Cristina Tardaguila, Founder, Agencia Lupa and Senior Program Director at the International Center for Journalists: We knew 2022 would be a year of election information, so it’s no surprise. Then there is the pandemic, which is very important, not only because of the virus itself and the damage it did here, but also because of the attitudes of the government. [toward combating it]. And finally, there is the war in Ukraine. It is difficult to spend time on social media in Brazil without encountering misinformation on at least one of these issues. So we are fighting on three fronts and at the same time discussing a law that should solve it all. It’s very, very hard. The volume is incredible and the choice is not really heated yet.
CFM: How does Brazil compare internationally when it comes to the scale of the disinformation problem?
CT: It’s hard to compare across borders. I would say that we are both lucky and unlucky, because of the language. We speak Portuguese, so we are protected from a lot of fake news spread in English, Spanish, Chinese. Portuguese still acts as a barrier. But the fact that we have a less spoken language is also a problem because the tools devised to identify and spot fake news, artificial intelligence and the like, these are not developed into Portuguese. They cannot distinguish pé (the letter p) from pé (foot) or vovô (grandfather) from vovó (grandmother). This complicates the work for them in the front line of this fight. So I would say that yes, we are far from the big disinformation centers because of our language, but the fight is tougher because of the lack of weapons developed into Portuguese.CFM: There is also the legislation you mentioned: a bill that aims to combat “fake news”, which is now being discussed by Brazilian lawmakers. There are concerns about potential privacy breaches and excessive surveillance. To what extent can anti-disinformation laws play a useful role without opening up new risks? CT: The simple fact is that there is no data to prove the link between legislation and a reduction in the dissemination of false information. At the International Fact-Checking Network, where I served as associate director for more than two years, we had a database of these laws around the world. In Asia, which has had “fake news” laws since 2019, no one has defeated or even reduced disinformation. So as fact checkers, we just can not support anything that has not proven effective.
In Brazil, we arrived late for the disinformation campaign. In 2009, there was already a Pulitzer Prize for an American fact-checking initiative, but the first specialized agency here, Lupa, did not open until 2015. Since then, the debate has developed a lot, but we – the general population, not specialists and researchers – is not at the level seen elsewhere when it comes to understanding the complexity of this debate.
In particular, this bill was born at a terrible time, in the midst of the pandemic in which the then leader of the House of Commons was personally threatened. To solve his problem, a bill was born. The first version appeared in early 2020 at a time when Congress was already meeting virtually. So it all started unfortunate, undemocratic at a time when there were other priorities.
In the House of Commons, the bill has been significantly improved and focuses more on behavior, not content. But it still has unacceptable clauses, such as granting immunity to parliamentarians, some of whom have contributed to vaccine disinformation. It’s unthinkable.
CFM: The law seems to have some positive elements, such as the idea of going after those who actively fund false information, rather than those who share it.
CT: The problem with this clause is that it is useless. Imagine you are paying me to create disinformation. You would be the one to track. But how do they prove the connection with the necessary speed without violating basic principles? If you want to follow the court procedure, it will take so long that the damage will happen. But if you want to keep up, you will expose people, violate privacy and create a tool that can be used for other means.
There’s an easier way to track the money: bid the platforms if they get paid to promote something that turns out to be disinformation. The fines must come out of Big Tech. It must be those who are made to see disinformation as a responsibility, not a lucrative traffic generator.
CFM: Should countries make the ability of platforms to function conditional on them accepting steps like this? Brazil’s highest electoral authority has been particularly concerned about misinformation spread across the messaging app Telegram.
CT: We can not go for individual platforms. Laws and restrictions cannot be defined solely for today’s problems. If we ban Telegram, someone will come up with something a little different, and then it will pick up speed here. We need to have some more basic discussions. Say, the question of whether the president can block citizens on Twitter. What do we allow and what do we not allow?
CFM: Granted, but we’re looking at elections in October, and these debates are taking time. What can Brazil do immediately?
CT: The first thing is to realize that we can not solve anything. We can minimize it at best.
Then remember email spam. It was a problem in the late 1990s, a real hassle, but no more. What happened? Journalists wrote about it and trained people not to just click, not to engage, and did so repeatedly. We need to spread the same gospel with disinformation, teach people what fake news is, what it looks like, that it may be genuine, but in a misleading context. There is the technology part, just as there was to exclude spam from our inboxes. The same effort must go into filtering out what should not come through. Finally, we can create responsibility, responsibility, as we did when we got companies to add “unsubscribe” lines to their emails.
In the very short term, for the presidential election, there are some very easy things. First, promote collaboration between journalists. They bear the burden but must work together for fact check as no one can fight this monster alone. Secondly, build links with the electoral authorities, as we have already done – we have never seen Brazil fight misinformation as explicitly as this. The idea here is to reinforce the truth. We can only combat disinformation with a surplus of information, by flooding the zone.
The third and final leg is to teach people strategic silence. People who create fake news know what they’re doing, so you need to know when to interact with them and give oxygen, by retweeting or forwarding their fake videos or news. If it’s fake, leave it there, let it die with you. When Bolsonaro went to Russia, there was a meme with a front page of Time magazine saying he had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for preventing the war in Ukraine. I received it on five different WhatsApp groups, all pointing out that it was nonsense. And that was absurd, but there we were, and here we are discussing it.
So you’ve seen some fake news? Excellent. Fight it now by ignoring it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial staff covering raw materials and environmental, social and administrative issues. Previously, she was associate editor of Reuters Breakingviews and editor and correspondent of Reuters in Singapore, India, the United Kingdom, Italy and Russia.
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