Since last year, countless YouTube videos promoting COVID-related hoaxes, miracle cures, and conspiracies have been uploaded on channels linked to supporters of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro—some with millions of subscribers.
In April, hundreds of these videos started disappearing.
The videos—which have either been deleted or made private—promote disinformation about "early treatment" for COVID-19, such as the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The use of both drugs has been encouraged by the U.S. and Brazilian governments, despite extensive evidence that they are ineffective or even cause complications. Other videos promote misinformation and conspiracies about the pandemic as a whole.
The videos' disappearance coincides with an ongoing investigation conducted by the Brazilian Parliament into the government's handling of the pandemic that was announced in early April. The investigation, called a CPI, or Parliamentary Commision of Inquiry, has since interviewed various members and former members of the government and sought to close in on the immense campaign of misinformation promoted by the Brazilian government over the past year. Many of those involved have close ties with President Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismissed the deadly virus as a "little flu".
Guilherme Felitti, partner at Novelo data analytics studio, told Motherboard that “since April 14, when Supreme court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso ordered the CPI to be established, we have had a total of 847 videos erased from 51 channels.”
The total number of disappeared videos might reach into the thousands, as the data is only up until May 17 and it is virtually impossible to monitor every pro-Bolsonaro channel on YouTube.
And by “erased,” Felitti means that the videos may have been deleted by the YouTubers or by YouTube itself, made private, or unlisted. “We've been monitoring for over a year and we verify that the number of videos deleted by YouTube is very low," he said. "More than 95 percent are deleted, unlisted and made private by the YouTubers themselves. If we take from April 14 only, there were 13 videos deleted by YouTube.”
The rest, then, have either been deleted or been made private by supporters of President Bolsonaro.
As recently as May 8, Alexandre Garcia, a commentator for CNN Brazil with almost 2 million subscribers, had deleted 73 videos and hid 476—almost 50 percent of the videos in his channel, according to Felitti's analysis. Leda Nagle, another journalist with over 1.2 million subscribers, deleted about 92 videos in a single week. Sikêra Junior, a famous TV presenter with over 4.6 million followers, deleted 2 videos.
"We have examples of videos where they were attacking the Supreme Court and they were hidden and deleted," said Felitti. "And in our experience, attacking the Supreme Court or advocating Coup d'état is not something that triggers YouTube policies. "
Less popular right-wing influencers who deleted videos include Gustavo Gayer, who has 367,000 subscribers on his channel; Fernando Lisboa (Vlog do Lisboa), with 685,000 subscribers; and Denne Sousa, with 376 thousand subscribers. They have deleted 186, 24 and 22 videos respectively since April, according to Felitti's research.
“The fear of suffering a serious institutional sanction, with real consequences in real life, outside the internet,” is what is driving the mass-removals, Yasodara Cordova, a Ford Foundation Mason Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, told Motherboard.
She adds that these users “are aware that they are acting outside the laws that already exist and are relying on the weak response of our institutions.” Also, she says, there’s a link between the lack of action from public authorities and several speeches made by president Bolsonaro, for instance, saying without any evidence that Brazil’s ballot boxes (that are electronic) could be frauded – similarly to what Donald Trump did in the US.
"When Trump supporters were incited to storm the Capitol, they never imagined that they would have to answer institutionally for their actions,” explains Cordova, adding that “when the FBI began investigations, many started deleting videos, tweets, and even messages of support sent to family members, for fear of sanctions.”
In Brazil, this is not the first time supporters of the president have deleted videos en masse. Last year, during a Supreme Court investigation into a government-run fake news network, thousands of videos were deleted from pro-Bolsonaro channels.
As always, it's up to YouTube to moderate content and remove videos that incite violence and spread harmful disinformation. But Felitti doesn't believe that the company is doing enough. "There are still dozens of videos asking for the closure of the Congress and of the Supreme Court. There doesn't seem to be an effort by YouTube to remove this type of content," he said.
“As part of our ongoing work to support the health and wellbeing of our users, we expanded our COVID-19 medical misinformation policies in accordance with updates from local and global health authorities on the efficacy of Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin to treat and/or prevent COVID-19.”
On April 16, YouTube changed its policies to allow the removal of content advocating unproven methods of treatment for Covid-19. But as Felitti and Cordova pointed out, it is an insufficient measure amidst the sheer volume of misinformation circulating, especially when much of that content is being made by supporters of the president—and Bolsonaro himself.
A Google spokesperson confirmed to Motherboard that it had removed "several videos" that violated the recent policy change, but would not go into details.
“As part of our ongoing work to support the health and wellbeing of our users, we expanded our COVID-19 medical misinformation policies in accordance with updates from local and global health authorities on the efficacy of Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin to treat and/or prevent COVID-19,” the spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement.
Even if YouTube wanted to crack down on right-wing disinformation in Brazil, doing so wouldn't be easy. Faced with threats from the Parliamentary Investigation and YouTube’s recent policy changes, Bolsonaro’s government announced it is planning a decree to limit the moderation capabilities of social networks in the country and prohibit them from deleting posts or suspending users from their platforms.
The Brazilian government has an interest in keeping tech companies from moderating content that supports its views and policies. Even before the installation of the CPI, the news agency Agência Pública, found that the government's Secretariat of Communication paid digital influencers thousands of Brazilian reais to defend government ideas contrary to science.
Therefore, says Cordova, “we have to increase the reach of institutions to democratise them even more.” The internet brings a collaborative character to the institutions, so “When we talk about internet public policies, we have to think that we don't take into consideration only one institution and its members, but a network that the institution is part of," said Cordova. "We have to think about how this institution will act within this network.”