Over the past few months, the 120 million Brazilians who use WhatsApp, the smartphone messaging application that is owned by Facebook, have been deluged with political messages. The missives, spread through the country by the millions, have targeted voters ahead of Brazil’s fiercely contested presidential election. A final runoff between a far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, and Fernando Haddad, the leftist Workers’ Party candidate, will be on Oct. 28. One popular WhatsApp message displayed the name of a presidential candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, next to the number 17. When Brazilians vote, they punch in a number for a candidate or party in an electronic voting machine. The misleading message was just one of millions of photos containing disinformation believed to have reached Brazilians in recent months. A study of 100,000 WhatsApp images that were widely shared in Brazil found that more than half contained misleading or flatly false information.
Whether the tide of disinformation can be curbed before the election is a crucial test for Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company. As the midterm elections in the United States grow closer, Facebook sees its handling of Brazil’s election issues as a way to convince the public that it is far more prepared to deal with organized disinformation campaigns than it was before the presidential election two years ago.
Brazil is the latest in a string of countries where social media disinformation has been used to influence real-world behavior. In India, the spread of false news has led to violence in a number of parts of the country. In Myanmar, Facebook has been used as a tool of the military to aid in the ethnic cleansing of thousands. And in the United States, disinformation continues to be an issue on a range of social media platforms.