Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro.
Photo: Silvia izquierdo (AP)

Facebook, the scandal-mired social media giant that has faced enormous criticism for its role in the spread of online propaganda and fake news across the globe, has a War Room it wants everyone to know is tackling that issue head-on. Earlier this month, it touted the War Room’s efforts to clean up a torrent of hoaxes and misinformation spreading across Brazil on Facebook subsidiary and encrypted chat service WhatsApp before the country’s October 28 runoff election. Its head of civic engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti, told reporters the company was “delighted to see how efficient we were able to be, from point of detection to point of action.”

Status update: On Sunday, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro—who has pledged support for Brazil’s two-decade military dictatorship, attacked minorities and LGBTQ people, backed torture, and reportedly plans to decimate the Amazon rainforest—won those elections with 55.2 percent of the vote. And it looks an awful lot like one key element of his victory was exactly the kind of stuff the War Room was supposedly intended to fight, especially on WhatsApp.

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WhatsApp is enormously popular in Brazil, where it has essentially supplanted other communication services, and its group chat feature is widely used for organizing and political discussions. There are a huge number of factors that contributed to popular disaffection with the Brazilian government, and Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency and the app’s encrypted, decentralized nature make policing abuse difficult. But WhatsApp spam and propaganda has been widely reported to have been a dominant force in the final stretch of the campaign season. This month, a scandal broke when the Folha de São Paulo paper alleged that top business supporters of Bolsonaro illegally bankrolled a WhatsApp spam campaign.

Reports of WhatsApp’s role in the election are everywhere. Take this interview on Vox with State University of New York at New Paltz anthropology professor Benjamin Junge, a Fulbright fellow studying working-class and middle-class families at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil:

Facebook and WhatsApp are [where we see] the fake news issue. A couple of weeks ago this matriarch who I’ve been talking about, we bumped into each other, and I’m always bugging them with questions about the election. This was before the first round of elections. She showed me a picture of this clip that was circulating of some woman in some public space who took her shirt off and bared her breasts.

She shows this to me and says, “I don’t want this kind of a society, is this what we want?” And I said, “Wait a minute, who is this person?” And she says, “This is what we would get if we support the [Workers’ Party], or at least this is what will be fixed if Bolsonaro gets elected.” And it was just some ridiculous fake news thing, who knows if it was actually the Bolsonaro people who put it into circulation, but it was circulated by Bolsonaro supporters

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Junge added:

... I don’t even fully appreciate just how pervasive WhatsApp groups are—I think that every family in Brazil has a WhatsApp group that has more than one cellphone user in it. And I believe that that cuts across class in a big way.

From the New York Times on Bolsonaro’s digital-first strategy:

While rivals spent small fortunes on marketing firms, video editors and consultants, Mr. Bolsonaro relied primarily on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the instant messaging service WhatsApp to communicate with voters and expand his base. ... One dominant message, spread widely via WhatsApp, asserted with no evidence that Mr. Bolsonaro’s opponents encouraged schoolchildren to become gay or reconsider their gender identity by employing sex education materials referred to as “gay kits.”

“I like what Bolsonaro stands for,” said Cintia Puerta, 55, an architect in São Paulo, said Sunday after voting. “My sister works in a school so I know they are teaching ‘gay kits’ to children, teaching them about sexuality at age 5 and 6. They’re indoctrinating children in the school.”

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From the Washington Post, on how online fanbases fueled Bolsonaro’s rise:

Though it surged only over the past two months, the Bolsonaro phenomenon began to take off two years ago, observers say. His popularity built in urban areas, where backers became voracious consumers of his missives on Twitter and WhatsApp. It spread to ranchers suffering invasions of squatters on rural farms. White men and wealthy voters, eager to turn the page after a decade of left-wing rule, rallied to Bolsonaro’s side.

His rise caught many off guard.

Okay, here’s the Guardian from shortly before the election:

Bolsonaro’s loyal volunteer “army” administer the WhatsApp groups and stand ready to ban infiltrators – or anyone who dares question their leader.

There is little debate or discussion of Bolsonaro’s electoral manifesto, but users are often expelled for apparently trivial infractions such as asking why Bolsonaro has refused to participate in televised debates.

Whenever “average” users attempt to ask questions, they are bombarded by passionate messages from Bolsominions, who often base their arguments on fake news stories. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s most passionate supporters form a human infrastructure that actively disseminates fake news across social media platforms.

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The Rio Times, also from a few days before the elections, noted that the misinformation was so pervasive that Bolsonaro’s opponents got in on the game:

A large number of Brazilians, especially of women, adhered to the “#EleNao” (#NotHim) and “#EleNunca” (#NeverHim) movement against Bolsonaro, calling him a racist, anti-LGBT, chauvinist dictator. Over the past weekend the movement held rallies throughout the country, taking thousands to the streets.

Many Brazilians, like graphic designer Flavia Ribeiro, admit to posting videos and information which may not be true in her social media, but justifies the move as just ‘equaling the playing field’.

“Bolsonaro’s supporters play dirty, they are very aggressive on Whatsapp and Facebook, telling all sorts of lies about the PT, (former president) Lula and Haddad,” she says. “I’m just putting out information that I receive against Bolsonaro, but I don’t always check to see if it’s true.”

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As Vice News noted on the eve of the election, WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels published an op-ed in Folha saying, “We have a responsibility to amplify the good and mitigate the bad” this month. But WhatsApp, which has no staff located in Brazil, failed to send an in-person representative during a meeting at the Superior Electoral Court in Brasilia last week:

Rather, Keyla Maggessy, WhatsApp’s senior manager working on law enforcement and safety, video-conferenced in from her office in Silicon Valley. The company’s failure to attend in person was compounded by what fact-checkers present in the meeting described as Maggessy’s lack of knowledge on the subject.

“Every question we put to her, she either didn’t know how to answer or she was going to ask somebody else,” said Christina Tardáguila, director of fact-checking group Agência Lupa, who attended the meeting.

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Others in the room had some jabs as well, Vice News added:

The other, Tai Nalon, director of Aos Fatos, Brazil’s oldest fact-checking network, said Maggessy wrongly claimed that WhatsApp had been working in partnership with her group.

“You may have a partnership with me, but I don’t have a partnership with you,” Nalon said.

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Sounds like that War Room went just great! Hopefully, when Dr. WhatsApp or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Fake News, goes to DVD, they’ll leave in the deleted pie fight scene.