The Brazilian Senate recently approved a bill that intends to harden the fight against the spread of fake news and institute the Law on Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency on the Internet. The bill has been criticized by experts, such as the lawyer specialized in data protection, media and public policy Ronaldo Lemos, and civil society entities, as the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), who say that what is being proposed not only is inefficient, as it focuses on individuals and not in criminal organizations, but also may carry dangerous side effects.
As the discussion moves to the House of Representatives, allies of President Jair Bolsonaro are working to ensure that legislators in favor of the current administration ditch the bill.
Since before his election, Bolsonaro has been the subject of controversies related to fake news. And that connection entered a new chapter last Wednesday, when Facebook announced the suspension of a disinformation network linked to the Brazilian president, his sons and aides.
What are the impacts of the proposed bill against fake news?
The latest version of the bill, written by representative Angelo Coronel, determines, among other things, that in cases where charges are pressed, platforms with more than 2 million users must request personal documents to verify accused members’ identities.
There would also be a limit on the number of accounts that each user can control and all accounts managed by bots should be properly marked. In addition, social networking companies would be required to have offices in Brazil. Until mid-2019, WhatsApp had no official representation in the country.
However, the regulation was not well written, say tech companies and experts, who see excesses and limitations on civil liberties in the proposed bill.
LABS talked to Ronaldo Lemos, a lawyer specialized in technology, data protection, media and public policy at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and a member of the Facebook Oversight Committee to know his opinion on the bill. One of the most contested clauses on previous versions of it, a requirement for presenting ID documents to create accounts on social networks, was rejected by senators. However, according to Lemos, the approved draft “is still very bad”. “It is a long, redundant proposal and the majority of its provisions will not be effective in fighting the problem of disinformation campaigns,” he says.
“The project today deals 100% with content and 0% with the fight against professional networks of disinformation. In other words, it attacks the leaves and not the root of the problem, which is the fight against those who finance disinformation campaigns in a hidden way. Going after individual content is like rolling a stone uphill,” says Lemos. According to him, an effective way would be to create mechanisms to investigate and punish those who finance in a hidden and illegal way, using identity fraud, for example, the spread of disinformation.
Following people who sponsor – intentionally or inadvertently – fake news diffusers is a way of undermining falsehood spreading, as the activist website Sleeping Giants tries to do. The organization alerts brands about programmatic ads on webpages that systematically publish disinformation.
Lemos points out that professional disinformation campaigns cost a lot of money. “Talking to a lot of people, whether on television or on the internet, is always expensive. You need to combat this type of financing.”
Therefore, he believes that a shorter and to the point project aiming to follow the money would be more beneficial for the country. “Since 2014, there is clear evidence of the use of computational advertising in Brazil’s electoral processes. This type of regulation must be surgical and precise. The law currently under discussion is long-winded, lengthy and carries many side effects”, he says.
Pressures for the regulation of social networks have been around for years
Over the past few years, Facebook has been under public pressure to enforce, somehow, a moderation of content on its platforms, which also includes WhatsApp, the messaging app widely used for the dissemination of fake news during the 2018 presidential elections in Brazil.
Two years earlier, in the United States, researchers had already pointed out that fake Facebook posts had helped leverage Donald Trump’s campaign. At the time, big tech was accused of interference and misinformation, according to The New York Times.
In the U.S., the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, went to Congress to testify; in Brazil, the debate, which was somewhat delayed, resulted in investigations led by the Supreme Court and in discussions about the regulation of platforms in the country that would be capable of blocking disinformation campaigns.
The impact of fake news is so big that it is already beginning to undermine the confidence Latin American users have on social networks. This is what a survey commissioned by Sherlock Communications and carried out by Toluna pointed out in five important markets: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Chile.
According to the report, nine out of 10 Latin Americans want Facebook to remove misleading political advertising. This view is strongest in Peru (88%), followed by Colombia, Mexico and Brazil (all 86%).
In addition, three out of four (77%) Latin American users say that Facebook should be held legally responsible for paid ads on the platform.
Alasdair Townsend, managing partner at Sherlock Communications, told LABS that given the vast popularity of WhatsApp in the region, compared to Europe, fake news networks are bigger and stronger in Latin America.
“Unlike more public networks like Facebook or Twitter, Whatsapp is encrypted and essentially a dark network so it is extremely hard to see where fake information is being shared. Facebook has been slow to take measures to tackle this (such as limiting the number of people a message can be forwarded to) and, in this environment, it is impossible to imagine that bad actors are not capitalizing, “he said.
According to Townsend, the survey shows that the Latin American public believes that Facebook should protect its platforms from misinformation, and that the consensus is that the company is failing on this.
Facebook’s swift move towards Bolsonaro’s allies involved in disseminating fake news is a response to public pressure. And the company is not acting only in Brazil. It removed four separate networks for violating the company’s policy “against foreign interference and inauthentic coordinated behavior” in Canada, Ecuador, Ukraine and the U.S. According to The Washington Post, one of the persons handling such networks was Roger Stone, a key ally to Donald Trump.
What threatens democracy the most: disinformation or massive data collection?
The Sherlock Communications survey indicates that 33% of Latin Americans, on average, believe that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram pose a threat to democracy and fair elections, while 32% of respondents think they do not.
Townsend told LABS that it is difficult to say exactly whether Facebook’s actions could affect elections in the region, but the survey showed that 81% of local netizens said they approve Twitter’s ban on paid political advertising on its platform – better regarding the company than platforms that have not taken such an explicit position. “Facebook platforms have a huge reach across the region, so any action they take or don’t take will have some impact,” he said.
Various provisions on the Brazilian bill are also being discussed in other countries, as is the case with the traceability of information sent through personal messaging applications. Ronaldo Lemos considers that these measures are not capable of reaching organized networks of disinformation and have a high number of negative side effects.
G1 and Nexo reported that big techs (Facebook, Google, Twitter) sent a letter to Brazil’s Senate classifying the clause that asks for the creation of message and user registry banks as “a massive data collection project” that “jeopardizes privacy of thousands of citizens”.
Also, the director of Public Policies for Latin America at WhatsApp, Pablo Bello, said in an interview with Folha de S.Paulo, that the existence of massive data records would create a monitoring situation similar to an “electronic anklet in millions of Brazilians”.
In short, “the project does not differentiate amateur fake news from professional ones”, says Ronaldo Lemos. He believes that the drafted bill punishes with far more severity individual citizens, who post falsehoods maliciously or by mistake, than professional disinformation networks, funded and organized fake news campaigns, which manage to spread falsehoods to millions of people. For now, it will be up to the Brazilian House of Representatives to decide whether to proceed with the proposal or not.