Brazil’s attempt to curb fake news

President Jair Bolsonaro is against the so-called fake news bill in Brazil, saying it’s going to hurt freedom of expression. But Mariana Valente, one of the directors at Internet Lab, is not convinced of his motives.

At the beginning of October, Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of president Jair Bolsonaro, was accused of links with a fake news network responsible for spreading hoaxes, disseminating facts, and calling for the closure of Brazil's National Congress, the Supreme Federal Court, and in favor of military intervention.

Moreover, a top electoral court is investigating whether businessmen favorable to Jair Bolsonaro financed fake news campaigns targeting political rivals and journalists ahead of the 2018 presidential election.

No wonder some people are not convinced by Bolsonaro’s concerns about freedom of expression.

CyberNews spoke with the director of the Internet Lab, a law and technology research center in Brazil, Mariana Valente, about whether this so-called fake news bill (officially named the Brazilian Law on Freedom, Responsibility, and Transparency on the Internet) would solve the misinformation crisis in the country.

Fake news concept

“The fake news concept is very weaponized, and it’s being used by different parts of the political spectrum, especially governments on the far right,” Mariana Valente told CyberNews, referring to Donald Trump’s fake media rhetoric.

Loyal supporters of the government in Brazil are using the discourse of fake news and accuse the media of trying to attack the president and withholding the truth about things.

“For example, there’s been a fight of narratives around whether the Amazon is burning or not. This informational chaos is being made worse by how agents of the government are also using this discourse,” said Mariana Valente.

There was a lot of fake news about COVID-19 as well. For example, hoaxes that the government is burying empty coffins to exaggerate the scale of the pandemic went viral.

“The COVID crisis is very much politized. (...) COVID-19 is very weaponized, so there’s a lot of misinformation about it as well,” she said.

Social media plays a crucial role in the prevalence of fake news. According to Mariana Valente, the rise of the information crisis in Brazil is closely related to the presidential elections two years ago.

“It became clear that disinformation strategies were being deployed on social media, and everybody was very concerned about WhatsApp, and how the information was spreading through WhatsApp. Because of its architecture, it’s difficult to follow where these rumors are coming from. And there’s been a lot of research to try to measure the impact of disinformation in the elections. And they are always dissatisfying because it’s really difficult to measure,” she told CyberNews.

To tackle the crisis, the so-called fake news bill was drafted. Critics fret it might create even more problems than it might solve.

What’s in the bill?

“We are speaking of several proposals that passed the Senate, and now are being discussed in the House. But until now, it is impossible to know if the measures proposed in the Senate will be the ones that will pass. We know that the previous versions of the bills are being discussed. So we are speaking of many different proposals,” Mariana Valente explained.

The version that is approved by the Senate got better over time, she reckons. In the beginning, the bill seemed like it would create many new problems. For example, there was a proposal that everyone should use an ID and phone number to register on social media.

“That was a huge issue. Not only because it can be faked by bad actors, but also because of the inequality in the country. That could mean the exclusion of so many people from social media. I don’t see how that could help the information environment,” Mariane Valente said.

In the current version of the bill, there are some measures aimed at social media transparency and attempts to diminish its power over the control of the content.

“We have some measures for messaging apps for making them look more like one-to-one or private communications, and less like broadcasters,” she said.

Mariane Valente particularly frets over the traceability concept that requires social media companies to keep the metadata of mass forwarded messages.

“Traceability is concerning because of the authoritarian government. These measures are trying to make companies keep data just about messages that are mass forwarded. But it’s impossible to know what will become mass forwarded. In the end, they will have to keep metadata about all the messages sent, and it will become a huge database of everyone’s messages,” Mariane Valente said.

Also, it is proposed that companies should keep direct access to servers abroad, meaning “that the law should be immediately imposed and you couldn’t say there are jurisdiction issues.”

There's been a lof of misinformation about 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires

Would it solve the problem?

According to Mariana Valente, politicians are largely responsible for spreading fake news. Would the proposed bill solve the problem?

“Some of these proposals address disinformation, and at least they are good entry points into the debate. For example, transparency measures. They are good both for making us know what the platforms are doing and helping us tackle the information strategies online and how the platforms are dealing with it,” she told CyberNews.

But she doesn’t think this bill is going to solve misinformation, as it’s a very complex phenomenon.

What about Bolsonaro? Will he sign the bill?

“He’s been opposing the bill because this has been seen as a bill to counter his communicational power. It is very much based on social media, and it's partially based on informational chaos and disinformation as well,” said Mariana Valente.

Bolsonaro and his allies have been using privacy and freedom of expression concerns as one of the main reasons to oppose the bill. But Mariana Valente is not convinced.

“There’s a lot of censorship of public agents, cultural projects, people with dissenting views are being thrown out of many places in the government. (...) There are many policies to destroy freedom of expression,” she said.

Mariana Valente is not sure if Bolsonaro would veto the bill if it is adopted by the Congress.

“Whether Bolsonaro will sign it or not, it is going to be a huge political chaos. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like to sign it, but that would create a lot of problems with Congress. This is an important bill. If it passes and he doesn't sign it, this means a crisis between the powers,” she said.

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