Opinion | Politics

Brazil’s Groundbreaking Fake News Bill Will Reshape the Global Digital Landscape

Whether this milestone in the battle for the control of information is good or bad remains to be seen.

Joe Duncan

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Digital Bolsonaro by ; source photo of Bolsonaro by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom, Agência Brasil; licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Imagine this.

I come to you and tell you I’d give you $300 if you’d help me spread a lie about a mutual friend. This person has aggrieved me in some personal way, and I’ve concocted a devious scheme to embarrass them to the ends of the Earth. I don’t expect you to just passively confirm my story—I want you to get your hands dirty with my nefarious plot.

You must message everyone we mutually know and tell them that this person is abusing their children.

I know that they’re not, in fact, abusing their children. But the goal isn’t accuracy—the purpose of this exercise is to dream up and spread the most inflammatory lie we possibly can and ruin the person's reputation.

Would you accept?

This is the crux of a law that’s being discussed right now in Brazil. While it may seem like a simple political and moral question to grapple with, rest assured, the plot thickens.

When it comes to handling disinformation on the internet, there are no easy answers. While there are some solutions that could help, there are no silver bullets that can easily remedy the grave and expansive problems we face. Each of those fixes has its drawbacks.

Though I disagree with him on most things, one of the most brilliant things the economist Thomas Sowell ever said is, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”

This issue is no different. This watershed moment could alter the internet in Brazil and beyond—for better or worse—and none of us really know which one it is yet.

The bill in question is Brazil’s PL2630, called the “Fake News Law,” which erects some guard rails intended to force the hand of social media companies to curb widespread disinformation. But, the law comes with some rather scary trade-offs.

Proponents of the bill say the point is to force social media companies to police the content online. Opponents say it runs the risk of being abused, calling it censorship.

The result kicked up a firestorm of big tech companies spewing propaganda and further driving a wedge into the chasm of an already-divided nation.

In a stroke of irony, the mere mention of regulations that force tech companies to control disinformation prompted tech companies to launch—wait for it—a disinformation campaign.

Telegram called the law “an attack on democracy,” adding that the law “will end free speech,” while Google bombarded creators with messages urging them to speak out against the law.

A similar thing happened when Meta and Apple went head-to-head over privacy issues. Apple gave iPhone users the ability to stop data tracking by Meta (Facebook and Instagram), and Meta subsequently bombarded Facebook users with notifications telling them to protest Apple’s ban on Meta’s invasive data-gathering techniques.

The plight of Brazil echoes many of the problems faced here in America, and the consequences of Brazil’s law could have widespread ramifications for Latin America and beyond.

How can we combat disinformation? How can we prevent attacks like the one the United States experienced on January 6th, 2021? Brazil serves as a case study for these questions and their possible answers.

First, let’s rewind for a minute.

Here’s the backstory.

Jair Bolsonaro was elected the 38th president of Brazil in 2018 and served between 2019 and 2022. Some American media outlets compared him to Donald Trump for his nationalist, socially conservative stances and anti-liberal sentiment. This characterization was sometimes accurate, sometimes not.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has — intentionally or not — created a fervor among his most devout followers that led to a riot like America’s January 6th insurrection. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro said he would abide by the Brazilian constitution after losing the Brazilian election to Lula da Silva.

But, Bolsonaro didn’t immediately concede the election, though he authorized the transition to the new government run by da Silva.

He also sowed the seeds of doubt about whether the election was legitimate. This caused his supporters to attack the Brazilian capital on January 8th, 2023, the same way Trump’s supporters attacked the U.S. capitol on January 6th, 2021. The parallels are striking.

The attack on the Brazilian government was driven by conspiracy theories, much like the attack on the U.S. government. Social media and messaging apps were used to spread information that got Bolsonaro supporters fired up, which led to the riots.

The New York Times writes:

Millions of Brazilians appear to be convinced that October’s presidential election was rigged against Mr. Bolsonaro, despite audits and analyses by experts finding nothing of the sort. Those beliefs are in part the product of years of conspiracy theories, misleading statements and explicit falsehoods spread by Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies claiming Brazil’s fully electronic voting systems are rife with fraud.

Disinformation fueled the attacks on the government in both Brazil and the United States.

Skip forward to where we are now, and Lula da Silva’s government is in charge. A Brazilian judge has banned Telegram, the messaging app, for failing to comply with government requests to deliver information from neo-Nazi conversations after a series of murderous attacks on schools.

It’s similar to Apple’s complicated spat with the FBI after the FBI asked Apple to create a “backdoor” so they could break into encrypted devices.

Seeing an opportunity to present itself as a company that cares about privacy, Apple refused on the grounds that protecting consumer data is an integral part of the company’s values and mission. Everyone’s privacy is probably a little more secure because of it.

In response, the FBI hired a hacker group, Azimuth, and paid them to break into iPhone devices. Azimuth later said, “nothing of real significance—no links to foreign terrorists—was found.”

But it’s also quite different. The FBI was asking Apple to create a “backdoor” key to get into every single iPhone on Earth. The Brazilian authorities were asking Telegram to hand over specific conversations relating to crimes committed.

This is merely the latest in a series of messaging app bans. WhatsApp was banned four times in 2015 and 2016 by the Supreme Court for similar violations, though those bans were quickly overturned.

Brazil also threatened to fine Google, Telegram, and TikTok $200,000 per day if they continue the campaign of disinformation and if Telegram doesn’t comply with the court orders to turn over those conversations.

So, the government considered passing the fake news law, causing tech companies to launch propaganda campaigns protesting the law, some of which included misleading claims, and then the government responded by threatening them with fines. Then Google pulled its campaigns against the law.

It’s an absolute mess.

Whatever happens with the bill and the other dozens of bills that will be passed alongside it, we can be certain it will reshape the internet landscape. Brazil is a political and economic powerhouse, which is why tech companies see this battle as so crucial to their business models.

If Brazil fails to pass the law, tech companies will likely see this as a signal that they’re free to do what they want with impunity. If Brazil passes the law, we could see a radically different internet in the future than we have today. This might be a good thing, but it also might be a bad thing.

At current, nobody knows how it will play out.

But what does this law actually say?

Let’s dissect it.

The “Fake News Law” was drafted in 2020, when Bolsonaro was still president in Brazil. In my view, it’s one thing for a brand-new government to come in, seize power, and start passing laws to silence its rivals. It’s a whole other thing when a law was drafted during the previous government and carries over to the new government.

PL2630 bans disinformation in paid advertisements on social media platforms that have over 2 million users. Translated into English, the bill defines “disinformation” as:

Content, in part or in whole, unequivocally false or misleading, verifiable, placed out of context, manipulated or forged, with the potential to cause individual or collective damage, with the exception of humorous or parody spirit.

This is a relief, and it’s the first thing I noticed about the bill—that it only applies to accounts posting paid advertising, not everyday users. My hypothetical situation where a friend asked you to help them spread the filthiest lies about someone for $300 is an analogy.

The fact that there’s a humor exemption is good. The bill also targets inauthentic accounts, defining them as:

An account created or used with the purpose of disseminating misinformation or assuming the identity of a third person to deceive the public.

Personally, I’m on board with all of this so far. But I also have some very, very serious reservations.

Here in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has passed some extreme bills over the past two years. DeSantis just banned TikTok, the popular social media platform, from being used in Florida schools.

It’s somewhat analogous.

Many Brazilians view Mr. Da Silva as I view Mr. DeSantis. I favor desperately needed content moderation laws. But would I trust DeSantis to be the man to implement those laws fairly? Absolutely not.

I’d be terrified if DeSantis was talking about stopping disinformation on social media platforms because he has a proven track record of misrepresenting the truth and abusing power.

I sense that’s the concern many Brazilians have right now. It’s not the law that’s bad so much as trusting the individuals or institutions in charge of the law. That’s the problem.

My heart goes out to the Brazilian people. Neither candidate in their last election was a great choice. I know the feeling all too well.

It feels like the political center is fast disappearing there, just like it is here in America, leaving two increasingly extremist poles for the fatigued middle-of-the-road voters to choose from.

But analogies can only take us so far.

It’s impossible for me to experience this as a Brazilian. America doesn’t have a history of the government snooping on our private messages until after a crime happens, and even then, it’s rare. And our Supreme Court doesn’t shut down messaging platforms on a whim because of disinformation.

No matter what, whether you’re in Brazil or the United States, the idea that people can pay social media companies to run targeted ads to lie about their enemies is bad news. That much I stand firm on.

The question is, what do we do about it? And how do we fix it without handing one group or another an amount of power that makes most people deeply and understandably uncomfortable?

That’s the conundrum we face.

And there are no easy answers. Only trade-offs.

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Joe Duncan

I’ve worked in politics for thirteen years and counting. Editor for Sexography: Medium.com/Sexography | The Science of Sex: http://thescienceofsex.substack.com