A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
For a moment, imagine you’re living in Brazil. In the past week or so, it’s highly possible that you or one of your friends has found themselves, upon checking your social media, bombarded by articles, videos and memes meant to spread lies and rumors, some of which border on utterly absurd. The deluge of political fluff has been directly linked with Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right authoritarian presidential candidate who seems poised to clinch the presidency this weekend, and his followers.
(After the original publication of this story on VICE Brazil on October 11, Bolsonaro’s business backers were accused of financing a multimillion-dollar illegal fake news campaign over WhatsApp by flooding the platform’s users with messages undermining his rival, the left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad).
The strategy at play here—a massive injection of often-made-up content into an already noisy media environment—has been called "firehosing." The practice, described in the RAND Corporation’s 2016 publication The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model, describes the propaganda model deployed by the Russian government in the 2016 US presidential election. The report says it is characterized by two distinctive features: a multichannel messaging approach and a willingness to disseminate information that is taken out of context, only true in part, or plainly fallacious. Put simply: the lies flow quickly and voraciously around the globe.
“The new elements here are the speed and volume of fake news, that’s why comparisons to firehoses are being made,” says Luiz Yassuda, director of the São Paulo-based digital communication agency Alma Beta and producer for the podcasts Braincast and Mupoca. “[Firehoses] have a fast, strong flow that’s hard to avoid.”
Fake stories have spread about all candidates in the Brazilian election, but Bolsonaro and his supporters have used and distributed falsehoods, lies, and misrepresentations as a core campaign strategy. After winning the first round of elections on Sunday October 7, Bolsonaro went live on Facebook, ignoring the press while questioning the accuracy of Brazil’s electronic voting system (the claim was quickly debunked by the country’s Superior Electoral Court). At the end of August, his party, the PSL (Social Liberal Party), made an account on Gab, a US-based alt-right social media platform known for fostering fake news.
The biggest development in the firehosing strategy has come on WhatsApp: Bolsonaro's base has weaponized the app's groups feature, where the spread of fake news is hard to trace and harder to stop, to spread rumors meant to damage Haddad’s reputation. One such rumor falsely accused the the left-wing candidate of providing daycare centers with “mamadeiras eróticas,” (erotic baby bottles) with penis-shaped nozzles to combat homophobia; another, fueled by Bolsonaro himself, alleged that Haddad had administered “gay kits” to indoctrinate youth into a gay lifestyle in the classroom during his term as Mayor of São Paulo. In reality, the so-called “kits” were proposed learning materials teachers could use to teach their students about safe sex, sexual diversity and tolerance as part of a federal “Escola sem homofobia” (“Schools Without Homophobia”) initiative. The material was never actually introduced in the classroom after conservatives complained about it.
And although the PSL has garnered notoriety for disseminating fake news, the opposing party—the left-wing Workers’ Party, whose candidate Haddad will face Bolsonaro in the runoff elections on October 28—has also slipped on the matter, albeit not as egregiously. Voters notice this, according to Yassuda, and the result can be a blanket dismissal of any critical coverage of their preferred candidate. “People quickly start to refer to anything that comes out against that certain candidate as ‘fake news,'" Yassuda says. "It might be a sign that these days truth and facts are simply viewed as [conflicting] versions of what’s being told. Either way, political parties aside, [fake news] influences elections.”
How it works
Brazil is no stranger to fake news. It’s home to one of the most active social media populations in the world, specifically where Facebook and WhatsApp are concerned. The latter in particular has been used to spread enormous amounts of false information, which is especially troubling given that, of 120 million Brazilians who use the app, 66 percent get their information from it. But the severity of the problem may be a consequence of the firehosing successfully employed in the 2016 elections by the Trump campaign.
“It’s obvious that these posts have a strong influence. What we have to wonder is why [fake news] works so well,” Yassuda explains. “When we consider how well [firehosing] has worked in other countries—such as in the Philippines with [president Rodrigo Duterte] and Donald Trump in the US, [the latter being] a pretty iconic example, we see that people are inclined to only get their information from a specific source or group—and that source will be influential in forming their opinions. That’s what’s going to happen even if other outlets [release contradictory information], because the [false] information just flows so uncontrollably.”
This, in turn, creates a divided press. “You have a slew of websites covering certain topics and fewer that will contest them,” Yassuda says. “It’s easy enough to go on Google and find a list of headlines that reference a fake story, which creates [a sense of] truthfulness because people have gone out of their way to check [a story]—but they don’t dig deep enough. Scholars and people with specific interests might, but the vast majority of people will stop at the second page of a search and think, ‘if it’s on Google and there are two sites talking about it, it must be true.’ This keeps the press in check, because if you run a story about how 10 or 20 other outlets are lying, maybe you’ll be the one accused in the end. Obviously, these situations will impact the public’s perception of reality.”
How can we stop the hose?
Some alternatives against firehosing highlighted in The Russian "Firehose of Falsehood" Propaganda Model include instituting punishments and fines, counter-attacking those who adopt the practice, or making the public aware of relevant large-scale facts. It’s important to remember that these are alternatives: the entire concept of firehosing is still new and, consequently, society has yet to discover an antidote.
“It’s going to take extensive scientific studies to analyze the short- and long-term effects [of firehosing] because we still don’t know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into,” Yassuda admits. “We have some idea based on the experience we’ve had with social media platforms and other related topics that have been equally debated, such as the ‘filter bubble,’ which happens when people surround themselves only with others who think like and agree with them. It promotes some space for debate, but it blocks many others.”
For now, what’s done is done: Bolsonaro won the first round of elections and is poised to win the next, despite the fake news scandal in which his campaign is currently embroiled. Given the lack of simple solutions, the necessary measures for the future involve in-depth research of firehosing and adopting new strategies that surpass traditional counter-propaganda efforts which are less likely to be effective, according the RAND Corporation. Finland is proof that it’s possible to staunch the flow of fake news, to a degree: between a “self-regulating media landscape” and considerable trust in national media outlets, the country has largely been able to resist the more damaging side effects of fake news. Still, the future doesn’t look too bright.
“I think that, in the future, we’ll need to take a careful look and what’s happening and at countries who are going through similar situations,” Yassuda says. “We should think about the regulatory milestones we’ve seen [around the world] and about new types of regulations for businesses that offer social media services, like Facebook, Google and Twitter. That may help curb the issue.”
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