In November last year, Brazilian police stopped a truck on a highway in the center of the country and, after a thorough search, discovered more than six tons of marijuana stashed in false compartments. The truck had the name Romanelli on the side, but police said it was a label designed to confuse and that the criminals were not linked to a company or person of that name.
Nevertheless, Luiz Claudio Romanelli, a politician in neighboring Paraná state, said he soon felt the repercussions. Within hours, posts were shared all over social media and WhatsApp linking him to the drug bust. Romanelli, who is the head of the Paraná state assembly, informed police and tried to neuter the lies through his own press office, but in many ways the damage was done.
“Politicians are the preferred target of people who specialize in spreading falsehoods and manipulating part of public opinion,” Romanelli said in a blog about the incident entitled “Fake News.” The blog, posted on his website, said, “On the eve of the elections, one of the big challenges for politicians and for the Superior Electoral Court will be combatting the proliferation of false news.”
His prediction was prophetic. On January 9, Brazil’s federal police, with the backing of the Superior Electoral Court, a body charged with overseeing all elections, announced it was forming a commission to decide how to combat false news items published on social media platforms and websites ahead of the October ballots for president, Congress and hundreds of state positions.
Police said the move was designed to “identify and punish authors of ‘fake news’ for or against candidates” standing for election. The proposed law would establish what constitutes criminal behavior and give the police a tool to fight the practice.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about fake news in South America’s biggest and most populous country.
In a poll of 18 nations carried out for the BBC World Service last year, Brazil was where internet users most worried about identifying the real news from the false. More than 90 percent of Brazilians said fake news was a concern, although 72 percent said they were opposed to any kind of government regulation of the world wide web.
A local study carried out in June by the University of São Paulo found that fake news was so widespread it threatened the integrity of the upcoming elections. And one piece of fake news about former president and potential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was shared, liked or commented on 15 million times last August, according to a stat cited by the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo.
What the intended new law might look like is not yet clear, but the desire to act is not an isolated one. Across the world, governments and societies are looking at how to stop or limit fake news and offensive content.
On January 1, Germany’s controversial law that forces large social media firms to remove hate speech within 24 hours, came into effect. Platforms that repeatedly fail to meet the deadline face a fine of up to €50 million (US$61 million).
French president Emmanuel Macron said in January he intended to introduce laws to prevent fake news being shared online. The proposed legislation would force websites to be more up front about where their content and financing came from.
And the European Union set up a commission in November to consult on fake news and how to combat it.
The big difference in Brazil is the participation of law enforcement. The EU’s commission is made up of academics, news organizations, social media platforms, and civil society groups. Law enforcement were not invited because, said Laura Tresca, head of the Digital Rights program for Brazil’s Article 19, “there is no need to turn this into a security issue.”
Brazil’s federal police want to be involved because they are the ones charged with investigating electoral crimes, officials there have said. The fear is that fake news, bots, and candidates and their proxies will be ramping up their efforts in the election run up.
But free speech advocates say deciding what qualifies as fake news is a complex process that is distinct from investigation or prosecution. The role of the police should be to enforce laws, not decide what those laws should be.
“We are concerned, because it is very worrying that content becomes a police matter, that the federal police get involved in judging what is and what isn’t disinformation,” said Tresca.
The decision is perhaps not surprising given Brazil’s long history of authoritarian governments. Such regimes have left their mark and Brazil–and its Latin American neighbors–often turn to law enforcement to resolve issues that other countries consider civilian affairs.
Brazil’s police forces are militarized and many laws passed under the previous military dictatorships are still on the books. Criminal laws from the 1950s are still used to judge defamation and related offenses, in spite of calls by national and international bodies to bring them under civil jurisdiction.
Eugênio Ricas, the federal police officer in charge of investigating and combating organised crime, told CPJ any possible new legislation would supplement rather than replace the antiquated laws currently on the books.
“These protocols deciding who does what, where and how, could be a new more modern law,” he said via telephone from the capital, Brasília. “The crimes are similar, attacking someone’s honor, but today they are done via the internet. The laws we have today were made before the internet existed and so there is no clear way to act. We could decide on adopting new legislation to modernize our statutes.”
Although Brazil aims to create a legal framework before October, the tight legislative schedule makes that unlikely. Congress is barely functioning, the president has a popularity rating in single digits, and there is no public clamor for new legislation.
There is widespread concern among free speech advocates that if new laws cannot be passed in time, the police will resort to using laws passed during the 1964-1985 dictatorship.
“That they are now eyeing a resurrection of this dictatorship-era censorship law to regulate and censor contemporary political expression on the internet — all in the name of stopping ‘fake news’ — powerfully symbolizes how inherently tyrannical and dangerous are all government attempts to control political expression,” Glenn Greenwald wrote in a blog on the subject earlier this month.
Rather than focus on laws, digital rights advocates said one of the best alternatives is to put more accent on education. Teaching people how to identify fake news and the sources of it will slow the spread of misinformation, said Cristina Tardáguila, director of Agência Lupa, an independent fact checking organization set up in Rio de Janeiro four years ago.
“It’s important that the average Brazilians understands that they are going to see a lot of fake news in the upcoming campaigns and that they have a way to check it out,” she told CPJ in a telephone interview.
“The federal government have ways to do this. They ran major campaigns to publicize pension reform and they are doing a similar thing right now to get people to vaccinate against yellow fever. When they want to, they can, and it is cheaper, faster and more effective than creating legislation.”
[Reporting from Sao Paulo]