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Brazil's populist candidate for president is getting a boost from an alt-right social network

“When Bolsonaro joins Gab, Twitter will be dead in Brazil and the media will panic.”

by David Gilbert
Oct 7 2018, 3:15pm

Jair Bolsonaro, the leader of Brazil's right-wing populist movement, once told a female legislator she was unworthy of rape and praised the man who oversaw torture during the country’s two decades of military rule. Now, he's poised to become Brazil's next president. And he has an unlikely ally: Gab, the U.S.-based social network best-known as a haven for neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

While Facebook and Twitter have worked to make sure their platforms don’t play a toxic role in Brazil’s presidential election Sunday, Gab has sought to capitalize on the country's surging right-wing community and the fake-news hysteria that surrounds it. With over 600,000 users worldwide, the company is actively looking to grow its base by attracting high-profile figures of Brazil’s far right, including Bolsonaro himself.

“When Bolsonaro joins Gab, Twitter will be dead in Brazil and the media will panic,” Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba, said in September. Torba, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Pennsylvania, says his site is apolitical, and that its success in Brazil is a consequence of Silicon Valley's crackdown. But he's hardly been shy about his own admiration for the Brazilian politician. His boast came after Bolsonaro’s party, PSL (Partido Social Liberal), created a Gab account on August 23.

That enthusiasm seems to be paying off. Gab claims that as many as 150,000 Brazilians have joined in the lead-up to the election, with up to 30 percent of the site’s traffic now coming from Brazil.

One story gaining traction on Gab right now: Bolsonaro’s claim that he would not accept the result if he lost because of the likelihood that the opposing Workers’ Party has been tampering with electronic voting machines. He hasn't provided any proof for his outlandish claim, but that hasn’t stopped it from going viral.

"This allegation is very dangerous. If, for example, [Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad] wins the race, it is in the air that they are going to not accept the result — and then we are in trouble,” said Yaso Cordova, an activist who has been monitoring the spread of fake news in Brazil ahead of the election.

Though that’s only a small fraction of the country’s social media population of 125 million, new research from the Atlantic Council says Brazil’s migration to Gab risks hardening extremist beliefs in the country while making it more difficult to track the spread of fake news and propaganda.

A fake news paradise

Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro leaves an agribusiness fair in Esteio, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Diego Vara/File photo

Brazil is a perfect storm when it comes to the spread of fake news. Its politics are deeply polarized, its leading presidential candidate is a far-right populist astute at leveraging social media to get his message across, and it's home to one of the most active social media populations in the world.

With 122 million Facebook users, Brazil is the social network’s third-biggest market, but in 2018 it’s Facebook’s other property, WhatsApp, that has caused the most concern ahead of the elections.

In June, the government got all parties to sign an agreement not to share fake news, but the effort has proved vastly insufficient, experts told VICE News, especially when it comes to WhatsApp.

“We see WhatsApp booming as a way to spread fake news,” said Cristina Tardáguila, director of Agência Lupa, Brazil’s oldest fact-checking service. “What we see is that you cannot fight fake news on WhatsApp, as you do not have any tool to see what is being spread.”

But the sheer volume of users in Brazil and scale of content pushed through WhatsApp makes it almost impossible to police. The encrypted nature of the platforms means content is spread to huge groups of users in seconds. Bolsonaro and his supporters have weaponized the platform, with hundreds of groups pumping out thousands of messages per day to supporters, much of which is fake news and disinformation designed to smear his opponent, according to a recent report.

“The Brazilian alt-right are inspired by the alt-right of the U.S. — it is like a collaboration.”

To combat this, WhatsApp started working with Comprova, a collaborative journalism project that brings together 24 newsrooms in an attempt to debunk disinformation. It was the first such group to gain access to the WhatsApp Business API, effectively allowing Comprova journalists to debunk fake news as it was being spread on the platform.

The effort has seen some success: 20,000 people have contacted Comprova since the beginning of August to report suspected disinformation.

Facebook and Twitter have also been major players in cutting down on fake news. Facebook has removed 196 pages and 87 accounts, including those connected to the right-wing activist group MBL (Free Brazil Movement). Twitter, meanwhile, has teamed up with Comprova, a decision that has led many prominent right-wing accounts to cry censorship.

Taken together, Silicon Valley’s crackdown on fake news and hate speech has led to big returns for Gab. But Torba says his platform isn’t trying to interfere in the outcome of the election.

“Silicon Valley openly silences conservative, populist, and nationalist voices, while propelling and forcing ‘progressive’ agendas to billions of people,” Torba told VICE News. “Gab as a platform welcomes everyone and does not arbitrarily silence one side or the other of the political spectrum.”

Despite claiming his site is apolitical, Torba, has used his own profile to boost Bolsonaro and drum up support for the right-wing populist outside of Brazil. (Torba “leaked” portions of his interview with VICE News to his public profile and on Twitter, a move that resulted in an onslaught of racist and anti-Semitic hatred from Gab’s users.)

“Bolsonaro is a national treasure of Brazil,” Torba wrote in August. “Americans should support him and the Brazilian people who are fighting for their rights and national sovereignty.”

He also posted still images from a video showing Bolsonaro telling lawmaker Maria do Rosário he wouldn’t rape her because she “doesn’t deserve it.” Above the images, Torba wrote: “The more videos of Bolsonaro I watch, the more I like him.”

Bolsonaro has yet to join the site, but his son Flavio has a verified account on the network.

Torba and other far-right supporters in the U.S. have welcomed the influx of similarly minded users from Brazil, but rather than trying to directly impact the Brazilian election, U.S. users are offering advice.

“Americans should support him and the Brazilian people who are fighting for their rights and national sovereignty.”

“The Brazilian alt-right are inspired by the alt-right of the U.S. — it is like a collaboration, rather than an influence or intervention,” said Cordova.

New research from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab describes Gab as “a fertile space for the spread of misinformation and disinformation in Brazil. The platform itself acts as a gigantic filter bubble.”

Being banned from mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter may limit the reach of those seeking to spread hate speech, but the growth of Gab will raise concerns for those attempting to monitor the activities of extremists online.

“It can push these users into fringe websites where anti-hate policies are almost nonexistent, and it is harder to monitor their activities, said Luiza Bandeira, an assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Photoillustration by Leslie Xia