—Luís Roberto Barroso, Professor of Constitutional Law at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Justice at the Brazilian Supreme Court, and President of the Superior Electoral Court
I. The Digital Revolution
The world is living under the Third Industrial Revolution–the Technological or Digital Revolution–which began in the final decades of the 20th century, and is characterized by the massification of personal computers, smartphones and, most notably, the Internet, connecting billions of people all over the planet. The Internet has revolutionized the world of social and interpersonal communication, exponentially expanding access to information, knowledge, and the public sphere. Nowadays, anyone can express their ideas and opinions, and disseminate facts on a global scale.
Before the internet, the distribution of news and opinions depended to a large extent on the professional press. It was up to them to ascertain facts, disseminate information and filter opinions according to the criteria of journalistic ethics. The Internet, with the emergence of websites, personal blogs and, above all, social media, facilitated the wide circulation of ideas, opinions, and information without any filter. The negative consequence, however, was that it also allowed the spread of ignorance, lies and the practice of crimes of varied nature.
II. Rise of Social Media
One of the most significant implications of the Digital Revolution was the rise of social media and messaging apps. Facebook has around 3 billion accounts. YouTube has over 2 billion. In Brazil, according to a survey by the National Congress, 79% of the population has WhatsApp as their main source of information. Television comes in a distant second place, at 50%. Printed vehicles, which are experiencing a crisis in their business model, are used by only 8%. The growing weight of technological platforms across the planet and the many risks that can arise from their abusive use have led most democracies in the world to debate the best regulatory model for this new reality. In Brazil, there is already a bill approved in the Federal Senate and currently being debated in the Chamber of Deputies.
It is interesting to note that, in the beginning, the belief that the Internet should be an “open, free and unregulated” space predominated, but this perception has completely disappeared. There is a consensus today on the need for regulation on different levels:
- economic, to prevent market domination, protect copyright and establish fair taxation;
- privacy, to prevent the misuse of information accumulated by technological platforms about their users; and
- control of behavior and content, in order to find the right balance between freedom of expression and repression of illegal conduct. The latter point is what matters for the purposes of this reflection.
III. Social Media Regulation
The regulation of social media should seek to curb:
- inauthentic behaviors that involve the use of automated systems–robots or bots, fake profiles or hired people, trolls–to forge engagement and/or drown out third-party discourse;
- illicit content, which includes terrorism, child sexual abuse, incitement to crime and violence, hateful or discriminatory speech, undemocratic attacks, non-consensual sharing of intimate images (revenge porn), etc.; and
- disinformation, which consists of the deliberate creation or dissemination of false news, usually with the purpose of obtaining one’s own gain–political, economic, personal–causing harm to other people.
IV. Threats to Democracy and Attacks on the Electoral Process
Brazilian democracy has recently lived trying times. Some of the most serious events include:
- rallying outside the army headquarters, with requests for intervention by the Armed Forces into the political process;
- demonstrations on September 7, 2021, with threatening and intimidating calls against institutions and incitement to the insubordination of Police forces;
- threats of invasion and closure of the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court, and non-compliance with judicial decisions;
- tanks parading in Praça dos Três Poderes, Brazil’s center of power which hosts the buildings to the Supreme Court, the Congress and other relevant governmental bodies; and
- calls for impeachment of a Justice of the Federal Supreme Court.
The past haunted our lives ominously.
The infrastructure of Electoral Justice, which operates Brazilian democratic processes with integrity, has suffered repeated attacks, with false accusations of fraud and offenses against its members, in an effort to discredit the democratic political process. For months, the country watched an absurd campaign that preached a return to the paper ballot vote (in substitution of Brazil’s current electronic vote, recognized for its safety and accurateness), with manual public counting. Again, a bet on backwardness. A return to the past of fraud, during which ballot boxes disappeared while others appeared with more votes than voters, all while electoral maps were manipulated in favor of dishonest people. Fortunately, the National Congress, showing its independence, rejected this change, which was perceived by most as motivated by dark intentions of disrespect for the electoral result.
The worst consequence of all this, however, was that throughout the year, the country had to expend immense energy debating the wrong issues. We discussed going back to paper ballots, when we needed to be discussing much more relevant and urgent electoral matters, such as:
- democratizing parties, which cannot have owners or eternalized provisional committees;
- the need for more women in party leadership;
- objective and transparent criteria for the distribution of the Electoral Fund and accountability for this expenditure of public money;
- ending political gender violence, which inflicts physical and moral attacks on women who have the courage to enter politics;
- the electoral system, which is excessively expensive, has problems of low representation and makes governance difficult, among other issues.
All amid civilizational and cognitive deficits.
V. Fighting Disinformation
On multiple occasions in recent times, the political process has been dominated by hate speech, disinformation campaigns, and conspiracy theories. For the Superior Electoral Court, however, it was a period of profound learning and development of new capacities to deal with the problems brought about by the misuse of social media. The 2018 elections represented a relevant change in the structure of the electoral process, having been marked by the move from television and radio campaigns to social networks. The truth is that neither legislation nor precedents were prepared to address this new reality.
In the 2020 elections, however, many lessons had already been learned and the Superior Electoral Court prepared itself for a real war, on multiple fronts. In fact, it was necessary to convince people to vote in the midst of a pandemic, to prepare a mega health security plan, with the distribution of safety equipment and, in particular, to prepare a large program to fight disinformation. The program was developed along three axes:
- to combat false information by flooding the market with true information;
- to put priority focus on the control of inauthentic behavior, and not on the content of the speech; and
- to deliver media education, seeking to make society aware of the problem.
The battle against disinformation that aimed to undermine the credibility of the electoral process was won – but only provisionally.
The truth is that the Digital Revolution and the rise of social media have allowed for the emergence of true digital militias, verbal terrorists who spread hate, lies, conspiracy theories, and attacks on people and democracy. Some call themselves journalists but they are, in fact, fake news dealers.
Something seems to have happened in the world that it suddenly released all the demons that lived in the shadows. And so, unceremoniously, racists, fascists, homophobes, misogynists, deforesters, land grabbers, and assorted supremacists came out into the open. We must face them, remembering Nietzsche’s warning: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster..” What the world really needs is a shock of humanism, civility, and enlightenment.
Suggested Citation: Luís Roberto Barroso, Hate, Lies, and Democracy, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, January 22, 2022, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2022/01/hate-lies-and-democracy.
 Much of the information and ideas in this topic and the next were gathered from Luna van Brussel Barroso, Freedom of Expression and Democracy in the Digital Age. Belo Horizonte: Forum, 2022 (forthcoming).