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Facebook fighting fake news, misinformation on WhatsApp in Brazil

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Jair Bolsonaro protest brazil
Brazilian
protesters carry posters against the far-right’s presidential
candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, on September 29, 2018 in Sao Paulo,
Brazil.

Victor Moriyama/Getty
Images


  • Facebook is battling a wave of fake news and
    disinformation in Brazil.
  • Business groups have been spreading hoaxes supporting
    the far-right candidate in the presidential election, and ones
    study found half of all political content being shared was
    false or misleading.
  • It shows how Facebook still struggles to police content
    on its platforms, and the seismic consequences this can have
    around the world.

Facebook is currently battling a deluge of digital misinformation
and fake news ahead of a contentious election featuring a
bombastic, far-right populist candidate. It’s like 2016 all over
again — but this time, the misinformation is spreading on
messaging app WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, and the election is
in Brazil. 

Brazil is currently in the middle of its presidential election,
which is pitting the far-right Jair Bolsonaro against
left-wing Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro, who came out in front in a
first-round vote but failed to win outright, has espoused
extreme, nationalistic views, including opposition to equal
marriage, support for torture,
and more lethal tactics by police

Unlike in the US, WhatsApp is extremely popular and widespread in
Brazil as a standard communication app — but hoaxes and false
information can spread like wildfire on the platform. Writing in
The New York Times recently, researchers
found that the majority of the most popular political content
shared on the app in Brazil is either false or
misleading
.

There are coordinated efforts to spread falsehoods, too:
Hundreds of entrepreneurs and business groups have been actively
pushing pro-Bolsonaro misinformation via WhatsApp via an illegal
campaign,
according to a report from Brazilian newspaper Folha de São
Paulo

There is no easy answer for Facebook. WhatsApp’s messages are
end-to-end encrypted, meaning the company can’t view the content
and proactively moderate like it might on Facebook’s newsfeed, or
on Instagram or Messenger (which can encrypt messages, but
doesn’t by default). 

But this chaos illustrates how —
even as Facebook touts improvements in security and
preparedness
— it still faces struggles in policing unethical
behaviour on its services, and the potentially seismic
impact this can have on politics around the world.

Reached for comment, a WhatsApp spokesperson pointed towards

a recent column by the app’s boss, Chris Daniels
, and
provided a statement: “WhatsApp has proactively banned
hundreds of thousands of accounts during the Brazilian election
period. We have best-in-class spam detection technology that
spots accounts that engage in abnormal behavior so they can’t be
used to spread spam or misinformation. We’re also taking
immediate legal action to stop companies from sending bulk
messages on WhatsApp and have already banned accounts associated
with those companies.”

The spokesperson did not respond to Business Insider’s
subsequent questions and requests to talk on the record about the
steps WhatsApp is taking.

In Daniels’ column, he flags a “forwarding” label, new
controls for group admins, and a public education campaign among
the measures WhatsApp is taking to try and tackle the
problem. 

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