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Lies, damn lies and social media: fake news stalks Brazil vote

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Fake news is a major concern in the run-up to presidential elections in Brazil in October 2022

Fake news is a major concern in the run-up to presidential elections in Brazil in October 2022 – Copyright AFP Frederic J. BROWN

Eugenia LOGIURATTO

In a divisive election campaign blighted by fears of unrest if far-right President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to accept defeat, Brazil is waging an uphill battle against disinformation wielded as a political weapon.

Analysts say Bolsonaro’s 2018 electoral victory was in no small part due to an effective fake news smear campaign against his opponents.

Four years later, his backers have sought to replicate that feat, turning their attention to leftist ex-president and opinion poll frontrunner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“Disinformation has run wild” on newer platforms such as Telegram and TikTok, which allow for the rapid dissemination of easily manipulated video content, says Ana Regina Rego, coordinator of the National Network to Combat Disinformation.

Social media videos and other posts have sought to portray Lula, among other things, as an alcoholic who will shut down churches if elected in October.

Bolsonaro also has been targeted by fake news posts that have questioned, for example, whether he was really stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018.

And despite nonstop work to debunk these and other false claims, such posts find fertile ground in a country where a 2018 study found that almost half of Brazilian voters relied on WhatsApp to read news about politics and elections.

The figure was even higher among Bolsonaro voters.

In 2022, spreaders of disinformation have even more avenues including Telegram, the fast-growing messaging system that Bolsonaro has publicly embraced after having posts blocked on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Despite stricter rules adopted and better policing introduced against fake news, experts say new technology is complicating the task.

– Facts, lies, sensationalism –

The reach of fake news is impressive.

Three TikTok videos alleging to show Lula getting drunk on a transparent liquid — which is actually water — were seen 6.6 million times, while another five on the same platform that try to cast doubt on Bolsonaro’s stabbing had 3.3 million views.

Content that combines “facts, lies and decontextualizations with sensationalism has a 70 percent greater chance to go viral than something informative,” Rego noted.

TikTok told AFP its policy is to withdraw content that violates its “community norms” and may affect the electoral process, and to avoid highlighting “potentially misleading information that cannot be verified.”

At the outset of the 2022 presidential campaign, Supreme Electoral Court president Alexandre de Moraes vowed the justice system would be “resolute” in the fight against fake news.

And there have been some successes.

Moraes has since ordered social networks to remove several Bolsonaro posts on grounds of disinformation, along with many others from his supporters.

The court oversaw the creation of a group with companies such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google and TikTok to screen out fake news and report offenders.

Campaigns have been rolled out to boost digital literacy among social media users.

WhatsApp agreed to delay until after the election the launch in Brazil of a new “Communities” feature that would allow the creation of groups of groups, with administrators able to send messages to all — thus vastly increasing the potential for viral information spread.

Telegram bowed to pressure to take down disinformation content under threat of being blocked for not collaborating with the authorities.

“Without the collaboration of the platforms, it is very difficult” to pursue the spreaders of disinformation, said sociologist Marco Aurelio Ruediger of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Rio think tank.

“It takes a long time to adopt punitive measures, and by then the damage is already done, because the information has already circulated,” he said.

– ‘Even worse’ –

It is not only on social media, however, where lies are spread.

Bolsonaro himself has repeatedly criticized Brazil’s electronic voting system, which he alleges — without evidence — is riddled with fraud.

The president is under investigation for the claims.

Bolsonaro, who is fond of saying “only God” can remove him from office, has warned Brazil faces “an even worse problem than the United States.”

This has led to fears that his supporters might not accept the results, and that Brazil could see a burst of violence akin to the attack on the US Capitol in January 2021 in the wake of Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden.

Trump’s backers were riled up in part on social media, where Bolsonaro has tens of millions of followers.

“I fear that the results will not be accepted and that violence will be encouraged; we could experience a situation similar to that of the United States,” said Ruediger.

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The Most Visited Websites in the World – 2023 Edition [Infographic]

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The Most Visited Websites in the World - 2023 Edition [Infographic]

Google remains the most-visited website in the world, while Facebook is still the most frequented social platform, based on web traffic. Well, actually, YouTube is, but YouTube’s only a partial social app, right?

The findings are displayed in this new visualization from Visual Capitalist, which uses SimilarWeb data to show the most visited websites in bubble chart format, highlighting the variance in traffic.

As you can see, following Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the next most visited social platforms, which is likely in line with what most would expect – though the low numbers for TikTok probably stand out, given its dominance of modern media zeitgeist.

But there is a reason for that – this data is based on website visits, not app usage, so platforms like TikTok and Snapchat, which are primarily focused on the in-app experience, won’t fare as well in this particular overview.

In that sense, it’s interesting to see which social platforms are engaging audiences via their desktop offerings.

You can check out the full overview below, and you can read Visual Capitalist’s full explainer here.

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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Branding and rebranding is getting more fun, here we look at some of cheekiest brands that have caught our eye – for the right and wrong reasons.



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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

Over the past year, Google has repeatedly noted that a China-based group has been looking to use YouTube, in particular, to influence western audiences, by building various channels in the app, then seeding them with pro-China content.

There’s limited info available on the full origins or intentions of the group, but today, Google has published a new overview of its ongoing efforts to combat the initiative, called DRAGONBRIDGE.

As explained by Google:

In 2022, Google disrupted over 50,000 instances of DRAGONBRIDGE activity across YouTube, Blogger, and AdSense, reflecting our continued focus on this actor and success in scaling our detection efforts across Google products. We have terminated over 100,000 DRAGONBRIDGE accounts in the IO network’s lifetime.

As you can see in this chart, DRAGONBRIDGE is by far the most prolific source of coordinated information operations that Google has detected over the past year, while Google also notes that it’s been able to disrupt most of the project’s attempted influence, by snuffing out its content before it gets seen.

Dragonbridge

Worth noting the scale too – as Google notes, DRAGONBRIDGE has created more than 100,000 accounts, which includes tens of thousands of YouTube channels. Not individual videos, entire channels in the app, which is a huge amount of work, and content, that this group is producing.

That can’t be cheap, or easy to keep running. So they must be doing it for a reason.

The broader implication, which has been noted by various other publications and analysts, is that DRAGONBRIDGE is potentially being supported by the Chinese Government, as part of a broader effort to influence foreign policy approaches via social media apps. 

Which, at this kind of scale, is a concern, while DRAGONBRIDGE has also targeted Facebook and Twitter as well, at different times, and it could be that their efforts on those platforms are also reaching similar activity levels, and may not have been detected as yet.

Which then also relates to TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that now has massive influence over younger audiences in western nations. If programs like this are already in effect, it stands to reason that TikTok is also likely a key candidate for boosting the same, which remains a key concern among regulators and officials in many nations.

The US Government is reportedly weighing a full TikTok ban, and if that happens, you can bet that many other nations will follow suit. Many government organizations are also banning TikTok on official devices, based on advice from security experts, and with programs like DRAGONBRIDGE also running, it does seem like Chinese-based groups are actively operating influence and manipulation programs in foreign nations.

Which seems like a significant issue, and while Google is seemingly catching most of these channels before they have an impact, it also seems likely that this is only one element of a larger push.

Hopefully, through collective action, the impact of such can be limited – but for TikTok, which still reports to Chinese ownership, it’s another element that could raise further questions and scrutiny.

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