Brazilian fact-checkers excoriate the country’s leaders for promoting disinformation about COVID-19

April 8, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Five Brazilian fact-checking organizations released a scathing indictment Wednesday of their country’s leadership  accusing them of spreading misinformation about COVID-19. The open letter was published by at least two major newspapers: Folha de S.Paulo and O Estado de São Paulo. You can read the English version here.

Representatives from Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos, Boatos.org, E-farsas, and Estadão Verifica said in their open letter they have been fighting a war against mis/disinformation exacerbated by members of the government who propagate false claims about the virus. Without citing president Jair Bolsonaro or any other politician, the group emphasized that politicians have, for example, pushed the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine for treating coronavirus.  While there has been anectodal evidence of the drug helping with COVID-19, it hasn’t been definitively proven.

“It didn’t take long for the drug to disappear from pharmacies, harming those who, in fact, need it for conditions like lupus or malaria,” the letter read.

The International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director Cristina Tardáguila who, before joining the IFCN, founded Agência Lupa added her name to the letter. Among the five organizations that co-signed the article, three are verified signatories of the IFCN’s Code of Principles: Aos Fatos, Lupa and Estadão Verifica.

The fact-checkers urged Brazillian politicians to promote data backed by scientific consensus and to refrain from using out-of-context information to push narratives that prioritize the economy over public health. They cited examples from other countries where misinformation led to dire consequences.

44 people died in Iran from drinking high proof alcohol thinking it would kill the virus. In the United Kingdom, citizens have been burning down cell towers believing wrongly that 5G wireless signal causes the coronavirus. Brazil itself is faced with a lack of adherence to social distancing measures, which the fact-checkers attributed to mis/disinformation promoted by politicians.

In late March, former minister and federal deputy Osmar Terra erroneously tweeted that the Netherlands had controlled the spread of COVID-19 without resorting to social distancing. While Terra is a trained physician,  this statement is false. Agência Lupa pointed out in a fact-check that most – if not all – businesses in Holland were closed to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Aos Fatos published a fact-check Saturday debunking a statement by Terra claiming social distancing in Italy had made coronavirus worse. The fact-checkers found that Terra used distorted graphs and false equivalencies to make his claim.

The former minister’s name was floated to replace the current Brazilian Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who has clashed with President Bolsonaro over the severity of the coronavirus crisis. On Monday, however, members of the Brazillian military and legislature intervened to keep Mandetta in office.

Bolsonaro himself has been a major promoter of falsehoods and misinformation about COVID-19. He has repeatedly downplayed its severity, calling it nothing more than a “small flu.”

“What I have been hearing from people is that they want to work,” Bolsonaro said in a video that was deleted by Twitter in late March, citing a new policy to  crack down on misinformation on the platform.

In their letter, the fact-checkers  called accurate information about COVID-19 “non-negotiable.” They said Brazilians rely on that data to make daily decisions about how to protect themselves from the virus.

The group also pledged to continue to fight misinformation with the help of tech companies and social media platforms.

“(We) will continue to publicly denounce irresponsible behavior in disseminating or amplifying false information about the coronavirus and COVID-19. Whether they come from authorities or not,” the group said.