WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app, is one of the main tools that Brazilians use to keep in touch with friends and family, and do business. Increasingly, it is also a part of politics. A recent poll found that 44 percent of voters in Brazil use WhatsApp to read political and electoral information. Unfortunately, in the lead-up to the first round of the presidential election on Oct. 7, the app was used to spread alarming amounts of misinformation, rumors and false news.
With just a few weeks before the runoff vote on Oct. 28 between the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro and his left-wing opponent Fernando Haddad, there is still time for WhatsApp to make temporary changes to the platform to reduce the poisoning of Brazilian political life. The company must be decisive before it is too late.
There have been positive developments in the fight against false news in Brazil. Ours is one of 17 countries where Facebook has third-party fact checkers trying to weed out misinformation from the platform’s News Feed. Facebook and Google have also collaborated on an initiative called Comprova, gathering 24 Brazilian newsrooms to debunk misleading links, videos and images.
But these efforts seem to have pushed dirty campaigns elsewhere, in particular to WhatsApp, where activity consists of encrypted personal conversations and chat groups involving up to 256 people. Such chat groups are much harder to monitor than the Facebook News Feed or Google’s search results.
From Aug. 16 to Oct. 7, we collected and analyzed posts in 347 chat groups that are open to the public and focused on Brazilian politics. This is just a small sample of the estimated hundreds of thousands of chat groups that millions of Brazilians use every day to gather information. Our study, which was conducted as a joint project by the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the University of São Paulo and the fact-checking platform Agência Lupa, revealed how misinformation spreads.
It is difficult to establish to what extent these misinformation campaigns are affiliated with political parties or candidates, but their tactics are clear: They rely on a combined pyramid and network strategy in which producers create malicious content and broadcast it to regional and local activists, who then spread the messages widely to public and private groups. From there, the messages travel even further as they are forwarded on by believing individuals to their own contacts.
From a sample of more than 100,000 political images that circulated in those 347 groups, we selected the 50 most widely shared. They were reviewed by Agência Lupa, which is Brazil’s leading fact-checking platform. Eight of those 50 photos and images were considered completely false; 16 were real pictures but used out of their original context or related to distorted data; four were unsubstantiated claims, not based on a trustworthy public source. This means that 56 percent of the most-shared images were misleading. Only 8 percent of the 50 most widely shared images were considered fully truthful.
The problem of false news in Brazil transcends ideological divides.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters shared several images describing politicians — including those from the center right — as “communists.” The most widely shared image from our sample was a black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro and a young woman. The description accompanying the picture claims the woman is former President Dilma Rousseff, and the text accompanying it suggests Ms. Rousseff was Castro’s pupil, a “socialist student.” The young woman in the photo, however, is not Ms. Rousseff. The picture was taken in the United States in April 1959, when Ms. Rousseff was only 11. Yet such images are effective in smearing Ms. Rousseff and the Workers’ Party — of which Mr. Haddad is a member — in a country where there is much antipathy to communism among the middle class.
The false news spread by Mr. Haddad’s supporters is generally somewhat different. These messages tend to distort Mr. Bolsonaro’s positions on taxes and the minimum wage, often using exaggerated data. But some anti-Bolsonaro messages on WhatsApp are outright conspiracy theories: After Mr. Bolsonaro was stabbed at a campaign event on Sept. 6, Mr. Haddad’s supporters shared pictures of the candidate entering a hospital smiling, suggesting he had staged the attack. The image, however, was taken before the stabbing.
The alarming flow of distorted information can be mitigated. If WhatsApp changes some of its settings in Brazil from now until Election Day, Oct. 28, it can reduce the spread of lies. Moreover, these simple changes can be made without impinging on freedom of expression or invading users’ privacy.