The rise of mis- and disinformation is a major problem for democracies around the world. So-called “fake news”, spread on social media and texting services such as WhatsApp and Telegram, can undercut faith in elections and the democratic process and endanger peaceful transfers of power. In Brazil, the spread of disinformation will present a substantial risk to public faith in the outcome of this year’s presidential election, with false allegations of voter fraud, for instance, already running rampant.
In this context, the International Center for Journalists, in partnership with Youtube Brazil, selected six news organizations for funding and mentorship as part of the “Jogo Limpo,” or “Fair Game” initiative. This initiative aims to support innovative solutions to combating misinformation in the lead-up to Brazil’s elections.
Here’s how these newsrooms are fighting misinformation in Brazil and creating a fair game for voters in the upcoming elections:
Fact-checking the candidates
“For the past four years, disinformation has been the most important topic in politics. And I think it also plays a very important role in the upcoming elections,” said Bruno Fávero, growth director at Aos Fatos. As the campaign for president of Brazil accelerates this summer, political rallies, presidential debates and interviews present the opportunity for candidates to speak on a wide range of topics — and to spread disinformation through these mediums.
At Aos Fatos, transcribing current President Jair Bolsonaro’s speeches for fact-checking over the course of his administration took significant time and resources that could have been spent on other forms of journalism. Their solution: to create a free and public transcribing tool for fact-checkers, journalists and researchers — and form a “public record” of speeches to later be analyzed.
“We are compiling every interview and speech that all the main candidates do. And we will offer them in a public, free-to-access page,” said Fávero. The purpose of these tools is to reduce newsrooms’ workloads, while also offering an easy way for the public to fact-check speeches for potential misinformation.
For O’Liberal, a news source in the Amazon state of Pará, the elections also present the opportunity for residents to fact-check what the candidates say about the region. “Sometimes the information [presented by presidential candidates] is not complete. Instead, we are going to listen to people and institutions in the Amazon who study and know the information completely and people who make informed policies,” said Daniel Nardin, O’Liberal’s content director.
During the election season, O’Liberal will fact-check candidates’ claims about the Amazon with help from experts in the region. They also plan to host a candidate interview on the subject, where candidates can be fact-checked by Amazonian news sources on claims and policies they have or plan to enact as president.
“Our subjective goal — when we check information about Amazon and distribute this to the public — is to put more of the Amazon into the agenda of candidates in the presidential election,” said Nardin.
Combating digital misinformation
Presidential candidates’ claims are not the only sources of misinformation in Brazil. Misinformation can also spread easily online.
“In 2018, we had a lot of accusations of voting fraud going around on WhatsApp and social media channels, and a lot of people started to mistrust the voting system, especially because of this false information that has been going around,” said Sergio Spagnuolo, editor at Volt Data Lab. “A lot of people have been working towards this goal of trying to curb a lot of misinformation. And for that, we need to have better tools and proper handling of this information.”
Núcleo Jornalismo and Volt Data Lab’s “Bot Pronto” program aim to find key words and phrases that often correlate to misinformation. “If somebody is talking about voting fraud or voting machines, we will identify those words, whether those words were used [for misinformation], and ask people to help us check if that's right,” said Spagnuolo.
While Bot Pronto is flagging misinformation after it appears online, others are trying to proactively dispel it. “We're not going to be surprised when false narratives and conspiracy theories start to circulate in our social media because they have already been circulating for the past four years. And we know that the disinformation agents will definitely try this strategy,” said Clara Becker, co-founder of Redes Cordiais. “So we thought, let's invest in pre-bunking instead of debunking.”
To do so, Redes Cordiais trains influencers to have the tools and knowledge they need to speak accurately on the elections. For instance, influencers will be introduced to the electoral courts and see ballot machines first-hand to debunk myths surrounding electronic ballots or other supposed voter fraud. “When [audiences] see fake news about electronic ballots, they will already be inoculated. They already know that the ballots are safe and they will be less inclined to fall for this kind of information,” said Becker.
Engaging young audiences
Getting young people to be engaged with their democracy is a final element of combating disinformation. While voting is compulsory in Brazil for everyone above 18 years old, many young people are still minimally engaged in elections. Yet as the online generation, they can serve as an important check on disinformation as it spreads in their communities.
“92% of young people in Brazil get their news from social media — Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp”, said Romeu Loreto, institutional development coordinator at Agencia Publica. “Major news agencies are not reaching young audiences.”
To reach young people, RELOAD, a project by ten independent news organizations including Agencia Publica, uses videos tailored to young audiences explaining the electoral system and dispelling myths on how it functions. “The major impact is [young people having] more understanding of how the system works, and how to use it to get their voices heard,” said Loreto.
Instituto Vero uses influencers, social media and open-source technology to educate young readers on how to fact-check disinformation. The hope is to create a generation of young people who can serve as fact-checkers in their families and communities.
“We think this society is going to be more prepared in general when [young people are] better equipped to fact-check,” said Caio Machado, director of Instituto Vero. “Second is accountability. So holding politicians at all levels to account will be easier in the future because people will be on the watch and more prepared,” he said.
“Let's get [young people] better prepared. And maybe they can work out change in their circles, because every young person has a goal. We want to make change, [and we can] empower them to act in their own spaces,” he said.
Together, these six organizations hope to create a community that is better equipped to combat the spread of misinformation during the next election. “I don't think [disinformation is] something that's just going away,” said Loreto. “It's something that is going in the right direction. But it's still a long path together.”
This article was updated on July 13th 2022.