On March 25, Brazil’s government launched a multifaceted campaign to fight “misinformation”, which includes a website dedicated to identifying and debunking “fake news”.
The initiative, viewed by many as a tool for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration to delegitimise criticism it faces under the guise of “fact-checking”, raised serious concerns about government overreach, freedom of expression and the future of Brazil’s fragile democracy.
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“There is no such thing as government fact-checking,” Christina Tardáliga, senior programme director of the International Center for Journalists, tweeted in response to the news of the initiative. “This appropriation of the term is misguided and offensive. What the government does is propaganda.”
While attempts by a government to assign itself the arbiter of what’s real and what’s fake would undoubtedly be concerning in any country, the risks are especially severe in Brazil.
This is because, despite their routine outbursts against the prevalence of “misinformation”, Brazilian governments – both right and left wing – have a long track record of relying on what can only be described as “fake news” to further their political agendas.
Lula’s far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, for example, spent his entire tenure accusing his critics of spreading “fake news” while disseminating misinformation on a wide range of subjects, from COVID-19 and vaccine science to corruption and feminism.
And Lula is hardly any better. Just like Bolsonaro, the leftist president also has a habit of giving passionate speeches against “fake news” and spouting misinformation to further the interests of his government almost in the same breath.
Just three days before launching his campaign against “fake news”, for example, the president unleashed a wave of misinformation against Senator and former Judge Sergio Moro, who had once sent him to prison.
This year, Brazil’s federal police launched an operation against members of the powerful São Paulo drug cartel, the First Command of the Capital (PCC), for plotting to assassinate Moro. Investigators said they got a tip about the assassination plot from a former PCC member who is currently in witness protection and gathered evidence supporting his claims by secretly surveilling the phones and emails of active cartel members.
Dismissing the work of his own police force, however, Lula suggested the assassination plot was likely a politically motivated “set-up” by Moro. While Lula later admitted that he has no evidence to back this claim and called for caution, a wave of abuse and condemnation was already unleashed against the former judge. The episode clearly demonstrated that Lula is only concerned about misinformation when it is targeting him and his government.
Lula’s relationship with “fake news” and misinformation is not limited to a one-off remark aimed at hurting an old adversary either. The president has an established history of using public money to support media outlets publishing misinformation that is beneficial to him and his Worker’s Party (PT).
Today there are still countless websites and TV channels in Brazil that exist only to spread pro-government “fake news”. There is, of course, no expectation that the output from these Lula-friendly outlets will be scrutinised by the government’s new “fact-checking” website any time soon.
It seems with its new anti-misinformation initiative that the Lula government has not only given itself the opportunity to denounce any criticism of its work as “fake news” but also laid the groundwork for the creation of “official” facts and truths that could lead to the silencing of dissenting voices, widespread censorship and, perhaps most crucially, erosion of public trust in Brazil’s leading independent institutions.
For example, Lula’s PT is convinced or views it as an indisputable “fact” that former President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor after his first stint in office, was ousted from power not through a legal impeachment process, but a coup. This, of course, is not a “fact” accepted by Brazil’s judicial system, but one interpretation of events by one political party.
What happens if the government’s new “fake news” initiative decides to “fact-check” a claim or a news story relating to Rousseff’s ousting from power? Will the “official” facts it presents override the Supreme Court’s position on the matter? What will Brazilians make of the discrepancies between government-approved facts and Supreme Court decisions? The issue is not limited to party politics either. What will happen when the government’s state-sanctioned facts on a pandemic or a natural disaster end up conflicting with the unauthorised facts laid out by a scientific body?
All governments engage in propaganda and many use “friendly” media outlets to further their agendas. However, the Lula government’s attempt to dictate, through an official agency, what is real and what is fake takes the manipulation to another level.
And all this is happening while the lower house of Brazil’s Congress finally appears ready to pass a bill against “fake news” that experts say may be used to stifle dissent, censor points of views not approved by the state and give politicians the right to spread misinformation with impunity.
First proposed in 2020, the so-called Fake News Bill makes it a crime to create or share content that allegedly poses a serious risk to “social peace or to the economic order” without defining those terms. It also makes it a crime to be a member of an online group knowing that its primary activity is focused on sharing defamatory messages, even if the member has not created or shared those messages. It prohibits using “manipulated” content for the purpose of “ridiculing” political candidates, potentially putting an end to legal political satire in Brazil. It also puts legal pressure on social media sites to police the content shared by their users, introducing deterrents that can lead to political speech being censored or silenced. It further orders social networks to store personal details and conversation histories of Brazilians using their services.
If the proposed bill becomes law, Brazilians can face significant fines or even jail time for sharing harmless political commentary or satire online. At the same time, however, the bill gives complete freedom to politicians to say what they wish online without any consequences – it proposes to remove the power from social networks to ban or suspend the accounts of politicians for sharing content in violation of their terms of service.
This bill, together with the government’s new “fact-checking” service, could be seen as the founding blocks of a Brazilian Ministry of Truth – the beginning of a nightmarish new reality in which the government single-handedly decides what the truth is and punishes those who refuse to repeat it.
The fight against “fake news” is an important one. The rise of social media has made misinformation more effective and easier to spread. But the Lula government’s response to this looming threat is wrong, and the solutions it proposes are likely more harmful to the Brazilian democracy than the problem itself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.