Countdown to Brazil’s 2018 Elections, Part 1: Polarization, ‘Fake News,’ and Fact Checking

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This is the first article in an ongoing series on the Brazilian electoral political scene in 2018.

The year of 2018 promises to be intense for Brazilian politics, with concrete impacts on the population and in particular on the segments that are most vulnerable and dependent on public services. Elections will take place on October 7. Brazilians will vote to elect the nation’s president, 27 governors, 54 senators[a] (2 for each state), 513 federal deputies (46 representing the state of Rio), and 1,060 state deputies (70 representing Rio).


If one thing is guaranteed for these elections, it is polarization, already perceptible across Facebook timelines and conversations in bars, and fed by the mainstream media. This polarization results not only in more radical political positions but also in more extreme actions, carrying a dangerous potential to spread hate and encourage violence. Experts attribute this polarization to diverse factors including disenchantment with politics—due to frequent and widespread reports of corruption and imprisonment of politicians—and the proliferation of visible and invisible walls, impeding opportunities to engage with differences of opinion. The polarization is also fed by the economic crisis, which increases resentment among the poor toward the rich and, curiously, also among the rich toward the poor. This second expression of resentment is accentuated because the last decade saw low-income groups climb above the poverty line and access goods and services the rich are used to associating with their own lifestyle, like higher education and air travel. This has resulted in frequent attacks on policies and programs such as the pioneering federal welfare safety net program Bolsa Família and on the government that implemented it. As such, at the same time as there are cries for moral reform—not only in politics but also in the family—there are more basic problems: inequality is increasing, and Brazil risks ending up on the world hunger map once again.

Polarization shuts down space for political debate, as both sides bunker down to defend their opinions and refuse to see alternatives. Thus, we’re seeing an increase in the voting power of segments that used to vote more heterogeneously before polarization—in line with political rather than identity-based platforms—but that today vote as a group. This is the case, for example, with Evangelical Christians, who make up almost a third of the Brazilian population and who tend to vote for right-wing candidates, and for members of the LGBTQI community, who tend to vote for left-wing candidates.

Fake news and fact-checking

In this era of polarization, it is essential to fight so-called fake news—news that is falsely planted and which gains force through near-instant sharing across social media. In this context of radicalization egged on by fake news, political opponents are able to put out exaggerated or even deliberately false information in order to delegitimize the other side and gain supporters.

This scenario creates an ever-greater need for fact-checking, a global phenomenon of the Information Age which gains importance in election periods, to check politicians’ discourses and promises. This happened in Rio’s last mayoral election, in which Agência Lupa (Magnifying Glass Agency), the site Aos Fatos (To the Facts), the Lie Detector of advocacy group Meu Rio, and investigative journalism agency Agência Pública’s project Truco worked together and separately to identify lies and exaggerations in political discourses. Besides limiting the circulation of fake news, the aim was to prevent candidates from manipulating the political debate with false, imprecise, or incomplete data.

In addition to fact-checking journalism agencies and editorials in high-circulation newspapers which bring together specialists and journalists to verify discourses and news, there are also experiments with automated programs that carry out more extensive checking. One example is a browser extension that signals false news. Aos Fatos is working on a new technology—a Bot (an artificial intelligence robot, which chats as if it were a normal user) called Fátima that will work via Facebook Messenger. Facebook is supporting the initiative to identify false reports and educate users on how they can check information for themselves.

Another project working towards this goal and supported by Facebook is “Vaza, Falsiane” (Get out, Falsiane)–playing on the Brazilian neologism of Falsiane, a name that represents a fake person acting as a friend only for self-serving ends–a free online course for young people and teachers. This educational approach is an essential step toward eliminating false reports, by encouraging people to click on articles and verify their sources before sharing. This is especially important to combat the bubbles produced through algorithms on social networks, which make users more likely to see content in line with what they already consume. Such educational initiatives counter the use of technology to spread false reports and to target people with content in support of only particular candidates, which eliminate people’s contact with different opinions and intensify polarization. This educational effort and its associated tools are important to make sure that the spread and scope of social media is used to spread information, not disinformation.

The public sector is also developing steps to regulate the effects of new technologies. Last year, the Consulting Council on the Internet and Elections was inaugurated. With a focus on the disadvantages of bots and fake news, the Council’s eleven members include representatives from the Supreme Electoral Court, the federal government, the army, and civil society. At the beginning of this year, a working group led by the Supreme Electoral Court was established to formulate a law to combat fake news.

What impact will the elections have on the population?

In Brazil, the election of an executive representative, like a governor or a president, is not just an election of an individual but of a political platform. This platform is not necessarily partisan, but it is subject to the formation of alliances that will determine who will assume the leadership of departments and ministries, and even what departments and ministries will exist. The Temer administration, for example, closed the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights, which had represented significant social gains for these groups. The administration transferred that Ministry’s resources—a value of R$12.9 million (US$4 million)—to its own executive office. Besides this, the Temer government temporarily merged the important Ministry of Social Development–responsible for food security and policies such as Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Família–with the Ministry of Agricultural Development. Closing down ministries and departments that represent important social gains is always a risk, which becomes even greater in the context of an economic crisis and the government’s insolvency.

Furthermore, it is the elected president who is in charge of the continuity, operation, and attribution of resources of social programs. These programs include Bolsa Família (last year, residents of City of God, Vila Kennedy, Alemão, Penha and Maré favelas were promised increased resources as a way to combat Rio’s security crisis—a promise not yet delivered) and the Student Financing Program, FIES (which under Temer’s administration went for four months without distributing resources to university students). This is also the case of the Minha Casa Minha Vida public housing which, due to spending cuts and the suspension of contracts, only used 0.5% of the resources designated for the program between January and October for building projects for Category 1—the lowest-income group consisting of families with a monthly income up to R$1,800. This happened because it is the category that costs the federal government the most, since the government pays up to 90% of the building price.

The election of members to the legislature also has a significant effect on the population, since they are the ones who propose, approve, and veto laws that heavily impact the lives of favela residents. This was the case last year with the approval of the Land Regularization Law, which permits land titles for, and thereby the taxation of, favela homes including multiple vertical properties on one plot of land. Legislators also impact favelas in cases such as pension reform and the loosening of the disarmament statute, currently being debated.

This is the first article in an ongoing series on the Brazilian electoral political scene in 2018.


[a] The total number of senators is 81—three per state—and the term in office for a senator is eight years. In an election, one third of the seats are contested, and in the following election, two thirds. Thus, in the past election, 27 senators were elected (one per state) and in this election there will be 54 (two per state).