Infected texts: disinformation meets polarization in Brazil


The fight against Covid-19 in Brazil has developed into an ideological battle, pitting President Jair Bolsonaro - who wants to reopen the country - against those who defend the WHO protocols. Brazil’s WhatsApp culture has opened the gate to a flood of rumors and fake news, some of which can allegedly be traced back to Bolsonaro’s inner circle. But the favelas are seeking their own solutions to counter disinformation.

Protest against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro
Teaser Image Caption
Protest against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro

During a trip to the farmer’s market to buy produce, Andréa Cristina da Silva, a resident of the northern part of São Paulo, heard a conspiracy theory that sounded like science fiction. “People commented that we should not worry about Covid-19 because China is working on an even worse virus, transmitted like dengue, through mosquito bites,” she says. 

It was the middle of May and the number of Covid-19 cases were soaring. Policies of social isolation had been put in place in major cities two months before and the pandemic was the primary topic among Brazilians, although the discussions did not always demonstrate a commitment to the truth.

Disinformation and misinformation spread through Brazil at top speed. 85 percent of Brazilians worry about what is real versus fake on the internet and a study conducted by Avaaz in the United States, Italy, and Brazil found that Brazilians are the people most inclined to believe fake news: 73 percent of Brazilians surveyed believed at least one false story related to the pandemic.  Additionally, 97 percent of Brazilian internet users access the web via smartphone, resulting in a digital environment flooded with easily shared images and short videos. In particular, WhatsApp – a messaging tool that has come to resemble a social network – has proven to be fertile ground for the rapid, undetectable dissemination of fake news. According to Brazil’s National School of Public Health, WhatsApp is responsible for spreading 73 percent of rumors and falsehoods about the pandemic.

Disinformation is especially dangerous when combined with the increasing political polarization of news in Brazil. “Every time there is a big occurrence, the number of fake news stories increases. Everything becomes a war of narratives, with people trying to convince one another of their existing point of view,” says Gilberto Scofield, Jr., director of strategy and business at Lupa, one of the largest fact-checking agencies in Brazil. “There are people making money producing and sharing fake news, defending or attacking points of view, messing with reputations or discrediting a group.” 

Quarantine vs chloroquine

When these two forces – disinformation and the political polarization of the pandemic – come together, the result is a disaster. “The power of fake news continues in opposition to the fight for survival and contributes to the number of deaths in the outer city,” says Cíntia Gomes, co-founder of Mural, a non-profit organization that produces news, data and analysis about the outskirts of São Paulo, where the poorer residents live. “Throughout this, the death toll advances to the edges of the city.” 

In Brazil, polarization has led to the formation of two groups, informally nicknamed “quarantiners” and “chloroquiners.” The first group defends the adoption of public health measures based on the recommendations of scientists and the World Health Organization (WHO). The second group, aligned with President Jair Bolsonaro (who is known internationally for denying the severity of the crisis), supports wide adoption of the anti-malarial drug chloroquine by the national health system in both mild and severe Covid-19 cases. This way, according to the “chloroquiners,” economic activity will return more quickly, businesses can reopen, and people can move freely again. Even though the few studies supporting the medication have been discredited, sharing of false information about its supposed efficacy continues.

It would be better for society to discuss the circumstances under which quarantine makes sense and a lockdown is necessary, says Manoel Fernandes, founder of the digital analysis consultancy Bites. Unfortunately, the facts of the pandemic have become connected to where one falls on the political spectrum, and the terms of the debate make a discussion based on scientific consensus impossible. “Any message becomes politicized, and this hurts those who really need the information,” he says. Supporters of Bolsonaro have never had a commitment to the truth, and information has become partisan. Our country may be the only one to come out of this pandemic with a political crisis to solve, besides the health and economic ones.” 

“I had the feeling that I was about to be lynched”

In other cases, the crossfire of disinformation and polarization has led to danger for researchers. Ângela (who asked to remain anonymous) is a researcher for Ibope, an important national research institute. In early May, she arrived in Macaé, in the north of Rio de Janeiro state, to conduct quick surveys for a major populational study about the coronavirus. Residents in one of the neighborhoods gathered to chase her, chanting “they are robbers, they want to break into our homes,” Ângela says. “I had the feeling that I was about to be lynched.”

Due to a lack of coordination between federal, state, and municipal government, many cities were not notified that researchers were coming. The absence of official information amplified the dissemination of fake news and disinformation. “Before the research was conducted, there were already digital campaigns warning the residents not to open their doors to researchers, because they did not have medical degrees,” Ângela says. 

She is not the only one with such a story. Another researcher, Elza Souza, faced the same situation. Before she arrived, posts on WhatsApp groups claimed that researchers were collecting people’s DNA and even transmitting the virus. It became necessary to ask police officers to escort the researchers during their visits for safety. 

As for Ângela, she eventually abandoned the work because she did not feel safe in the field. 

State-sponsored disinformation and the “cabinet of hate”

The double crisis of political polarization and disinformation is not merely the result of social media companies and low trust in news. Investigators and prominent politicians suspect that federal employees and the sons of President Bolsonaro – three of whom are politicians –  are producing and spreading fake news on social networks, financed with public money and donations from businesspeople. Members of this alleged state-sanctioned disinformation team – which became known nationwide as the so-called “cabinet of hate” – have been under investigation by both the federal police as well as a parliamentary committee of inquiry since the end of 2019. 

Researchers such as University of Virginia media studies scholar David Nemer say that the cabinet of hate, similar to other digital militias, use bots to spread lies on Twitter, the network most used by the president and his sons. They create identical tweets and hashtags and reproduce them by the thousands, not only telling the same story, but using the same words and even the same spelling errors. One of the false stories that spread during the pandemic was attributed to a doorman. It claimed that though the doorman’s cousin had died from a tire explosion, his cause of death was recorded as Covid-19, thus implying that cases were being overreported. Twitter users denounced dozens of different profiles that told the exact same story. 

Another tale that became famous exacerbated the divide between quarantiners and chloroquiners. This story claimed that someone’s daughter, a bank employee, used chloroquine to cure herself of mild Covid-19 symptoms. As in the case of the doorman’s cousin, the bank-employee daughter appeared in dozens of profiles. Stories like these reinforce the false paradox between the economy and health, often exploited by the federal government and its allies as justification for the absence of firmer prevention measures.

Favelas are fighting back

Caught in this scenario, social media platforms have taken on the job of combating disinformation. However, such efforts have been limited to occasional action, like Twitter and Facebook deleting posts from Bolsonaro, alleging that the posts contradict the recommendations of the WHO. 

Third-party organizations have taken up the work of containing fake news during the pandemic. Content and fact-checking platforms have created sections specific to Covid-19 content. The fact-checking agency Lupa created a newsletter that is distributed for free to health secretaries and professionals throughout the country and reproduced on digital platforms. Lupa has partnerships with the International Fact-Checking Network, Facebook, Google, and Latam Chequea, a network that connects fact-checking platforms from 20 Latin American countries.

People in the favelas are also working to reduce the damage caused by disinformation. Voz da Comunidade, a community paper produced by the residents of the Rio de Janeiro favelas, launched an application in partnership with the US Consulate in Rio de Janeiro that shares verified content. “We receive the material and put in the app a debunked version that says whether something is true or not,” says Melissa Cannabrava, communications coordinator for Voz da Comunidade. “In the Complexo do Alemão (which comprises 13 of the favelas in the city) we have received a lot of questions.” 

Mural has created the podcast “Em Quarentena.” Its daily five- to ten-minute episodes refute fake news and share information on Covid-19 prevention for low-income communities in São Paulo. The episodes are distributed via broadcast lists on WhatsApp and by Spotify. The preference for WhatsApp, explains Cíntia Gomes, is due to its reach, “but also because we know this is where the circulation of fake news occurs.”  Mural’s podcast features several disinformation-fighting initiatives in poorer parts of the country. In the absence of government guidance, residents are taking news production about the pandemic in their own hands.