Facebook owner fails to prevent repeat of January 6 in Brazil, report warns

Meta is failing to stop a January 6-style movement gaining traction on Facebook and WhatsApp in Brazil, a rights group warned in a new report.

Campaigning is currently underway for the next presidential election in Brazil, with the first round of voting scheduled for October 2. Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s right-wing populist president, has accepted comparisons to Donald Trump throughout his tenure and is now drawing on the former US president’s 2020 playbook as he lags behind his left opponent Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

In recent months, Bolsonaro has sought to cast doubt on the validity of Brazil’s democratic processes, repeatedly warning of the risk of fraud and claiming without evidence that the country’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to tampering. In speeches, he said that “only God” could remove him from office. Some of Brazil’s key military officials echoed his claims of possible fraud, sparking fears that the world’s seventh-most populous country could be vulnerable to a military coup if Bolsonaro is defeated in October’s election.

“If we have to,” Bolsonaro said at a campaign rally in June, “we will go to war.”

Content questioning the validity of the upcoming election is spreading rapidly on social media, according to a new report titled ‘Stop Theft 2.0’ which was shared exclusively with TIME by the nonprofit organization SumofUs. The spread of this content is contributing to the January 6th-style movement that is gaining ground in Brazil — and Meta, which also owns Brazil’s most widely used messaging platform WhatsApp, isn’t doing enough to prevent it, according to SumofUs. The findings echo those of another report published by Global Witness in mid-August, which found that Facebook had repeatedly approved ads containing falsehoods about Brazil’s elections.

The role of social media in the Brazilian elections

The influence of social media on Brazilian politics is hard to overestimate. About 83 percent of Brazilians get their news online, including through social media, according to the Reuters Institute. WhatsApp is the most popular platform in Brazil, with 78% of people using it regularly; Facebook is used by 67% of the population. “Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian president, probably one of the few leaders in the world, who governs through social media, much more than Trump ever did,” said Tomás Trauman, a Brazilian journalist and political analyst who was a spokesman for Dilma Rousseff, one of the predecessors of Bolsonaro as president.

In the report shared with TIME, SumofUs identified posts, ads and private messages on Facebook and WhatsApp that it said contributed to “inciting a violent coup.” The report also identified ads by Bolsonaro supporters spreading electoral disinformation, with targets including Brazil’s Supreme Court and Bolsonaro’s political opponents. SumofUs alleged that other ads posted on Facebook in August violated Brazil’s political advertising laws outside the official campaign period.

“Meta has learned absolutely nothing since January 6 in the US,” said Flora Rebelo Arduini, campaign manager at SumofUs and author of the report. “We’re seeing ads calling not only for a violent coup in the country, but also narratives discrediting Brazil’s electoral processes.”

SumofUs identified 16 “problematic” Facebook ads promoting the Sept. 7 rally, including one that featured a picture of a combat knife alongside military gloves and goggles. Together, the 16 ads were viewed by Facebook users more than 615,000 times, the report said. (Meta removed the combat knife ad before the report was published, but an identical post on a smaller page is still online, according to SumofUs.) Rebelo Arduini says that while the sample size in the report is small, the ads it describes are “just the tip of the iceberg” of the narrative unfolding on social media.

Rebelo Arduini adds that Facebook appears to be blind to the broader significance of the September 7 movement, viewing the posts on a case-by-case basis rather than as part of a coordinated threat to Brazilian democracy. “You can’t evaluate specific isolated pieces of content or ads without actually putting them in the context of the country,” she tells TIME. “One size does not fit all, unfortunately.”

Bolsonaro supporters are also using WhatsApp to undermine credibility in the election, according to the report. SumofUs monitored three large group chats on the platform over a one-week period and found memes inciting violence on September 7. “War is not won in hours,” reads one example. “Sept. 7 is just the beginning […] You want freedom? BATTLE. Do you want your job? BATTLE. Want to protect your family? BATTLE.”

“We cannot comment on a report we have not been given access to,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. “We have prepared extensively for the 2022 elections in Brazil, working closely with local electoral and law enforcement officials. We remove content and accounts that pose a credible threat to public or personal safety.” close to voting day to “identify potential threats in real time and speed up our responses.”

“The concern about street violence is absolutely real,” said Katie Harbat, Facebook’s former head of elections who spent time in Brazil for the company during the 2018 election campaign that brought Bolsonaro to power. Harbat says Facebook has noticeably improved its policies since the last election, rolling out labels that direct users to reliable information from the election commission and improving its AI systems to detect harmful language.

“What hasn’t changed is the difficult question of where you draw the line with some of this content and the question of when something rises to the level of imminent harm,” says Harbat, who now runs a tech policy consultancy called Anchor Change . “To me, this is a story about how artificial intelligence is not yet nuanced enough to tell the difference between when someone says ‘let’s take to the streets and defend our democracy,’ whether they intend to be violent or not.”

Meta’s own policies may make it difficult for researchers to point out the company’s shortcomings. Harbat cautioned against taking the small sample sizes in the SumofUs report as evidence that its findings are just the tip of the iceberg. But the report’s authors told TIME that Meta made it difficult for them to do broader research by denying their requests for access to CrowdTangle, a tool that allows researchers to monitor the reach of posts and hashtags. Metta is reportedly planning prison CrowdTangle, following a series of bad press arising from the use of the tool by researchers and journalists. “This limits the ability of researchers to get a better look at what’s happening on the platform,” Rebelo Arduini, author of the SumofUs report, told TIME. “Facebook is once again closing the loop and limiting opportunities for researchers, civil society and academics.”

With tensions rising on social media, Brazilian political analysts now worry that even if September 7 remains peaceful, the election could end very badly. “I don’t expect a coup attempt on September 7,” says political analyst Traumann. “Bolsonaro wants to show that the people are behind him and then we will see what happens on October 2. The danger will come on election day, the days before and the days after.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent in [email protected] and Billy Perrigo in [email protected].

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