Future Tense

Why Fake News on WhatsApp Is So Pernicious in Brazil

Brazilians use the app for everything. Bolsonaro and his supporters exploited that.

Audience members with cellphones out at Sao Paulo Fashion Week N46 SPFW Winter 2019
Audience members sit with cellphones out at Sao Paulo Fashion Week N46 SPFW Winter 2019 on Friday in Sao Paulo. Mauricio Santana/Getty Images

On Sunday, Brazil, the giant nation of 209 million, elected the populist far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to be its 38th president. It was a landslide: He won 57 million votes, about 10 million more than his opponent, Fernando Haddad. However, the president-elect’s embrace of torture, political exile, and guns surely doesn’t please all his voters—many were just tired of the current government, whose corruption plunged the country into deep economic turmoil, unemployment, and astronomical crime rates.

But those fervently convinced that Bolsonaro will be the next Brazilian messiah were converted on the country’s favorite platform: WhatsApp. The app, created to connect people around the globe, turned out to be a potent broadcaster of news—especially disinformation. Facebook and Twitter are also fertile ground for fake videos and links to suspicious websites, of course. However, unlike these platforms, where everyone can see what’s being shared, on WhatsApp fake news circulates freely in obscurity, hidden from the public eye and debunking. That allowed the country’s existing fake-news problem to get far worse during this election cycle, as Ciara Long explained in Slate. But there’s another element here. It may be difficult for Americans to grasp just how central to life WhatsApp has become in Brazil. The largest South American country’s somewhat scary dependence on a single app has left the population vulnerable. And the president-elect knew it too well.

WhatsApp was founded in 2009 by two former Yahoo employees and was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion. Although it’s not that popular in the United States, 1.5 billion people worldwide, including 120 million Brazilians, use the app. It’s so popular because it allows users to talk, text, and send recorded messages, documents, videos, and photos to anyone in the world with a Wi-Fi connection. For free. The app reads the user’s phone’s contact list to identify the ones using the app—there’s no need for codes or links—which is invasive but makes things easier. All is friendly and fast. It’s hugely valuable when you’re traveling abroad. It has also been a crucial tool to connect refugees to their peers and family members. All messages are encrypted. Brazilians also love the ability to create groups within the app: family members, classmates, soccer teams, beer buddies, and, the most feared, the moms from your kid’s class. Once one person replies in the group, everyone gets it, which can turn people’s lives into a 24-hour reply-all scenario. As for the discussions, anything goes: from morning prayers and invitations to jokes and fake news. Loads of them. All unchecked. They come from all sides, and from people of all ages—especially your auntie Mary. And they also come from countless groups of candidates and political parties’ supporters, which shoot messages spread in geometric progression.

But there’s another reason why Brazilians are so committed to WhatsApp: It’s a way of tricking local telecom companies, which aren’t generous when it comes to cellular-phone plans. While in the United States, you can text and talk with any number with any area code and any cellphone provider for a flat rate, in Brazil prices vary significantly. That is why Brazilians usually ask what cell carrier you have before placing a call to your phone. A simple call or text, even with the same area code, could mean a couple of dollars. And since this is a friendly and talkative population, every minute counts.

That’s why WhatsApp, which locals affectionately refer to as “zap” or “zapzap,” spread rapidly, especially in the past four years, when smartphones became available to more layers of society. Many people who don’t have a laptop or a landline can’t exist without the app. Brazil is also a country where, irritatingly, it’s often acceptable for email messages to go unanswered. Via WhatsApp, the sender can see if the receiver read the sent messages, which imposes some pressure to reply.

There are some times when you can’t use WhatsApp, like when you need to reach out to a doctor’s office or a bank. But your neighborhood gym, mechanic, nanny, tutor, and dog walker are all on WhatsApp. It’s even invading more formal settings where you might think that email messages would be preferred. They don’t use tools like Evite or Paperless Post for invitations nor Google Groups for schools or work matters. They use WhatsApp for it all. (Many times, that’s less convenient than separate tools would be. It can be confusing to find relevant information among all the chatting, events can’t be synced to your calendar, and your phone number is constantly exposed to strangers.)

This dependence on WhatsApp can be exploited. For instance, once two new people are connected on WhatsApp, Facebook immediately, and awkwardly, suggests they become Facebook friends as well. It’s also created other complications: In 2016, WhatsApp was suspended by a Brazilian judge for the third time for a few hours as a way of protecting cellphone providers, the same way Airbnb and Uber had to fight with local authorities for their existence. In a single afternoon, the suspension left 100 million Brazilians in the dark, affecting business and meetings all over the country. They could not even imagine replacing it with a regular phone call, email, or text message.

And then, of course, there is the misinformation. What can be considered the worst-case scenario happened this year in India, where dozens of innocent people were killed as rumors circulated on WhatsApp linking them to the kidnapping of children. It was all fake. In Brazil, videos of candidates with voice-overs making false statements over the original audio became commonplace but frequently went unnoticed. Local newspapers and fact-checking agencies created initiatives to check the most controversial news—from all candidates—while Facebook came up with a physical War Room in Menlo Park, California, over the weeks that led to the elections, to monitor, spot, and suspend accounts responsible for spreading such content. But it was like using buckets to put out a wildfire.

The fake news in the presidential election was not all organic. During the last week of the campaign, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo revealed that companies supporting Bolsonaro illegally spent more than $3 million to have four digital agencies send fake news via WhatsApp to phone numbers sold by a digital-strategy agency. (That’s another illegal move, as politicians can only reach those who voluntarily shared their information with campaigners.) The article made waves, and since its publication, the author, journalist Patricia Campos Mello, has been receiving intimidating threats and online attacks. The day after his election, Bolsonaro mentioned on a TV interview that he intends to cut all federal advertising for the newspaper. Let’s hope that’s also fake.