RIO DE JANEIRO — Worried that Brazilians will soon be flooded with fake news ahead of a critical presidential election, the country is setting out to crack down on organized efforts to intentionally mislead voters.
The officials leading the effort argue that the right to free speech cannot come at the expense of an illegitimate outcome, in an election that could dramatically alter the course of Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
“It is necessary to consider which of these two principles must be sacrificed in the name of an election that is neutral and not tainted by deceitful news,” said Luiz Fux, a Supreme Court justice who recently assumed the presidency of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the highest authority on election laws and regulations. “Sometimes the excessive concern with freedom of expression ends up violating a more important principle — the democratic principle.”
At Justice Fux’s direction, Brazil’s Federal Police recently established a task force of law enforcement and intelligence personnel, which is developing strategies to prevent fake news from being produced and to limit its reach once misleading content starts spreading online.
“It is not our intention to infringe on anyone’s freedom of expression or their right to voice an opinion,” said Eugênio Ricas, the director of the Federal Police’s organized crime division, who is leading the fake news task force. “The big question is when does a personal opinion become a lie about a candidate that is published with the specific intent of harming them and in doing so interfering with an election.”
Judicial officials say the task force is studying the tactics used by groups that have been active in spreading fake news in the past and assessing under which current laws they could most effectively be charged. They have also been consulting and negotiating with American technology companies, including Google, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, in hopes of turning them into partners in the fight against fake news rather than targets of enforcement actions and fines.
If their initiative succeeds, Brazilian officials say that the October election, which will take place in a deeply polarized society, could serve as a template to address a problem that has undermined faith in democracy across the world.
But officials acknowledge that they are up against vexing legal, technological and ethical quandaries. Key among them is a 2014 law that gives internet users in Brazil strong privacy and freedom of expression protections.
While officials are mainly concerned about fake news strategies deployed by rival campaigns, not a foreign power, they caution that such tactics are often planned and executed abroad, which makes shutting them down difficult.
Judicial and law enforcement officials have called on Congress to pass a law establishing clear rules and penalties for fake news. A bill introduced last year in the Senate would make intentionally spreading false information about issues that affect public health, public safety, the economy and the electoral process punishable by up to two years in prison.
Yet it is unlikely that lawmakers will pass controversial legislation before the election, according to politicians and analysts.
That leaves officials having to make use of laws and regulations they view as anachronistic for a 21st-century problem.
These include electoral and defamation penal codes that were passed before the internet existed, and a dictatorship-era public security law from the 1980s that prohibited spreading rumors with the potential to generate panic or unrest.
“Those laws are not adequate to apply to the tactics of today,” Mr. Ricas said. “The evolution of the internet and communication,” he added, “makes it hard to be relying on laws from the ’80s, the ’60s, the ’40s.”
The legal situation has made building constructive relationships with technology companies a pinnacle of the plan.
Social media companies like Facebook initially dismissed accusations that they had been a vehicle for sophisticated disinformation campaigns in the United States in 2016. Yet as evidence has mounted, the technology giants have sought to cast themselves as proactive stakeholders in the fight against fake news.
They have a powerful incentive to cooperate because the tribunal headed by Justice Fux is in the process of finalizing guidelines for electoral advertising online. At a time when Brazilian politicians are increasingly turning to social media rather than traditional outlets to target voters, the social media platforms are positioned to make a windfall.
This reliance on social media to get the campaigns’ messages out are expected to put the companies in the cross hairs of fake news disputes, and they say they are doing what they can to combat the problem.
“The elections in Brazil are a priority for us, and we have been taking a series of steps to make sure our platform gives people a voice, encourages civic engagement and helps strengthen democracy,” a press officer for Facebook said in an emailed statement. “We have made several product improvements to reduce the reach of low quality content, eliminate the economic incentives behind most fake news, and prioritize content from trustworthy and informative sources.”
Google, which has been sued and fined dozens of times in Brazil as part of efforts to get online content removed, has met with judicial officials to explain the advances, and limitations, of its tools to combat fake news.
“While there is always more to do, we believe the actions we are taking will help prevent the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality and downright false information,” a Google press officer said in a statement.
Law enforcement officials in Brazil have expressed particular interest in WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook, which has about 120 million active users in Brazil.
While WhatsApp is in the middle of a legal battle before Brazil’s top court over its encryption practices, company representatives in Brazil recently told judicial officials they would abide by what it considered reasonable court orders requesting the suspension of accounts found to be systemically spreading fake news.
While government officials and the technology companies’ representatives say their discussions have been cordial and productive to date, the companies have made it clear they do not intend to become arbiters of truth.
A BBC World Service poll last year found that 92 percent of Brazilians expressed concern about being able to discern between fact and falsehood online, the highest percentage of respondents in any country surveyed. But just what constitutes fake news is up for debate.
The two front-runners in the race — former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist, and Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing provocateur — have taken aim at news outlets for critical coverage, in much the same way President Trump has criticized American news organizations.
Mr. Bolsonaro and his surrogates, for instance, labeled fake news an article in Folha de São Paulo that raised questions about how he and his family afforded their real estate holdings on public-servant salaries.
Mr. da Silva is by far the leading target of negative fake news stories in Brazil, according to an analysis by Veja, a weekly newsmagazine, which recently published a cover story about misinformation campaigns. One example was an article falsely claiming that Mr. da Silva had said he would ascend to the presidency even if it meant trampling the federal judge who convicted him of corruption and money laundering last year.
Mr. Bolsonaro is the rare Brazilian public figure who is the subject of more fake news stories that cast him in a positive light than a negative one, according to Veja’s analysis. A spokesman for Mr. Bolsonaro did not respond to an emailed query about whether the campaign considers the use of fake news a legitimate electoral tactic. Mr. de Silva recently said such tactics should not be employed.
Marina Silva, a former environment minister who is running third in the polls, announced that she was recruiting an army of volunteers to discredit the type of disinformation campaigns that she said derailed her past two bids for the presidency, in 2010 and 2014. False stories spread on social media about Ms. Silva before those elections included a claim that, as an evangelical, she intended to ban video games and an accusation that her bodyguards once fatally beat a gay man who tried to approach her.
While there is widespread agreement among Brazilians that fake news has had a corrosive effect on the country’s democracy, some worry about the ramifications of a government crackdown. The Internet Rights Coalition, a civil society group that opposes regulation and censorship of online content, recently issued a public letter raising alarm about Brazil’s plans.
“We have already seen troublesome initiatives and a proliferation of laws aiming at active monitoring and regulating of online speech and delegating fact-checking to authorities,” the group said.
But Justice Fux pointed to the American election as a cautionary tale about what can happen if there is no effort to check false information.
“In the American election, freedom of expression trumped over fake news,” he said. “Here in our country we recognize that while a right may be exercised, it can also be abused.”
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