Whatsapp groups and misinformation are a threat to fragile democracies

Brazilians are among the world’s top users of social media, leaving them especially exposed to fake news and political influence campaigns online. Social media forums have replaced traditional media, which for decades were controlled largely by a single Brazilian conglomerate, Globo Group. Facebook Inc.-owned WhatsApp, in particular, has become the main vehicle for the internecine spats that happen elsewhere on Twitter or Facebook. Brazil is WhatsApp’s second-biggest market, with more than half of its 208 million people counted as users. They cluster in family or affinity groups whose typical fare is quotidian — holiday plans, an upcoming volleyball match, dinner Thursday night. But the groups also serve as virtual propulsion jets for political news, both real and fake.

This dynamic has played out against the dramatic backdrop of the October presidential election, one of the most critical votes anywhere this year. Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right head of the Social Liberal Party and a former Army captain, won the Oct. 28 runoff with 55.1 percent of the total, besting Haddad, a substitute candidate for the Workers’ Party, whose former leader, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, is in jail on corruption charges. Bolsonaro’s tough-on-crime message resonated in a nation where 63,880 people were murdered last year, but some of his other rhetoric — including praise of a notorious torturer from the two decades of military rule that ended in 1985 — rattled observers worried about the future of Brazil’s democracy.

The fake news flood during the campaign also prompted concerns that this wasn’t a fair fight. A bombshell investigation published a week and a half before the runoff by Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s most respected newspapers, revealed that a group of entrepreneurs had paid influencers to spread anti-Haddad content from their private WhatsApp groups. The report sent Workers’ Party representatives running to the country’s electoral court claiming fraud, arguing that the actions amounted to illegal campaign donations. The court opened an investigation, but no determination has been made.

It’s impossible to quantify how much of a lift Bolsonaro got from fake news, and his supporters say such claims are overstated. However big the bump, the spread of misinformation on social media could pose a long-term threat to democratic norms and institutions. Politics in Latin America’s biggest economy have always been fragmented — no fewer than 13 parties contested the presidency — but it’s difficult to recall a time when they’ve been this polarized.

Brazil has more internet users than any country in Latin America and a long tradition of early social media adoption.