YouTube Just Punished Brazil's President for Spreading Lies About COVID

The move is the strongest yet from the social media giants to censor the outspoken, right-wing Jair Bolsonaro, who is already fighting back.
July 27, 2021, 12:00pm
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a ceremony in Brasilia on July 16, 2019. Photo: EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images.

RIO DE JANEIRO — YouTube has removed videos posted by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro for violating its content policies, in the strongest measure yet that tech giants in the social media–loving country have taken toward censoring the president. 

YouTube has said that if Bolsonaro breaks the video-sharing service’s rules again, his channel may be suspended for a week and, in case of recurrence, he should be permanently banned.

Advertisement

The video platform told the far-right leader last week that 15 of his videos had been removed from his channel for spreading COVID-19 misinformation—some of which promoted quack coronavirus cures that critics say can sometimes cause collateral health damages like kidney failure.    

The news came days after the president was discharged from hospital after undergoing treatment for an intestinal blockage that provoked a 10-day hiccup attack that hindered his ability to speak.

President Bolsonaro has so far remained silent on YouTube’s decision, but he’s been increasingly vocal in railing against lockdowns, stirring vaccine suspicions and COVID-related hoaxes, ridiculing people for wearing masks and downplaying the dangers of the virus as “a little flu.” Last year, the former army captain accused the press of “tricking” citizens about the severity of the virus. 

Over 550,502 Brazilians have died from COVID-19, making the country’s outbreak the world’s second-deadliest after the U.S.

YouTube, which played a significant role in the president’s rise to power in 2018 and is widely watched in Brazil, said in a statement that Bolsonaro had violated the tech giant’s policies on medical misinformation and that it applies its policies consistently across the platform, regardless of politics or ideology.

Advertisement

“Our policies don’t allow content that claims hydroxychloroquine and/or Ivermectin are effective to treat or prevent COVID-19, claims that there is a guaranteed cure for COVID-19, and claims that masks don’t work to prevent the spread of the virus”, Rodrigo Servulo, a YouTube spokesperson, told VICE World News in a statement.

In May this year, Brazil’s Ministry of Health website removed the use of the malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and other treatments from its guidelines, which had also been encouraged by both the former U.S. President Donald Trump as well as the Brazilian government, despite being long proven ineffective in combating COVID-19. 

Bolsonaro’s weekly live-stream broadcasts, which feature regular rants about the pandemic from the presidential palace in Brasilia, have increasingly become targets of YouTube’s strike on COVID-19 misinformation. The site removed five of the president’s live streams in April, news outlet O Globo reported, and 14 of the videos taken down on July 21 came from Bolsonaro’s Thursday live chats

One of the deleted YouTube videos from a live address dated May 27 featured Bolsonaro recommending indigenous teas and other unproven treatments to fight COVID. In another, former health minister and Army General Eduardo Pazuello compared COVID-19 to HIV/AIDS. A livestream of Bolsonaro shunning masks was also taken down, reported news outlet Tecmundo.

Advertisement

This isn’t the first time Bolsonaro’s crusades against the coronavirus have been removed by the major digital platforms. In March last year, Twitter was the first tech giant to take down two of the president’s videos encouraging mass gatherings and calling for an end to lockdowns. Facebook and Instagram quickly followed. 

But although Bolsonaro and members of his government have repeatedly violated the policies of social media giants since the pandemic began, they have been criticized for acting too late and not doing enough to challenge the dubious coronavirus claims made by Bolsonaro. The president, like Trump, has often tested tech giants’ hesitation to censor political leaders. 

Now social media restrictions could be gaining traction in Brazil, said Carlos Affonso, a specialist in digital law and director of the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro, who hailed last week’s bulk removal as a “remarkable” step. 

“Before last year, platforms had been reluctant to strike down content by governments and authorities. The pandemic made them apply their services in a stricter and robust way, which has ended up restricting some authority content,” said Affonso.

Other social media channels are expected to enforce stricter moderations, following YouTube’s decision, said Affonso.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden urged tech giants to implement stricter enforcements on COVID-19 misinformation, which he said is “killing people.” Brazilian data experts told VICE World News that more global pressure on social networks and Brazil’s tumultuous political climate could be linked to YouTube’s decision.

Advertisement

The president of a parliamentary investigation into whether the government botched the COVID response has stated that he wants to hear from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube representatives. The senator Omar Aziz said via Twitter that he intended to collaborate with the platforms to investigate the dissemination of fake news on the internet and the role it plays in spreading Bolsonaro’s unscientific discourse.

But following threats from the Senate probe and tougher restrictions from what his government has called “tech giant cartels,” the president formulated a decree to restrict the social networks’ moderation capabilities in Brazil and prohibit them from deleting posts or suspending users from their platforms immediately without a court order. The decree has strong chances of being approved, experts say. 

To make matters worse, a text from Brazil’s electoral reform presented to Congress at the end of June would take Bolsonaro’s decree one step further, by prohibiting the banning, cancellation, or suspension of profiles or accounts of electoral candidates during the election period.

This sets a dangerous precedent for Brazil’s elections next year, said Affonso. 

Taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, Bolsonaro has repeatedly alluded to potential fraud in next year’s elections, laying the groundwork to dispute a defeat, and experts warn that social media algorithms might struggle to catch potential incitements of violence.

“It was easier to limit Trump’s discourse because YouTube and Facebook were created in English. But in different languages, like Portuguese, will they understand indirect references to violence? Or the context in which it's spoken?” said Bruna Martins dos Santos, a coordinator of the Data Privacy Brazil Research Association and member of the Network Rights Coalition.

“It looks like the president is putting different pieces in place for a scenario in case he loses the elections, enabling him to make fraudulent claims and additionally create incentives for violence,” said Affonso.

“Brazil should never approve the legislation; it would be the end game for any candidate contesting.”