will stop just because Bolsonaro made it to the runoff.

“I think they were trying to build some kind narrative that, if they didn't go to the second round, they would state that the voting system was frauded,” she said. “And I think it can happen again in the runoff because Bolsonaro has already said that he won’t accept the result because if he doesn’t win, it means the election was frauded.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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