In the first round of the 2020 Brazilian local election, three technological errors created an opportunity for disinformation to thrive.
An app launched by the Superior Electoral Court to help voters find their voting section or justify their absence (voting is compulsory in Brazil) didn’t work quite well. After a hacker attack, old data from the Electoral Justice was leaked to the web. And there was an important delay in the process of adding the votes. (In Brazil, winners are usually announced in two or three hours. Yesterday, it took much longer than that).
Despite these issues, which are now forcing the Superior Electoral Court to better prepare for the second round of voting, the number of fact checks published over the past weekend indicates that disinformation regarding the electoral process was lower this year when compared to 2018.
Since Oct. 1, AFP, Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos, Boatos.org, Comprova, E-Farsas, Estadão Verifica, UOL Confere and Fato or Fake (Disclaimer: four of these fact-checking organizations are members of the IFCN) have worked in partnership with the Superior Electoral Court to fight electoral hoaxes. The alliance consists of a more robust, organized and institutionalized version of the collaborative initiative #CheckBR that was carried out by six fact-checking organizations two years ago.
Generally speaking, each time fact-checkers publish an article regarding the electoral process, they send a link to the court with a short summary. The court gathers all the URLs on a specific page (Fato ou Boato) and distributes the information through its social media platforms. Fact-checkers can also exchange articles with each other, maintaining their bylines.
On Sunday night, those who scrolled Fato ou Boato found a total of 16 fact-checks that had been published between Nov. 14 and 15. Eight of them related to bad information collected and assessed over the weekend. That is a positive outcome compared to the number collected by the fact-checking community in 2018.
On the weekend of the first round of presidential elections that year, the number of fact checks published by #CheckBR was three times higher. Fifty false reports were caught by the fact-checking alliance in 48 hours.
By looking at the average number of rumors detected per hour, something that directly impacts a newsroom’s routine, the relief becomes real. Two years ago, fact-checkers faced an average of more than one falsehood per hour. They worked over the clock. Last weekend, that total dropped to an almost negligible value.
Of course, there are substantial differences between the 2018 and 2020 elections. Two years ago, the race was presidential and the entire country was focused on just a dozen candidates. Now, the country has more than half a million politicians running for public offices. So, for obvious reasons, disinformation tended to be more diffuse, more local and less visible during this cycle.
But in this initiative, the work of the fact-checkers focused not on the candidates, but on the electoral process — which has changed very little since 2018. Preliminary data coming out of this comparison suggests that Minister Luís Roberto Barroso, the current president of the Superior Electoral Court, was correct in an interview he gave on Friday: Disinformation regarding the electoral process has decreased.
It is clear that the attacks against the election will keep happening — just like it does in other countries. They will be fueled by the fact that the totalization of votes was, for the first time, centralized in Brasília and that a supercomputer used to count the votes had some technical failures, delaying the counting process. The difficulties faced by voters to justify their absence also add to that. But, in numerical terms, the need for fact-checking decreased.
Edgard Matsuki, the creator of Boatos.org, added some data extracted from his own work.
“In 2018, we published 262 articles about false news. This year, as of this first round, there were 27,” he said. “I believe that the work carried out in 2020, if maintained and improved, will be vital for 2022, an election that should have a greater volume of mis/disinformation.”
Marco Faustino, a journalist and editor-in-chief of e-Farsas, agreed.
“The fact-checking coalition should be a permanent project to combat disinformation about the electoral process, and part of an even bigger preparatory process for the 2022 presidential elections,” he said. “We should already be thinking about it. The defense of democracy needs to be a constant exercise. We cannot imagine this fight without this broad alliance.”
What hoaxes did Brazil see?
Since Saturday, as had happened in 2018, fact-checkers saw false accusations about the electronic voting machine and the counting system. But there were also undue attacks on politicians — in a scenario that was very similar to the one registered two years ago.
Eight fact-checking organizations rated false a piece of information that claimed that attempts to hack the electoral court had breached the security of electronic voting machines. Four organizations alerted their audiences to the fact that the company “Smartmatic, which supplied ballot machines to Venezuela, never sold devices to Brazil.” Two teams emphasized that the “hacker attack pointed at the Supreme Court of Justice last week did not threaten the security of the ballot machines” in Brazil. Another two rated false claims about “The Superior Electoral Court sending emails inviting voters to cast their ballots on the Internet.”
In the list of false personal attacks against politicians, the group of fact-checkers denied that the ticket launched by Francilene Paixão, candidate for mayor in Santa Luzia in the state of Maranhão, had been revoked and that the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, had voted wearing a mask from China.
Launched in early October, the Superior Electoral Court’s partnership with the checkers is part of a court campaign to address disinformation. The collaborative effort will remain active until the end of the second round.
This article was published in Portuguese by Folha de S.Paulo.