Disinformation Spreads on WhatsApp Ahead of Brazilian Election

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Facebook and the Brazilian government have scrambled to counter the disinformation. Earlier this year, the country’s federal police agency established a task force to limit the influence of false news. Justice Luiz Fux, who oversaw the top electoral court in Brazil, argued that it might be sensible to curb free speech in order to protect the integrity of the election.

Experts, however, are skeptical that disinformation can be stemmed before the election.

“Even if there is an order to give someone a fine for spreading fake news, by the time you do that, it’s gone, the elections are over,” said Fernando Neisser, who coordinates the Brazilian Academy of Electoral and Political Law. “No one is ready to deal with the speed and the volume of this fake news problem.”

Facebook has set up a “War Room” on its Menlo Park, Calif., campus, a way for teams across all parts of the organization to quickly respond to attacks and disinformation campaigns in real time.

Samidh Chakrabarti, who leads Facebook’s elections and civic engagement team, said the new setup had been helpful. A number of attempts at voter suppression and hate speech targeted at specific geographic areas have been quashed in a matter of hours, he said.

WhatsApp is testing changes to the way its service operates. It has cut down the number of users messages that can be forwarded from 256 to 20. (In India, the limit is five.) And WhatsApp has introduced a print, television and radio advertising campaign in Brazil to reach an estimated 50 million people with tips on how to spot misinformation.

WhatsApp is also working with Comprova, a consortium of Brazilian media organizations, to fact-check thousands of tips about suspicious information and verify true stories. The group has received more than 100,000 messages to vet. “Fato ou Fake,” the news literacy project, has vetted more than 700 pieces of information.

“While the desire to spread and consume sometimes harmful sensational information predates the internet, it certainly makes it easier,” Chris Daniels, vice president of WhatsApp, told a newspaper editorial in Brazil on Wednesday. “Because information — both good and bad — can go viral on WhatsApp even with these limits in place, we have a responsibility to amplify the good and mitigate the harm.”

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