• Shandra Back

Brazilian President Bolsonaro's Controversy between Censorship and Freedom of Expression Continues

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree on September 6 banning social media sites from removing content they deem to be promoting the spread of misinformation. The decree would require social media companies to receive a court order to approve the removal of false information. While proposed by President Bolsonaro as a mandate to secure free expression on the internet, the decree was being interpreted by many as a hypocritical action to allow the spread of false information.

Although Brazil’s senate and Supreme Federal Court overturned the decree shortly after on September 14, these new rules would have allowed the companies to remove content only relating to a small margin of events such as terrorism, violent threats, and sexual crimes. The decree also stated that social media users had the authority to request that the government punish the social media companies, as well as restore a post removed for spreading misinformation.

This order is not the first of its kind. Brazil’s more recent history of democratic unrest and polarization had much controversy surrounding the spread or censorship of misinformation in the political eye.

Photo Courtesy: André Coelho/ Folhapress

While many other governments in the world are working toward enforcing rules to stop the spread of misinformation, Brazil’s rule was one of the first to attempt to do the opposite. “You can only imagine how hard it would be for a big platform to get a judicial order for every single piece of disinformation they find,” said the Rio de Janeiro State University Law Professor Carlos Affonso Souza.

Social media played a large role in the 2018 election. The passing of a resolution shortly before the election cycle, allowed for politically sponsored advertisements to be posted on social media platforms.

Yet, with the new rules came an inundation of fake news allegations. The sweeping spread of misinformation during the 2018 election campaign became such a disputed topic that many higher powers felt the need to intervene. In July 2019, the Brazilian Congress formed a committee to investigate the issue. Many social media platforms also took action and began removing more content in an attempt to cut down on the spread of untrue information.

It seems that, for many politically-driven issues in Brazil, overlooking the dissemination of misinformation is a trend. The trend occurs when misinformation aids certain individuals in power and conversely, accurate information that is not aligned with those in power is censored.

President Bolsonaro, as well as his three sons, played a big role in this controversy during his campaign, and after winning the presidential race. While his new decree may seem like a decision to further ensure that social media harbors the idea of freedom of expression, the political history of social media usage from the Bolsonaro family tells a different story.

In 2020, the Supreme Federal Court found the existence of a criminal association, with relation to Carlos Bolsonaro, one of President Bolsonaro’s sons, committed to spreading fake news. Bolsonaro’s other sons Flávio and Eduardo—both senators—supported and spread false accusations of fraud in the electoral system. The brothers even continued to do so after the electoral court shut down the false accusations.

The Bolsonaro sons’ relation to spreading misinformation has largely been reflected in the actions of their father. As the most powerful political actor in Brazil, President Bolsonaro has had numerous criticisms posted about him online. While there is typically opposition of every member of substantial political power, President Bolsonaro has not been accepting of the critical posts and articles made about him.

In July of 2019, President Bolsonaro had blocked 176 accounts of followers of whom criticized him according to Human Rights Watch. While it is not possible to know the exact number of people blocked, it is believed that the total is much higher. Many of the followers blocked included journalists and members of the Brazilian Congress as well as news media organizations and nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch made the claim that this act was a violation of rights to free speech, access to information and the ability to participate in the manner of public affairs.

The president has taken many approaches to combat bad press on social media. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI) recorded 31 cases filed by the far-right leader to withdraw internet information about certain online posts or articles during the 2018 campaign. These cases were filed in an attempt to cover up reproving posts or unfavorable news. Out of the 500 recorded cases of other Brazilian politicians attempting to accomplish similar censorship goals, the removal of approximately half was approved by the judges.

There seems to be a misalignment reflected in President Bolsonaro’s words and actions surrounding the controversy of censorship online. While he is in support of removing defamatory content about himself or his campaign, the president has been fighting against removal of many other types of controversially fake content.

President Bolsonaro has had many instances of removal of his or family member’s content, which may further explain his reasoning to increase difficulty in removing certain content in the future and leading into the 2022 presidential election. He has communicated that the removal of content from him, his family, or his supporters is censorship against his right-wing political views.

During the second round of the 2018 presidential election, WhatsApp removed many accounts allegedly connected to the Bolsonaro campaign. Facebook and Instagram also removed a combined total of 73 accounts linked to the Bolsonaro family, many of which endorsed hate speech and political violence. President Bolsonaro also had content removed from Twitter when promoting false information about COVID-19.

President Bolsonaro’s decree may indicate his intent surrounding the use of social media as a political platform entering into the 2022 election. The extended rights regarding social media freedoms put forth in 2018 contributed greatly to the division of many of the country's current social and political issues.

An increased difficulty in removal of fake content could lead to another controversial election cycle. With polarization high and democracy on the rocks, Brazil is in a gray area regarding a consensus of how to solve this issue of fake news, or whether it poses an issue at all. All eyes are glued to their screens in anticipation of what new controversy will arise during this critical time of political unrest for Brazil.