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Disinformation, Digital Platforms and COVID-19: Making State Agents Accountable in Brazil

Fabrício Bertini Pasquot Polido and Emilio Peluso Neder Meyer, Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG)

Brazil faces the most critical moment of the COVID-19 pandemic since its beginning in 2020. Death tolls soared to new highs – with more than 300,000 deaths by the end of March 2021 – and the National Public Health System (SUS, Sistema Único de Saúde) is at the brink of a collapse. Vaccine production and distribution were systematically sabotaged throughout 2020 by President Bolsonaro’s Ministry of Health. He appointed his fourth health minister in the pandemic period after a succession of disastrous events and complete mismanagement of the health system at federal level. The president is the world’s best example of a political leader who discourages social distancing, participates in political demonstrations against democratic institutions and stimulates the usage of medicines without a scientific basis, such as chloroquine and ivermectin. Scholars are now contending that President Bolsonaro and governmental officers have an intention of deliberate virus propagation aiming at herd immunity. With all the negative political and social consequences of that scenario, the production of fake news on COVID-19 and vaccination exploded in Brazil.

Fake News and COVID-19

Brazil is the second country in the globe in numbers of users in the digital community engaged with social media, according to a recent report of the Global WebIndex. It also has the fourth largest national population in the world with internet access (considering fixed broadband and mobile services), according to the most recent figures published by the International Telecommunications Union in 2020.

The fabrication and dissemination of fake news has also aggravated the numbers of infections and deaths. False information on Covid19 and vaccination have contributed to decrease the knowledge on the lethality of the disease and the vaccine’s efficacy, creating hurdles to restraining the pandemic. In May 2020, an Avaaz research showed that seven out of ten Brazilian internet users – around 100 million people – believe in at least one fake news story on coronavirus. According to the same study, between five and six out of ten internet users engaged with fake news associated with COVID-19  and discredited the severity of the disease.

In the face of the seriousness of the situation in recent weeks, platforms and social media strengthened the adoption of measures concerning the circulation of misleading and harmful content online. YouTube, for instance, removed more than 30.000 videos from its platform which presented fake news and information on the COVID-19 vaccines. The platform’s general policy was guided to the exclusion of all data that may foster false information related to the vaccines’ effects. Considering topics linked to the disease as a whole, more than 800.000 videos were removed.

Twitter announced that it will permanently block accounts that publish fake information on the pandemic. The social media already adopts, in its policies, specific rules on false information or manipulated content that aims at creating disinformation. Generally, the user is notified, and Twitter can suspend the account until it reaches a fourth breach that can lead to a permanent blockage.

Facebook announced that it started a process of identification of publications that debate the safety and efficacy of vaccines. The objective is to highlight useful information for users, as well as to help them find vaccines against coronavirus in the United States. Instagram made available an Information Center on COVID-19, aiming at offering trustworthy data on the disease. Beyond that, it created specific rules in its policies on COVID-19 and vaccines: any publication made in the social media that reproduces fake information on the subject will be removed by the platform. The tools, however, have limited effect. Following the usual pattern of radical indifference – that is, in Shoshanna Zuboff’s account, the supposed neutrality towards content that prevents the platforms from controlling it for the sake of freedom of information – Instagram automatically links any COVID-19 information to the Brazilian Ministry of Health website. In other words, some tools aggravate the problem by aiding the more important sources of disinformation on COVID-19 in Brazil.

Freedom of Speech on the Internet: Authoritarian Falsification

Fake news has reached the high ranks of Brazilian politics. The Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes affirmed in his social media that the current Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araújo, was reproducing fake news on the way the court defined constitutional duties for federal agencies in fighting the pandemic. The authorities debated in social media what were the specific powers of central, regional and local governments for adopting social distancing measures.

President Bolsonaro is constantly publishing disputable  information of the appropriate measures to fight the pandemic. He is inevitably compared to his most US peer, former President Trump, who had his Twitter account blocked several months ago. Nevertheless, the company has not yet adopted a stronger position towards the Brazilian president, although, in the past, publications with blatant fake news were removed by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

At the same time that sanitary chaos is exacerbated, lives are lost, and due responsibility is replaced by executive underreach, President Bolsonaro and his aides, especially the Minister of Justice André Mendonça, became  stubborn and obsessed persecutors of political opponents and digital influencers. Beyond Mendonça’s clear aim of reaching an office at the Federal Supreme Court, the federal government pushed for a greater degree of surveillance of internet users in their online interactions and created a permanent state of intimidation. Let us take, for instance, the absurd case of Felipe Neto, a YouTuber with 41.5 million followers. Neto, in face of Brazil’s overall response to COVID, declared Bolsonaro’s politics to constitute genocide. One of President Bolsonaro’s sons filed a criminal complaint with the state of Rio de Janeiro police department. The police officer, an apparent supporter of Bolsonaro’s family, denounced Felipe Neto for breaching the National Security Act, a federal statute enacted by the dictatorship.

The case against Neto is obviously deeply problematic from a constitutional perspective. Firstly, one must bear in mind that this kind of accusation must be ruled on by the federal courts. Federal police are the appropriate instance to conduct an investigation. Secondly, although the National Security Act protects important values such as democracy – which have been violated by Bolsonaro and his supporters – it is a dictatorship’s act that also curtails freedom of speech in Brazil. It treats the president and other public authorities as beyond criticism, whereas the democratic system inaugurated by the 1988 Constitution does the opposite in propelling the free circulation of ideas. Thirdly, Bolsonaro’s regime has seemed to engage in a struggle against the Federal Supreme Court, which has been authorizing the indictment of his aides for supporting, for instance, the violent takeover of the courts and the National Congress. Further criticisms have also been fought by the government resorting to the National Security Act. Not surprisingly, the number of criminal investigations increased 285% in Bolsonaro’s term.

The Responsibility of Public Authorities

It is important to establish connections between the difficult task of restricting COVID-19 disinformation, President Bolsonaro’s attitudes, and the role of digital platforms. Bolsonaro’s deeds create the sensation of the existence of a politically protected environment in his surroundings, one that could allow for the circulation of dangerous information. The president prefers to use social media and weekly broadcast videos to communicate with his supporters, diverging from media outlets that could filter his statements. The president has found himself untouchable in a “safe chamber” deprived of any ethical, moral and political commitment.

The severity of both the outreach and audience given to Bolsonaro´s speech and harmful content during the COVID-19 demonstrates the need for a new pattern of digital accountability.  Digital platforms have some degree of responsibility for intensively collaborating with content moderation in view of the episodes discussed in this short opinion article. They can do more concerning President Bolsonaro – for instance, blocking his accounts until the end of the pandemic.

However, digital platforms cannot be held accountable for the Brazilian population’s health. Specifically on the case of COVID-19, recent UNESCO and OECD reports and policy documents show that countries, governments and legislatures cannot expect that platforms, by themselves, will fully restrict disinformation. Coordination between entrepreneurs, governments, international and national health authorities and civil society is crucial, particularly in designing and implementing a task-force on health-driven digital and media literacy and enforcement of fundamental rights online.

The National Congress and the General Prosecutor of the Republic, in turn, also have responsibility for overseeing Bolsonaro´s actions. On the congressional side, the spread of misinformation on COVID-19 and Bolsonaro’s poor public policy against the pandemic allows for both the creation of an investigatory committee and the commencement of an impeachment process – although the new Speaker in the Chamber of Deputies has already opposed it. In addition, the General Prosecutor of the Republic has a constitutional duty to open criminal investigations for the wrongdoings committed so far, especially those allegedly conducted by the president. It is not too late to place the 1988 Brazilian Constitution into the spotlight. 

Suggested citation: Fabrício Bertini Pasquot Polido and Emilio Peluso Neder Meyer, Disinformation, Digital Platforms and COVID-19: Making State Agents Accountable in Brazil, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Mar. 26, 2021, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/03/disinformation-digital-platforms-and-covid-19-making-state-agents-accountable-in-brazil/

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Published on March 26, 2021
Author:          Filed under: Developments
 

One Response

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog.

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