WhatsApp Bans 100,000 Accounts Before Brazilian Election, Which Is Still a Real Mess

Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Photo: Silvia Izquierdo (AP)

Facebook subsidiary and encrypted chat service WhatsApp has banned more than 100,000 accounts ahead of the upcoming federal elections in Brazil, where leftist Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad will face down far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, Bloomberg reported on Friday.


Facebook has recently bragged nonstop about its “war room,” an office in its Menlo Park, California headquarters where employees monitor attempts at organized disinformation efforts online (or at least make it look like they’re doing that). WhatsApp is a popular chat app that has a large overseas userbase, but its encrypted nature makes it very hard for Facebook to monitor by design. As the Guardian noted, the Brazilian press has been buzzing with reports that Bolsonaro’s backers in the business world have been illegally colluding with the candidate in a multimillion-dollar plot to bombard WhatsApp users with “hundreds of millions” of propaganda messages before the Oct. 28 runoff elections:

But according to allegations in a front-page report by the Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s leading newspapers, Bolsonaro has been getting an illegal helping hand from a group of Brazilian entrepreneurs who are bankrolling a campaign to bombard WhatsApp users with fake news about Haddad.... In some cases overseas numbers were used to get around the platform’s spam controls.

“The practice is illegal since it constitutes undeclared campaign donations by companies, something outlawed by electoral legislation,” the newspaper said.

“My adversary is seeking to benefit from electoral crimes,” Haddad tweeted.

“What we are facing here is an attempt at electoral fraud,” he added, claiming to have information suggesting 156 entrepreneurs were involved in the campaign.

Haddad is demanding an investigation into the WhatsApp spam campaign. According to Bloomberg, other political parties are demanding Bolsonaro be “declared ineligible,” and there is a police investigation into the matter:

... The country’s top electoral court responded on Friday night by saying it will open a formal probe against Bolsonaro. Several political parties, including Haddad’s Workers’ Party, are jointly requesting that Bolsonaro be declared ineligible for 8 years for abuse of economic power and misuse of digital communication.

Brazil’s federal police also opened an investigation into allegations of spam message campaigns on WhatsApp related to the election.

However, with Bolsonaro widely expected to be heading into a landslide victory in the runoff, and advocating things like legalizing mass-arrests and indiscriminate lethal force by police and appointing generals to key posts in his administration, it may well be too late for something like a WhatsApp propaganda scandal to stop him.

WhatsApp told Bloomberg they had identified and eliminated the 100,000 fraudulent accounts using “have cutting-edge technology to detect spam that identifies accounts with abnormal behavior so that they can’t be used to spread spam or misinformation” and that they were taking legal action against companies involved. Yet the New York Times wrote on Friday that the estimated 120 million Brazilian users on WhatsApp have been deluged with spam for months, including everything from fake information on how to vote to thousands of videos and images disseminating lies and propaganda.


While Facebook has seen the Brazilian elections as an opportunity to prove it is up to the challenge of fighting back against the use of its platform to subvert the democratic process, the Times wrote that many Brazilians simply see its response as part of a conspiracy to manipulate the news cycle:

It does not help that many Brazilians view the work of the fact-checkers as part of a nefarious effort by big corporations like Facebook to shield Brazilians from the truth.

“When we do the debunking, a lot of times people just don’t trust the debunk,” said Leonardo Cazes, an editor working on the “Fato ou Fake” news literacy project with O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper.

.. “People entered this election with a sense of hyperpolarization,” said Roberta Braga, an associate director at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank. “There is a lot of distrust in politics and politicians and political establishments in general.”


WhatsApp has also considered making changes to the way it works in Brazil, including imposing tighter caps on the number of messages that can be forwarded, the Times wrote. The exposure of the alleged business plot to engage in even more spam is notable, though it seems that their playbook was to simply continue hammering WhatsApp with messages “similar to those already in circulation,” the paper added.

WhatsApp has been used by extremist groups to stoke violence and lynchings in India, and the military of Myanmat has used Facebook as a tool to aid genocide against Muslims. The ongoing mess in Brazil shows that despite efforts by management to respond, Facebook and its properties’ uses as a political and electoral weapon appears to be growing at a rate that it either lacks the ability or the nerve to control.


WhatsApp is particularly popular throughout Brazil because it is free, while local service providers generally offer inflated rates for SMS capability. As the Washington Post noted, the chat app’s invite-only group feature has been used for organizing purposes there by everyone from “disgruntled Uber drivers, feminists, and hard-line conservatives” to union activists. By the same token, WhatsApp and other social media services have enabled propaganda networks that are contributing to the chaos of an already disturbing election season, potentially helping pave the way for a candidate who promises to restore order through autocratic means.

“The country is a pressure cooker,” philosopher Francisco Bosco, who has published work on social media and politics in Brazil, told the Post. “Social networks increase the pressure and allow it to be organized pragmatically. The conflicts and tensions are laid out every day, often in reduced, simple terms that contribute to a polarizing environment and scapegoating.”



"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post


Carlos Bacco

I started to write some things to correct pontual problems in your post, but each paragraph I read lead me to the infortunate conclusion, there is so many problems to pinpoint that I just want to say this instead:

The only newspaper noticing (accusing) such things without any proof is Folha de São Paulo, ironically known as an “unnoficial” propaganda of the current fascist government (Dilma-Temer).

The other things media are repeating from Bolsonaro are scandals made up. Bolsonaro is no saint, but most he said is taken of context, and Lula da Silva always sad worst things (and Lula is in fact a convict corrupt, WITH A LOT OF PROOFS).

Outsiders are taking brazilians as ignorant people that don’t know what is dictatorship, but I can for sure say that we are struggling to get out of the shit here and Bolsonaro can be a relief for the country. I can’t say it will be, but it’s the one possibility.

You are valorizing words of the current corrupt parties that fu**ed us up, you cant understand how much, instead of relying in facts that we live day after day.

There is no “left” and “right” here. There is corruption. The worst type: disguised as a populist government (all real dictatorships done what PT is doing here, even the government plan is fascist in essence). It’s easy to say nice things to do good PR, but the reality lies in the facts. Haddad is a mere pawn in an ugly dominance project. Bolsonaro says a lot of shit, but is no monster (and is no Trump either).

If you really want to do good journalism, please help us. Show the other side, show the real problems, show the real evil. If you really want to see, you will see.


Signed: Carlos Bacco - 44 y old brazilian that loves people, peace, uses public transport and health services, not a son from rich family that graduated late (law, bachelor), after years of studying in public school. We brazilians are trying hard here to get a chance to live a little better life, please, stop promoting evil. You are better than this (I hope), don’t be fooled, don’t fool others.