Brazil attempts last minute solutions to control fake news spreading

Local electoral court plays catch up in tackling the issue and seeks answers from tech giants - 11 days before citizens head to the polls.

With only 11 days to go before the final round of presidential elections in Brazil, the country's Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) is now reaching some late conclusions about the role of social media in disseminating false information.

Following the first round of elections, a TSE council focusing on the Internet impact on the elections now accepts the dissemination of fake news was much more prolific than expected - and that WhatsApp has been the most popular channel for spreading that content.

The council is now debating whether the messaging tool should be subjected to rules regarding the restriction of information flows ahead of presidential elections.

A video-conference was held between WhatsApp representatives and TSE officials yesterday (16) to discuss what could be done at this stage.

"We have had a productive conversation about the actions we take to mitigate misuse and how we can work together to combat disinformation. We look forward to continuing the dialogue during the election period," WhatsApp said in a statement. It is understood that the company's owner Facebook and Google are due to meet the TSE in the next few days to agree on specific actions.

Considering WhatsApp's history in Brazil of refusing to intervene in communications flowing through the tool, it is unlikely that it will intervene in any political content being disseminated in the platform.

When questioned whether this positioning might change around election-related fake news, the company responded by sending an infographic about the platform's encryption, which among other things mentions that after an encrypted message reaches its servers, no one - not even the company - can access its contents.

Back in July, F acebook introduced "transparency tools" in Brazil as part of efforts to make political propaganda more obvious to users. Brazil was the second country after the United States where the changes were introduced.

Catching up

Fake news online is also the topic of a meeting happening today between the TSE president, minister Rosa Weber, and attorneys from the two candidates running in the second round of presidential elections on October 28.

Both candidates claim to have been hurt by the dissemination of false information online and the electoral court wants to try and establish some codes of conduct and stimulate a "serene environment". It might be argued that this should have happened sooner, as the campaign approaches its final stages.

Commentators have pointed out that the TSE has indeed underestimated the impact of fake news spreading over WhatsApp and is now too late in the game to be able to implement effective measures.

The Court's council was set up with the initial purpose to find ways to reduce fake news online around political campaigning in Brazil. However, it doesn't appear that the group has had a particularly busy agenda, given that it met for the last time last Wednesday (10) before gathering previously in June.

When the TSE council's activities started in January 2018, the idea is that the work would include research development on the influence of the Internet on elections, analysis on how other countries are dealing with the matter and an update of the Court's current policies to reflect technology innovations such as use of bots to disseminate information.