Disinformation on messenger services worldwide: A study of Brazil

Brazilian case study


Broadband is still very expensive in Brazil, accounting for up to 15 percent of a household‘s income. Flat rates, especially for mobile data, are virtually non-existent. The wide use of WhatsApp is made possible through ‚zero ratings‘: providers offer their customers free data for certain services, in particular Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. The small data allowances result in limited to access to websites where disinformation might be refuted, including news websites and news apps, provided the provider hasn‘t struck a zero rating deal with the news provider39. Despite the comparatively high cost of internet access, 22 percent of Brazilians pay for online news services. In comparison, just 8 percent of Germans pay for online news40.

News consumption

76 percent of Brazilians use Facebook and of those, 54 percent use it to get their news. An impressive 84 percent are on WhatsApp, 53 percent of which use the messenger for news. 54 percent use Instagram, and 26 percent of those use it to get their news. 44 percent of Brazilians use Facebook Messenger, but only 15 percent of those use it for news. In Brazil the smartphone has also replaced the computer as the principal device for reading news online. 77 percent primarily use a smartphone, 55 percent use a computer and 11 percent use tablets. Online news services are very popular: 87 percent use online sources, including social media, while 73 percent get their news from TV. Print media‘s share dropped from 50 percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2019. 64 percent of Brazilians get their news exclusively from social media and 58 percent share news stories via social media, messenger services or email. 36 percent comment on news online, either on social media or on news provider‘s websites. According to the Reuters study, out of the countries included in the study, Brazilians have the biggest concerns about mis- and disinformation41.

2018 presidential election

WhatsApp played a key role in the campaign of President Jair Bolsonaro. In addition to social media networks, the then-presidential candidate primarily used the messenger service for spreading propaganda. Even though his campaign broadcast only eight second of election advertising on TV per day, it was able to leverage messenger services to boost his campaign. According to the 2019 Reuters Digital News Report, from 2018 to 2019, Brazilians trust in news decreased by 11 percent, down to 48 percent. The presidential election is linked to the decline because it strengthened polarisation of the left-wing and right-wing media and their respective candidates. In addition to WhatsApp, Bolsonaro relied heavily on Twitter and made several live appearances on Facebook. Journalists had to adapt their reporting as a consequence: to keep up to date they had to check whether Bolsonaro and his allies had made any social media appearances or announcements. Illustrating the point is the ‚Bolsonaro‘s appointment of 14 of his 22 ministers through Twitter. WhatsApp groups were heavily used by Bolsonaro‘s followers to spread propaganda, misinformation and disinformation. Brazil is the leading country when it comes to the use of groups on WhatsApp – both with people in one‘s social circle and strangers. 22 percent of Brazilians use groups on WhatsApp to get their news and to exchange political views, while 18 percent use Facebook‘s newsfeed. Only Turkey has a higher usage percentage of groups for political exchanges and news consumption. 58 percent of Brazilians who use groups debate news and politics with strangers, meaning they have no idea who they‘re talking to and whether the information they receive is reliable42. Participants in these groups can be organised into three categories: ‚ordinary Brazilians‘, ‘Bolsominions‘ and ‚influencers‘43. The majority is made up of ‚ordinary Brazilians‘, which includes people of all social classes and genders who are inclined to vote for Bolsonaro based on their life experiences and right-leaning or radical right-wing political affiliations. This group, in particular, distrusts traditional media outlets. WhatsApp groups are used by ‚ordinary Brazilians‘ to get ‚real‘ information that traditional media outlets supposedly want to keep quiet. The groups reinforce the views of ‚ordinary Brazilians‘ and provide information and memes designed to promote Bolsonaro or to help legitimise and spread their opinions to other social settings. ‚Bolsominions‘ are Bolsonaro‘s loyal ‚volunteer army‘. They set up and manage the groups, banning critics and contrarian members. Questions about Bolsonaro failing to take part in television debates are said to have resulted in people being excluded from WhatsApp groups. Questions from ordinary members of a group led to a bombardment of arguments by Bolsominions based on false news.

‚Influencers‘ make up around 5 percent of WhatsApp group members. They don‘t often participate, instead designing and producing content – primarily images and video – to be shared and distributed across groups and beyond. They are good at predicting which content will go viral and react to current events quickly – sometimes considerably faster than traditional media, which won‘t report on news considered irrelevant. When Marine LePen, the head of the French radical right-wing party National Rally (formerly known as National Front) criticised Bolsonaro, she was called a communist and memes about the event quickly spread. In the first round of the election, videos purporting to show that election computers had been tampered with, and thus that the entire election was a fraud, were spread on social media channels. Links to Facebook posts and YouTube videos critical of Bolsonaro were shared through WhatsApp groups, resulting in a bombardment of negative comments and/or dislikes. Group and mass activism such as this is a global phenomenon – be it the supporters of the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte44, the Russian Internet Research Agency (a ‚troll army‘)45, or the events surrounding the German TV election debate in 201846.

Spreading mis- and disinformation is not a uniquely right-wing phenomenon: Bolsonaro‘s opponent, Fernando Haddad, and his supporters spread inaccurate or false information in WhatsApp groups and via other channels. After Bolsonaro was attacked with a knife at an event in September 2018 and subsequently hospitalised, his opponents spread images that showed him unharmed in hospital, implying the event was staged. The pictures were real and taken before the attack and as such had nothing to do with the attack47. There is, however, a quantitative difference between right-wing and left-wing mis- and disinformation. The analysis of several Brazilian political WhatsApp groups showed that the right-leaning part of the political spectrum shared significantly more multimedia content (46.5 percent) than its left-leaning counterpart (30 percent)48.

The comparison of the three countries show that so far only Brazil and India have had – and still have – considerable problems with disinformation on messenger services. Timely, preventative measures can only be implemented in Germany if the issue is taken more seriously. It is reasonable to assume that in future, disinformation via messenger services will spread faster and with greater breadth, due in part to the growing proliferation of smartphones. Smartphones or the internet are not the root cause of disinformation campaigns, but changing behaviours regarding news and information consumption have to be addressed. A problem in all three countries is the – sometimes sharp – decline of trust in the media. Solutions that restore this trust must be developed. This includes financial models for journalism in the digital age. News and information cannot be allowed to become a luxury item, available only to the few. The feeling that local events aren‘t being reported, or indeed a general suspicion of cover-ups, must be addressed, alongside a decline of trust in governments. The current political and social climate is a breeding ground for the spread of disinformation – most clearly seen in India and Brazil. Both the current Indian and Brazilian governments are fuelling nationalism, racism, hatred of (religious) minorities and sexism through political action and inflammatory statements. Disinformation regarding these topics spreads especially quickly. Fighting disinformation requires a far more comprehensive and extensive approach than has so far been the case. Combatting disinformation is made much more difficult if a country‘s government benefits from the social disorder caused by disinformation – at best it will tolerate it; at worst it will actively promote it. This is certainly not the case in Germany. However, the German government does need to develop better solutions to the economic, social, and societal problems that provide the grounds on which disinformation thrives.

39 Cf. Belli 2018. 40 Cf. Newman et al. 2019. 41 Cf. Newman et al. 2019. 42 Cf. Newman et al. 2019. 43 Cf. Nemer 2018. 44 Cf. Palatino 2017. 45 Cf. Chen 2015. 46 Cf. Schmehl 2017. 47 Cf. Tardáguila, Benevenuto, and Ortellado 2018. 48 Cf. Morris 2019.