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Fake news is responsible for Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil

The misinformation and intimidation campaign was intense.

Brazilian Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro Votes In Country’s Election
Jair Bolsonaro, far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party.
Ricardo Moraes-Pool/Getty Images

Brazil’s right-wing presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, won Sunday’s runoff election following an aggressive misinformation campaign aimed at weakening his leftist opponent, Fernando Haddad. His victory also follows coordinated efforts to silence and intimidate journalists reporting on the fake news surrounding Bolsonaro’s campaign.

In the months leading up to Sunday’s election, Facebook shut down more than 100,000 WhatsApp accounts spreading conspiracy theories about Bolsonaro’s opponent to voters across Brazil.

Meanwhile, some journalists reporting on the misinformation campaign have been threatened and attacked en masse by Bolsonaro’s supporters, while other journalists say they are being censored by the owner of a major media company that supports him.

“The threats against Patrícia Campos Mello and other journalists are an alarming escalation of anti-press rhetoric in this contentious electoral cycle in Brazil,” Natalie Southwick, a program coordinator with the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement Thursday, naming one of the journalists reporting on the intentional misinformation campaign. “Journalists covering the Brazilian presidential election must be able to work freely and safely while reporting on issues of public interest.”

Bolsonaro supporters are attacking journalists

When voters went to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballots, Brazilians chose between candidates with two very different visions for the future of South America’s largest nation.

Bolsonaro, whose divisive rhetoric has led many to compare him to President Donald Trump, is a 63-year-old former military officer who has served seven terms in Brazil’s congress. He’s known for his habit of spewing misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, racist, and anti-democratic views and has promised to make Brazil safer by getting rid of so-called communists. He freely advocates torture and has expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s previous military dictatorship.

His opponent, Haddad, is a leftist and member of the Workers’ Party. Haddad has promised to lift up Brazil’s economy by launching government infrastructure projects, cutting taxes on the poor, and raising taxes on the rich. He has also said he wants to expand protections for the LGBTQ community and indigenous Brazilians.

It was an intense and divisive election — and one marked by violence and threats of violence.

A nonprofit journalism group, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), has documented at least 141 cases of threats and violence against reporters covering the presidential elections in 2018, the vast majority coming from Bolsonaro supporters.

In one alarming case, unidentified gunmen shot at a bus that was carrying 28 reporters who were covering an event hosted by Haddad’s Workers’ Party. Nobody was injured.

Bolsonaro encouraged this kind of behavior by closely following the Trump playbook, calling the media “fake news” and promising to get rid of the “commies.”

He has also tried to discredit Brazil’s most prominent news organizations, such as the Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s leading newspapers. The newspaper has been publishing stories about widespread misinformation spread by Bolsonaro’s supporters.

On October 18, Campos Mello published an investigative report outlining a massive, potentially illegal effort by businesses that support Bolsonaro to distribute false news stories through WhatsApp to millions of Brazilians. She received an avalanche of threats online and two threatening phone calls, and had her own WhatsApp account hacked.

Federal authorities are now investigating the groups behind the effort to see if they amount to illegal campaign contributions.

After that report was published, an executive at Campos Mello’s newspaper Folha de São Paulo also received threats through a messaging app and at home, the newspaper said. In addition, the paper said Bolsonaro supporters engaged in a “systematic” attack against one of the newspaper’s WhatsApp accounts, which received 220,000 messages in four days and made it impossible for reporters to follow up on messages sent by its readers.

“The newspaper has evidence of an orchestrated action with the goal to strangle freedom of the press,” the publication’s editorial board wrote on Tuesday.

Journalists have also reported a censorship crackdown at one of Brazil’s major television news stations, whose owner is a strong supporter of Bolsonaro.

Journalists report censorship at a pro-Bolsonaro media company

Brazilian journalists who have been writing for the Intercept about widespread censorship at a media empire owned by an evangelical billionaire have also been the targets of widespread harassment.

Pastor Edir Macedo, who has made billions as the founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God megachurch, has been reportedly censoring journalists who work for his vast media empire, which includes the nation’s second-largest television outlet, Record, as well as the online R7 news site.

Earlier this month, an investigation published in Portuguese by the Intercept described how journalists at R7 have become akin to “hostages” to their owner’s agenda.

The journalists are “barred from publishing negative stories about Bolsonaro and generally forced to sacrifice their journalistic integrity to serve Macedo’s extremist political agenda,” according to the Intercept. The article, which was based on interviews with distressed journalists at R7, went viral online and led to the resignation of the head of Record TV’s flagship news program.

Now Macedo’s media company is reportedly going after the Brazilian journalist who wrote the report, Leandro Demori, as well as other Intercept reporters.

According to the investigative news site:

Ever since publication of Saturday’s report about R7, the captive operatives inside Macedo’s media conglomerate – those who once functioned as journalists but have now been forcibly converted into Bolsonaro warriors – have been intensively investigating not only the journalists at the Intercept but also our families. In a very short time following our report, they scrutinized the personal lives of Demori’s parents in a small town in the interior of a state in southern Brazil, Santa Catarina, raising issues that have nothing to do with Demori or his career, dating back to 1992 when he was only 11 years old. They dug into Demori’s distant past to find pictures of him in his early twenties.

It’s worth reading the Intercept’s entire account of the intimidation campaign.

These are just a few examples of the efforts to silence journalists ahead of one of the most consequential presidential elections in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s victory was largely a result of fake news.