Brazil: a laboratory for the global fight against disinformation

Lula’s new government is asking for the ability to regulate social media, while the Supreme Court has silenced pro-Bolsonaro voices accused of spreading falsehoods

Naiara Galarraga Gortázar
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva receives his fifth COVID shot, injected by his vice president – who is also a medical doctor – on Monday, March 6, 2023Gustavo Moreno (AP)

This week, the Presidency of Brazil issued an official statement in forceful terms: “The information in the video posted by Ana Gonçalves on Tik Tok is a lie.”

The clip – which the user has since deleted – was about vaccines: an extremely sensitive issue for the new government, after 700,000 Brazilians died from COVID during the administration of vaccine-skeptic Jair Bolsonaro. The governmental response coincided with the official launch of a new immunization campaign, which culminated with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 77, receiving the fifth dose for COVID. The shot was injected by his vice president, Geraldo Alckmin, who is a medical doctor by profession.

In her video, the tiktokera Gonçalves distorted a typical gesture when giving any injection, in order to falsely affirm that the televised scene was fake and that Lula was not immunized.

That the incumbent head of state – who served two previous terms from 2003 until 2010 – took the time to respond to an unknown TikTok user shows the degree of concern that misinformation and “fake news” generates among Lula and his team. The clip – since deleted – continues to circulate. This poses a risk to lagging vaccination rates in Brazil.

Brazil is fertile ground for one of the most worrying issues of our time: misinformation. Simultaneously, it is also emerging as one of the laboratories where various ways to combat it are being tested.

Three-quarters of Brazil’s 210 million inhabitants use Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, TikTok... or all of them, for hours each day. For a large part of the population, WhatsApp is the main channel through which they receive information. It’s also a very profitable business: Brazil is the fifth market in the world for social media giants. When the right-wing Bolsonaro was in power from 2018 until 2022, he took advantage of this fact. Social media, in large part, explains his political success. Now in the United States on a tourist visa, his power seems to be at a low point.

The issue is extremely complex and has a thousand facets. It also entails risks to freedom of expression. The debate is tense – and not only in Brazil. These days, the US Supreme Court is studying two crucial cases for the future of the internet. Meanwhile, the Indian government is considering banning any news that it considers to be false.

The violent assault on the heart of democracy in Brasilia at the start of this year – which was widely encouraged on social media, without any pretense of being a peaceful march – has given a new sense of urgency to the Brazilian authorities to combat the plague of falsehoods that infests the digital world.

Lula’s government – a broad coalition headed by his Workers’ Party – has presented an array of initiatives, one of which proposes the regulation of social media. It has also created a special prosecutor’s office to defend the administration in cases in which disinformation is used against public policies. Working groups have been set up in several ministries to prepare proposals against what they consider to be false news or hate speech.

Experts warn that Lula’s administration has coined a definition of disinformation that is so broad that it can easily curtail freedom of expression. This is also being discussed in the Brazilian justice system. In the Supreme Court, Judge Alexandre de Moraes has been endowed with superpowers in the name of democracy. Moraes has adopted the practice of suspending the social media accounts of those suspected of knowingly spreading falsehoods. For several weeks, he silenced the member of the Chamber of Deputies who won the most votes of any legislator in the 2022 elections: Niklas Ferreira, a 26-year-old conservative Christian and TikTok star. Other influential Bolsonaro allies have also been suspended by court order.

This week, Moraes released a hundred Bolsonaro supporters accused of invading the headquarters of Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court. After spending almost two months in prison, they’re now returning home… but without a weapons permit or a voice in the digital world. The judge has frozen their Telegram and Instagram accounts. For several years, he’s also had an open investigation into Bolsonaro’s second son, Carlos – the clan’s digital strategist – for spreading fake news and inciting hatred.

Distrust in institutions and the discrediting of legacy media have increased with Bolsonaro’s sustained campaign over the past few years. The thousands of Bolsonaristas who attacked the three branches of government in January wanted the military to dismiss “Lula’s communism,” convinced that he didn’t really win the elections. This falsehood is widespread: 40% of Brazilians surveyed following the attack were convinced that Bolsonaro had been robbed at the polls. Lula received 50.9%, while Bolsonaro lost his re-election bid, garning 49.1% in the second round.

Nina Santos – a researcher and coordinator of Desinformante, a platform on disinformation – recently wrote in an academic article that the moves taken by the Brazilian government will intensify a necessary debate, in which all citizens should be alert.

“It’s not easy to establish the fine line that separates, on the one hand, the fight against fake news, hate speech and disinformation in the broadest sense and, on the other, the protection of rights, such as freedom of expression and privacy. However, [distinguishing between these realms] has become essential for any truly democratic society.”

Regulating social media is an idea that Brazil also brought to a recent UNESCO meeting, considering it vital to preserve democracy. In a speech by President Lula, he stressed that what happened in Brasilia on Sunday, January 8, “was the culmination of a campaign – started long ago – that used lies and disinformation as ammunition” to attack “democracy and the credibility of Brazilian institutions.”

The president added that “this campaign was conceived, organized and disseminated through different digital platforms and messaging applications (…). This has to stop,” he emphasized. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is currently investigating Bolsonaro for encouraging the invasion from his social media accounts while in Florida.

Meta – Mark Zuckerberg’s technology company, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – responded angrily, denying any complicity with violence or omission of information. The company notes that the fault of the invasion is solely on those who broke the law – not on social media.

The company has revealed that, since the beginning of the 2022 Brazilian electoral campaign and until the assault – a period of almost five months – they removed a million pieces of content from

Facebook and almost the same from Instagram. These posts incited violence or called for military intervention. During the campaign, the social media giants collaborated closely with Brazil’s judges in the war against misinformation.

President Lula’s indignation with big tech is profound:

“We want to open a debate to find out how we prohibit application companies from spreading news that is lying, violent, or that encourages people to do things that are not right. Those who preach evil and lie on the internet cannot continue [doing what they do],” he told a group of bloggers that he received at the presidential palace.

The enormous impact of fake news is a matter that irritates him deeply. It is a deeply distorted element that didn’t exist when Lula last governed Brazil between 2003 and 2010. In fact, during the campaign, he confessed that he doesn’t own a mobile device – when he needs to use a phone, he borrows one.

When he began considering a return to power, Lula viewed the impact of fake news with a certain amount of disbelief, as if he couldn’t believe that people were really buying into crazy stories. Over time, however, he has realized that this is a key issue of contemporary governance.

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