Politics and Social Media - How Social Media Influenced the Brazilian Presidential Elections
Last Sunday, the presidential election in Brazil took place during a time characterized by widespread division and turmoil. Leftist candidate Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva won by a small margin with 50.9% of the votes against current president Jair Bolsonaro who received 49.1%. The current tense political environment in Brazil was also reflected in the discourse which ensued online. Both political camps polarized debate by spreading disinformation and taking recourse to name-calling with Bolsonaro often alluding to his doubts about the legitimacy of the voting system during his campaign. Social media platforms played an integral role in this campaign as the main mode of information sharing and communication. For example, NetLab, a Brazilian research institute, found that Meta and Google both provided platforms for politicians during the election campaigns to spread political advertisements, notwithstanding the fact that this is prohibited under Brazilian law. This is only one of several instances in which social media companies influenced elections. This post will give an overview of the Brazilian presidential election and the different ways in which social media has impacted political discourse. While this has not been the first major election where online platforms have pulled some strings, this situation could incite more discussion on whether private companies should be allowed to have so much discretion in the construction of the political narrative or whether it is useful to consider holding these companies more accountable.
The Importance of the 2022 Presidential Elections
Although Brazil is Latin America’s biggest democracy and holds a powerful position on the international stage as the 9th largest economy in the world, there has been a lot of unrest and political tension nationally which has created a variety of problems internally. These comprise extreme social inequality, homelessness, hunger, racism as well as environmental considerations. The stark division among Brazilians was reflected in the 2022 election involving two candidates from opposite political camps: Whereas Bolsonaro is openly right-wing and has made countless racist remarks against the considerable black population in Brazil, Lula has been a strong influence in Brazil’s left for decades, subscribing to equal rights and stricter gun laws.
Contributing to the political spectacle was the fact that Lula, also former President of Brazil in the second half of the last century, was released from prison only three years ago after being charged with corruption and money laundering. As such, both candidates were faced with political scandals which led to further polarization. This in turn created a perfect space for political discourse based on misinformation and exaggerated speech.
Social Media Platforms Directing Discourse and Narratives
The threat posed by fake news and disinformation to democracy and political discourse has been subject of many debates, especially in the context of major political junctures such as the vote for Brexit, the US Presidential elections, or the Philippines’ latest presidential election. Even though it can not be said for certain to what extent the spread of fake news ultimately affects election outcomes, both academics and citizens tend to recognize the detrimental effect of such information sharing. A survey in March 2022 revealed that more than 80% of Brazilians believed that fake news could influence election results and threaten democracy to some extent. This fear also translated into more concrete measures, as the Electoral Court of Brazil made attempts to counteract fake news by collaborating with messaging platform Whatsapp and implementing education campaigns. Attempts like these mirror similar events, for example, when the Philippine Commission on Elections cooperated with TikTok to fight disinformation. Nevertheless, it remains questionable whether such efforts truly prevent the dissemination and influence.
According to the report “Stop the Steal 2.0: How Meta and TikTok Promote a Coup” published by activist group SumOfUs, both social media companies had active involvement in the spread of disinformation. This manifested not only in a lack of content moderation, which allowed far-right groups to spread political calls for a military coup but also in the ways that algorithms favored sources originating from anti-democratic camps. The findings of the report showed that searching for terms such as “ballot” or “election” on Instagram or Facebook led to recommendations of sources that promoted far-right ideologies. Fears thus emerged of a Brazilian version of the Capitol riot occurring, which led to the storm of Capitol Hill in the US earlier this year. Although TikTok made significant changes that counteracted the algorithm bias to a considerable extent, this did not negate the emphasis on polarized content by recommendation algorithms fully.
Considering the numerous instances where social media platforms have steered political discourse, or at least exercised considerable influence on the narrative during important political junctures, one of the questions to be asked is the following: Are we holding these companies accountable enough? Lack of transparency in how algorithms operate makes this question more difficult to answer as it becomes harder to pinpoint where exactly the problem lies. Another challenge in this context is how potential measures against fake news should be balanced with freedom of expression.
Already in 2019, the State of California criminalized deepfakes used for political campaign promotion and advertising. China quickly followed suit by releasing a government policy that would prohibit the publication of deep fakes unless they were labeled as such. The pandemic made the issue of fake news more acute which led to a flood of new laws passed by countries to fight online misinformation. However, the flip side of such legislation is the fact that it can easily be used as a tool for censorship by deeming unfavorable public opinion or voices as sources of fake news.
The EU took a moderate approach by strengthening its Code of Practice on Disinformation, a soft law instrument signed by major social media companies. While the Code relies on self-regulation and voluntary participation of companies which minimizes the risk of censorship by governments, it simultaneously leaves considerable discretion to the companies themselves to moderate and classify content. Perhaps stronger accountability mechanisms in the form of fines could serve as a more effective incentive for social media companies to implement meaningful strategies against fake news. This would also make content moderation more cohesive as general principles could be enforced. It remains to be seen whether the EU will consider a more hands-on approach down the road.