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Many fear Brazil will see its own 'Big Lie' about election fraud soon

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On Sunday, Brazilians head to the polls to vote for their next leader. And some are worried that President Jair Bolsonaro is laying the groundwork to contest the results. Baseless accusations on social media seem to echo false claims of a stolen election here in the U.S. So is Brazil being engulfed by its own internet-fueled big lie? NPR correspondent Shannon Bond has more.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Brazil's last presidential election in 2018 was plagued by viral falsehoods, which spread so widely online, journalist Patricia Campos Mello has taken to calling it...

PATRICIA CAMPOS MELLO: The WhatsApp election.

BOND: The messaging app owned by Facebook parent Meta is hugely popular in Brazil. Campos Mello, who's a reporter for the newspaper Folha, has investigated how WhatsApp messages were used to flood Brazilians with wildly untrue claims.

CAMPOS MELLO: When that became very famous, let's see, was the penis-shaped baby bottle?

BOND: You heard that right. This was a video falsely claiming Bolsonaro's opponent was handing out bottles with nipples shaped like genitals at daycare centers in an effort to fight homophobia.

CAMPOS MELLO: Seriously. And people actually believed it.

BOND: Campos Mello says in that election, the false narratives had two key features. They focused mainly on cultural issues, like gender identity and teaching LGBT tolerance in schools.

CAMPOS MELLO: And using the mass messaging to, you know, make it faster to reach people and to reach specific groups of voters.

BOND: Bolsonaro ultimately won the election. The experience shook many Brazilians. And in the next few years, some things changed. WhatsApp limited the size of groups and how widely users can forward messages. Brazil's election authorities banned the use of mass messaging for political purposes and vowed to disqualify candidates who spread lies that way. Today, many Brazilians say they're more skeptical of what they see online. Our producer spoke to civil servant Andre Benjamin at a market in Rio.

ANDRE BENJAMIN: (Speaking Portuguese).

BOND: "I avoid social media as much as possible because of the fraudulent news popping up all the time," he says. But the nature of the falsehoods has also changed since 2018, says Campos Mello.

CAMPOS MELLO: 2022 is a different election in the sense that the main theme of disinformation campaigns is our version of the big lie.

BOND: The parallels to Donald Trump's false claims he won the 2020 U.S. election are not subtle. Bolsonaro baselessly claims that Brazil's elections are rigged, that electronic voting machines can't be trusted and that polls that show him trailing his rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, can't be believed. Those false claims are finding fertile ground online.

NATALIA LEAL: There is this narrative that with the electoral votes, the electronic votes, you cannot certify the results.

BOND: Natalia Leal is CEO of Lupa, a fact checker. On social media, Bolsonaro supporters reject polls and point instead to the size of the crowds at the president's rallies. Attacks against Brazil's major polling agencies have even spawned violence. And while many social media companies have policies meant to safeguard elections, these messages are spreading across WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and Telegram, which has gained popularity as a messaging app with few rules. Journalist Campos Mello.

CAMPOS MELLO: President Bolsonaro and his supporters - he actually tells people to use Telegram because, you know, it's the free platform.

BOND: Brazil's Supreme Court briefly banned Telegram earlier this year for not removing some posts and accounts spreading falsehoods. The app is now cooperating with a government program to combat misleading election claims. But researchers say it remains a hotbed of falsehoods. A recent investigation found a quarter of messages in Bolsonaro-supporting Telegram groups mentioned election fraud, some directly referring to Trump. And that worries Campos Mello.

CAMPOS MELLO: For this very radicalized part of the population, President Bolsonaro is ahead in the polls, way ahead in the polls. And if he does not win in the first round, that means there was fraud because the electronic voting machines don't work.

BOND: The question is, if Bolsonaro continues to follow Trump's playbook, are the tech platforms and Brazil's institutions prepared for the results? Shannon Bond, NPR News.

SUMMERS: And we should note that WhatsApp parent Meta pays NPR to license NPR content. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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