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Oct. 26, 2018, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

What to know about WhatsApp in Brazil ahead of Sunday’s election

“I don’t know where they found my phone number.”

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

WhatsAppening with WhatsApp? You may have noticed lots of headlines about WhatsApp this week — that’s because, with the Brazilian presidential election approaching this Sunday, misinformation spread on the app — and coverage of that misinformation — is increasing. Jair Bolsonaro, the Trump-ish far-right candidate, is in the lead.

We’ve written before about how closed messaging platform WhatsApp is a black box of viral misinformation, and fact-checking groups are trying various methods to make a dent. This week, from The New York Times’ Mike Isaac and Kevin Roose:

On [October 15], the Brazilian news outlet Folha de São Paulo unearthed a coordinated campaign in which companies planned to spend millions of dollars buying mass text messaging packages a week before the coming election. The plan, which authorities have deemed in violation of Brazilian election laws, would flood WhatsApp users with hundreds of millions of messages similar to those already in circulation.

On Friday, WhatsApp said it would take legal action against the tactics, banning accounts across the service and sending cease-and-desist orders to the companies responsible.

Although false news has spread in Brazil across all forms of social media, WhatsApp’s impact has been the most notable. It is, in part, because of the popularity of the app: About 44 percent of the voting public in Brazil use WhatsApp to discover political information, according to recent polling data. Mobile phone carriers in Brazil offer data packages that allow for free use of Facebook and WhatsApp across cellular networks.

The Folha reporters who broke the WhatsApp story were then the subjects of harassment via WhatsApp, Reporters Without Borders said.

Patrícia Campos Mello, a reporter from Folha de São Paulo, received an avalanche of threats online, two threatening calls, and her WhatsApp account was hacked after she uncovered and reported on an alleged campaign by business backers of the presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro to distribute false news stories through WhatsApp to millions of Brazilians.

After that report, Mauro Paulino, a Folha de São Paulo executive, 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 its WhatsApp numbers, which received 220,000 messages in four days. That made it impossible for reporters to follow up on messages sent by its readers, said Folha.

On October 23, the paper requested the Superior Electoral Court to order the Federal Police to open an investigation into what it considers a possible ‘orchestrated attempt to thwart freedom of expression.’

Brazilian researchers Cristina Tardáguila, Fabrício Benevenuto, and Pablo Ortellado wrote in a recent Times op-ed about three things WhatsApp could do to stem the flow:

Restrict forwards. This year, after the dissemination of rumors on WhatsApp provoked lynchings in India, the company put restrictions on the number of times that a message could be forwarded. Globally, the number of forwards was reduced to 20, while in India it was reduced to five. WhatsApp should adopt the same measure in Brazil to limit the reach of disinformation.

Restrict broadcasts. WhatsApp allows every user to send a single message to up to 256 contacts at once. This means that a small, coordinated group can easily conduct a large-scale disinformation campaign. This could be prevented by limiting the number of contacts to whom a user could broadcast a message.

Limit the size of new groups. New chat groups created in Brazil during the next two weeks should have a limit on the number of users. This wouldn’t affect existing groups.

We contacted WhatsApp this week and presented these suggestions. The company responded by saying that there was not enough time to implement the changes. We disagree: In India, it took only a few days for WhatsApp to start making adjustments. The same is possible in Brazil.

The BBC took a closer look how bulk messaging programs are used.

In fewer than 10 minutes and 10 clicks, it is possible to gather almost 1,000 phone numbers. Data can be group by city, gender and interests.

Contacts can also be gathered by:

— using details voluntarily provided by a candidate’s supporters
— buying databases sold legally in Brazil
— using information stolen or bought illegally from telephone service providers

One woman in the Sao Paulo neighborhood of Grajau remembers discovering that she had been added to four WhatsApp groups.

“I don’t know where they found my phone number,” the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told the BBC.

“The administrators and some people had foreign numbers. I got scared, I left all of the groups and reported all of them to WhatsApp.”

She added that after a day or two, she was added to a further eight groups.

She said she had not provided her number to any political campaign, but had made it public on Facebook.

A 23-year-old university student living in Campinas reported having been added to three groups, in which four individuals dominated the conversation.

“They sent dozens of memes and videos against PT (the Workers’ Party) every day,” said the young man who also asked not to be named.

“Other people were sending lots of content too, and it was crazy.”

The University of Kentucky’s David Nemer joined four WhatsApp groups that support Bolsonaro. Over four months, he received an average of 1,000 messages per group per day. “There are three key clusters of members, who I classified as Ordinary Brazilians, Bolsominions, and Influencers,” he wrote in The Guardian.

The vast majority of members are ordinary Brazilians: men and women from all social classes who use the groups to share the life experiences they invoke to justify voting for Bolsonaro.

These members don’t trust mainstream media, and see WhatsApp groups as safe spaces where they can learn more about Bolsonaro, verify rumors and news, and find memes and other content to share.

The groups function as echo chambers: every time a member posts polls results or other news, members rally behind them, cheering with the Brazilian flag or the handgun emoji — a reference to Bolsonaro’s promise to relax gun controls and allow police officers to shoot suspects with impunity.

Illustration by Sébastian Thibault used under a Creative Commons license..

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Oct. 26, 2018, 8:30 a.m.
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