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Brazil’s Bolsonaro turns to Telegram as vote nears

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Mobile messaging and call service Telegram is being used in Brazil in particular by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's supporters, who see the app as a powerful too with virtually no restrictions on what users can say


Mobile messaging and call service Telegram is being used in Brazil in particular by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters, who see the app as a powerful too with virtually no restrictions on what users can say – Copyright AFP PHILIPPE LOPEZ

Jordi MIRO

Like millions of Brazilians, @mara, a fervent fan of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, has turned to the messaging app Telegram as the country heads toward a deeply divisive election: “There’s no censorship here,” she says.

Similar to the 2018 election that brought Bolsonaro to power, this October’s edition is shaping up as an all-out war on social media, with disinformation as a powerful weapon.

Bolsonaro, who has had various posts blocked on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for violating their rules on misinformation, is eagerly encouraging his base to follow him on Telegram as the vote nears.

Founded by Russian-born tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov in 2013, Telegram is a crypted messaging app with virtually no restrictions on what users can say in messages.

That has won it fans in Bolsonaro’s camp, where other social media companies face accusations of censoring right-wing views.

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It has also earned it scrutiny from the Brazilian authorities, notably the Superior Electoral Tribunal, which has tried in vain to get Telegram to cooperate in fighting disinformation in the run-up to the elections.

“Here, you can express your opinions freely,” said @mara, a 60-year-old teacher who asked her real name not be used.

The pressure on Telegram, she said, is “RI-DI-CU-LOUS.”

“That’s a DICTATORSHIP, it only happens in countries governed by dictators,” she told AFP via the app, which has been hugely successful in Brazil, downloaded on 53 percent of all cell phones.

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Bolsonaro is facing an uphill battle to win reelection, currently trailing leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in polls.

Like his political role model, former US president Donald Trump, Bolsonaro is adept at rallying his base on social media, where the Brazilian leader has more than 45 million followers in all.

He faces a series of investigations for spreading false information on social networks, notably over his repeated claims of rampant fraud in Brazil’s electronic voting system, for which he has provided no evidence.

Bolsonaro has more than one million followers on Telegram, not including numerous fan groups with names like “Reelect Bolsonaro 2022.”

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Lula, for his part, has just 47,000.

– ‘Cowardly’ –

Dubai-based Telegram proudly explains on its website that its chat data and encryption keys are deliberately spread around the world, in what is known as “distributed infrastructure.”

“Thanks to this structure, we can ensure that no single government or block of like-minded countries can intrude on people’s privacy and freedom of expression,” it says.

Its refusal to block content some consider dangerous has sometimes gotten it in trouble, including suspensions in several countries.

And its largely unmoderated platform, which allows groups of up to 200,000 members, is a potential viral breeding ground for false information.

Earlier this month, the Superior Electoral Tribunal signed an agreement with eight leading social networks to combat disinformation during the elections, including Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube.

Telegram was notably absent.

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The court’s president, Luis Roberto Barroso, wrote to Telegram headquarters in December, asking for a meeting and warning that the app was rife with “conspiracy theories and false information about (Brazil’s) electoral system.”

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He went on to threaten Brazil would suspend Telegram, “plain and simple.”

Bolsonaro said any such move would be “cowardly.”

– Specter of US Capitol riot –

Brazilian prosecutors are also investigating Telegram on allegations of spreading disinformation and hate speech.

“It’s a platform designed to dodge the law. Messages are stored on multiple servers, each in a different jurisdiction,” said Pablo Ortellado, a digital communications expert at the University of Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro’s repeated allegations against the electronic voting system used in Brazil since 1996 are raising fears he will reject the election result if he loses, like Trump.

The specter of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters — who were riled up in part on social media — looms large in Brazil.

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“The fear is that if Telegram can’t be brought under Brazilian electoral legislation, false allegations of vote fraud can’t be regulated or contained,” Ortellado told AFP.

If Brazil does block Telegram, @mara has a back-up plan: she has already signed up for other apps, including Trump’s new Truth Social, which started rolling out Sunday.

“WE WILL NEVER GIVE UP,” she said.



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Meta’s Adding More Ad Targeting Information to its Ad Library Listings

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Meta's Adding More Ad Targeting Information to its Ad Library Listings

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytics scandal, Meta has implemented a range of data protection measures to ensure that it limits access to users’ personal data and insight, while at the same time, it’s also been working to provide more transparency into how its systems are being used by different groups to target their messaging.

These conflicting approaches require a delicate balance, one which Meta has largely been able to maintain via its Ad Library, which enables anyone to see any ad being run by any Facebook Page in the recent past.

Now, Meta’s looking to add to that insight, with new information being added to the Ad Library on how Pages are using social issue, electoral or political ads in their process.

Meta ad targeting

As you can see here, the updated Ad Library overview will include more specific information on how each advertiser is using these more sensitive targeting options, which could help researchers detect misuse or report concerns.

As explained by Meta:

“At the end of this month, detailed targeting information for social issue, electoral or political ads will be made available to vetted academic researchers through the Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) environment […] Coming in July, our publicly available Ad Library will also include a summary of targeting information for social issue, electoral or political ads run after launch. This update will include data on the total number of social issue, electoral and political ads a Page ran using each type of targeting (such as location, demographics and interests) and the percentage of social issue, electoral and political ad spend used to target those options.”

That’s a significant update for Meta’s ad transparency efforts, which will help researchers better understand key trends in ad usage, and how they relate to messaging resonance and response.

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Meta has come under scrutiny over such in the past, with independent investigations finding that housing ads, for example, were illegally using race-based exclusions in their ad targeting. That led to Meta changing its rules on how its exclusions can be used, and this new expansion could eventually lead to similar, by making discriminatory ad targeting easier to identify, with direct examples from Meta’s system.

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For regular advertisers, it could also give you some additional insight into your competitors’ tactics. You might find more detailed information on how other brands are honing in on specific audiences, which may not be discriminatory, but may highlight new angles for your own marketing efforts.

It’s a good transparency update, which should glean significant benefits for researchers trying to better understand how Meta’s intricate ad targeting system is being used in various ways.

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