In Brazil, disinformation on the pandemic is institutional: it mostly comes from the President, government authorities and political allies of Jair Bolsonaro. In the last 15 months, they have used the government’s social media and communication structures to systematically boycott the experts advise on drugs, social distancing, face masks and even the importance of vaccination. As a consequence, they have caused confusion and encouraged the relaxation of preventive measures, thus creating an environment conducive to a rise in cases and deaths.
Based on the “herd immunity” strategy, Bolsonaro builds its communication of the pandemic on the promotion of “early treatment” drugs, like hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and ivermectin, and on attacks against social distancing policies implemented in states and municipalities, which are considered a threat to the bolsonarism political project due to their effects on economic activities. The official stance was that COVID-19 could be treated with cheap, safe drugs, and that social distancing policies wouldn’t work and would cause more harm than the virus. “Brazil can’t stop,” was the slogan of an official campaign at the beginning of the crisis, in March 2020, when several countries opted for a lockdown to avoid the dissemination of the virus.
But what happens when disinformation comes from the government? In addition to the President, the own Ministry of Health and other public bodies and agencies have spread disinformative content on official social media accounts, statements and documents. These actions had a direct impact on Brazil’s tragedy, one of the ten countries with the highest mortality risks of COVID-19, according to a report of the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA, as for the Portuguese acronym).
As of May 2021, at the time of publication of this article, Brazil is seeking a break after its health system collapsed during the second wave of the pandemic. The number of deaths is close to 450,000, and every day there are 2,000 more deaths to add to the list. Less than 10% of its population is fully vaccinated, and there are alarming signals of a third wave.
At present, a special commission of the Senate is investigating the federal response to the pandemic to, among other issues, try to measure the impact of disinformation on inefficient treatments across the country. The commission, which doesn’t hold the power to remove the President, but can create the political conditions for an impeachment process, has collected more than 200 instances in which Bolsonaro spread negationist content.
The President adopted a negationist stance during all phases of the pandemic: he first said that the disease would not spread in Brazil, or that it wouldn’t be serious; then, he defended drugs that hadn’t been scientifically proven, attacked social distancing policies implemented by subnational governments; and finally, discouraged inoculation efforts. These aren’t just emotional, ideological claims that disregard science.
A team of researchers and human rights defenders that analyzed the measures implemented by the government during the pandemic concluded that there was a deliberate strategy to spread the virus so that the population would achieve “herd immunity” and overcome the pandemic “naturally.” The theory states that if no measures are taken and a significant part of the population contracts the virus, they’ll develop antibodies against it and overcome the pandemic. No countries were able to resolve the health crisis with this strategy, and those that tried at the beginning, failed, like Israel and the United Kingdom. Bolsonaro claimed several times that the best vaccine was the virus itself. He also said multiple times that having 70% of the population infected would be “inevitable.”
The failure of the herd immunity strategy became clear on the first anniversary of the pandemic in Brazil, when the increasing numbers of cases and deaths forced governors and mayors to adopt new measures to restrict movement. Under pressure, at the end of March 2021, Bolsonaro changed his stance on vaccines: he stopped questioning their efficacy and safety and began to claim that he “always” defended them, which is false.
Bolsonaro, Chloroquine’s Influencer
On social media, each disinformative piece of information that the President introduced in the public debate found among its supporters a huge audience willing to amplify it.
Between March 2020 and May 2021, of the 100 Facebook posts in Portuguese about chloroquine with more interactions, Bolsonaro posted 42, four out of ten posts. Since the beginning of the pandemic, his posts about the drug that has become the symbol of disinformation on the pandemic in Brazil had 11 million interactions and 1.7 million shares, according to an analysis carried out with CrowdTangle. Even including posts about the same topic in other languages, Bolsonaro still appears on top of all engagement charts, above former U.S. President Donald Trump (1.1 million interactions) and the World Health Organization (503,000).
In the political sphere, the debate on chloroquine was dominated by bolsonarists. Facebook profiles of Brazilian politicians have published almost 4500 posts with the words “chloroquine” and “hydroxychloroquine” since March 2020. These posts have over 43 million interactions. Among the 100 most popular messages of the list, only one was written by a member of the opposition, and three by an independent congressman. The other 96 came from officers of the government party.
Something similar happened on Twitter: bolsonarist members of Congress Osmar Terra, Eduardo Bolsonaro (son of the President) and Carla Zambelli where the congressional officers that generated more interactions by publishing false information about COVID-19 in 2020, according to a report published by fact-checking agency Aos Fatos. Of the 1,000 tweets about the new coronavirus with more interactions published by congresspeople and senators between March 11th and December 15th, 299 had false or wrong claims, and 104 of those referred to ineffective drugs against COVID-19. Disinformative tweets had more than 3.3 million interactions (retweets and likes), 31% of the total 10.4 million analyzed.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are two drugs used to treat malaria. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was said that they could work as treatments for coronavirus. However, after tens of clinical trials tested these drugs, they reached the conclusion that they’re not effective in preventing or treating coronavirus, and the World Health Organization (WHO) strongly recommends not using them.
Chloroquine was “sold” in bolsonarist propaganda as an “early treatment” against COVID. According to this version, this drug, as well as a few others, would be enough to get cured. Despite a lack of serious scientific evidence to support it, the claim was backed by an important number of doctors and citizens.
A survey published on May 20th by the Datafolha institute showed that 23% of Brazilians admitted to have used “early treatments” during the pandemic. The President’s influence is evident: according to the same survey, “early treatments” were used by 37% of Bolsonaro’s voters, twice as many than those who claimed to vote for Lula da Silva in 2022.
The most popular Facebook post of the Brazilian President was published when he had COVID-19, in July 2020. Back then, Bolsonaro wrote: “To those who attack hydroxychloroquine, but don’t present any alternatives, I regret to inform you that I’ve been doing very well while taking it. With the help of God, I will live much longer.” The tweet had 101,000 interactions.
The first post the President ever made about the drug was on March 26th, 2020, when he announced to have eliminated the tax to import chloroquine. He continued to encourage its use, and even blamed the health collapse in Manaus, in January 2021, to the lack of treatments with this chemical. On May 20th, Bolsonaro said that he had consumed chloroquine again, “even before checking with my doctor.” “Look at the example I’m giving: I took this drug because I had symptoms. I took it, I was tested, I wasn’t sick. But, as a precaution, I took it.” While it’s clear that he’s talking about chloroquine, he never mentioned the name of the drug. He did it because Facebook, at the beginning of April, deleted a video in which Bolsonaro shared disinformation about the effects of chloroquine, because it violated the platform’s policies. “I won’t say the name so they keep me on the air. That thing people use to tackle malaria, I used it before and the next day, I was fine.”
The President was one of Brazil’s politicians that generated more interactions when publishing about other chemicals that haven’t been scientifically proved against COVID-19, like ivermectin (157,000 interactions), azithromycin (750,000) and nitazoxanide (231,000).
Among the evidence that disinformation had an impact on the pandemic is a study by researchers of Fundação Getulio Vargas and the University of Cambridge from 2020. The study concludes that Bolsonaro’s speeches that criticized social distancing policies made his followers move more – they exposed themselves more to the risk of getting infected. Immediately after Bolsonaro’s claims against social distancing effects, movement increased in the cities where he had more votes during the 2018 elections. The movement was analyzed by tracking cell phone locations. To compare, there were no significant changes in movement after the speeches that didn’t criticize social distancing. This means that, according to this study, Bolsonaro’s negationist speech has a direct effect on the decisions people make daily.
In November 2020, another study based on data from collaborative fact-checking databases of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and LatamChequea showed that Brazil and India were the only countries that showed increased disinformation tendencies. The debate on the efficiency of chloroquine and ivermectin during the pandemic only remained in Brazil. The report’s authors claimed that internal political disputes could have motivated disinformation campaigns, since governors of states like São Paulo, Río de Janeiro and Bahía were usual targets of these rumors.
Consequences of Disinformation
Bolsonaro’s polarizing and negationist discourse politicized the pandemic in Brazil since the beginning. “COVID-19 disinformation has been presented mainly as a political problem, leaving public health in the back seat,” wrote the authors of the report Disinformation, Social Media and COVID-19 in Brazil, published on early May 2021 by researchers of two Brazilian federal universities. “This means that issues related to the mitigation of the pandemic, its seriousness and even vaccines are debated as political problems, where people have to take sides, and not as public health issues, in which everyone should cooperate. As a consequence, actions to control the spread of the virus (like social distancing policies and face masks) are seen as ideological actions, rejected by some radical groups. This context also enables disinformation on COVID-19 to circulate on political disinformation networks already established on social media, which are particularly polarized.”
Tai Nalon, Executive Director of the fact-checking agency Aos Fatos, says that disinformation spread by the government is dangerous because it’s shared by authorities with the power to implement public policies. “The problem goes beyond rumors on WhatsApp: In Brazil, politicians use false information to generate interactions on social media to support bills and decrees, as if, by giving lies an official stamp, they automatically become true.”
“Brazil is well ahead on the use of disinformation as a political element,” assured Natália Leal, Content Director of Agência Lupa. “Since 2013, everything becomes politically polarized in Brazil. There is a pandemic with 450,000 deaths and people are still arguing about early treatments with chloroquine because Bolsonaro says it works. This is very dangerous; we’re dealing with public health.”
For Lupa, the country has gone through six waves of COVID-19 disinformation. All these waves were supported by doubts and claims made by Bolsonaro’s administration.
In January 2020, even before the first confirmed case in Brazil, the first wave claimed that the virus had been produced in a laboratory. The second wave aimed at domestic products, like vinegar and garlic, which would be efficient to prevent the spread. One of the strongest and lasting waves happened in April, with the defense of medication that hadn’t been scientifically proven against COVID-19, like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. The fourth and fifth waves are linked, according to different sources, in an attempt to discredit the seriousness of the pandemic. One of the articles showed coffins and hospitals that were allegedly empty and quiet, to show that the pandemic wasn’t real, and another one compared figures of death records that supposedly showed that everything was normal. The sixth wave began mid-2020 and remains until today, with disinformation on vaccines, using all kinds of data manipulation to suggest alleged dark interests and imaginary dangers.
False information has also affected the decision-making processes of local governments during the pandemic. Mayors of several Brazilian cities encouraged the distribution of “Covid kits,” with drugs that hadn’t been scientifically proven against the disease; besides chloroquine, they also included azithromycin, zinc and vitamin C. In Manaus, a city located north, whose hospitals run out of oxygen in January 2021, the Ministry of Health launched a cell phone app to encourage “early treatments” with chloroquine. Obviously, it didn’t work: In January and February of 2021, more than 4,000 people died of COVID in Manaus. In 2020, there were less than 3,000.
“Disregarding science from the highest office of the Presidency is very dangerous, because then it continues to minor roles,” explains Leal. “Our political environment has been very influenced by disinformation. Many mayors, and even governors, although to a lesser extent, have followed Government’s guidelines because they are worried about the political impact, and not the health impact.”
To understand the dynamic of bolsonarist disinformation, it’s useful to go back to the beginning of the pandemic and observe how this public health issue was politicized in Brazil. In March 2020, when coronavirus deaths in the largest country in South America were not even 50, Bolsonaro used a radio and television address to the nation to compare COVID-19 with a “little flu” (“gripezinha”, he said in Portuguese). He asked people not to isolate and to continue living life normally.
At that time, some state and municipal governors decided to adopt lockdowns, inspired by countries in Asia and Europe, and were severely criticized by the President, who tried to revert their decision. The case went to court and the Federal Supreme Tribunal made it clear that local politicians had the right to take more restrictive measures on the face of a health disaster. Without managing to avoid the interruption of non-essential services, Bolsonaro kept criticizing preventive social distancing measures.
As a counterpoint to the lockdown, Bolsonaro started to support on social media what he called “vertical isolation.” The idea focused on only isolating those that would suffer severe damage from COVID-19: senior citizens or people with pre-existing conditions. Consequently, shops, schools and public transport could remain open. This policy was never supported among health authorities, who point out the infection risks within a household and reminded people that healthy and younger patients could also suffer severe cases of COVID-19.
On April 8th, 2020, with more than 100 confirmed COVID deaths, representatives of fact-checking agencies in Brazil published an open letter demanding public servants to stop distorting facts about COVID-19. That same day, however, Bolsonaro made another statement on national broadcast defending chloroquine. In May, in the middle of a cabinet shuffle, the Ministry of Health started to recommend chloroquine for the early stages of the disease. Members of Congress loyal to Bolsonaro also claimed to be in favor of these drugs.
After not wearing face masks in public events and encouraging his followers to break with social isolation rules, Bolsonaro contracted COVID-19 in July 2020. His wife, Michele, also contracted the virus at the same time. The fact that they didn’t develop serious symptoms was used as “evidence” that the new coronavirus wasn’t so dangerous and that chloroquine was efficient.
Challenges Facing Fact-Checkers
Last year, the founder of the fact-checking website E-Farsas, Gilmar Lopes, experienced the impact of coronavirus disinformation first-hand: his father had to be hospitalized after contracting the virus. The journalist regrets that his father saw the “bad example” their leaders were giving. “If Bolsonaro doesn’t wear face masks, goes to demonstrations and underestimate the disease, this encourages other people to do the same,” explained Lopes.
E-Farsas has debunked online rumors since 2002, but Gilmar doesn’t remember any other time in which health disinformation and politics were so intertwined. “Now, there’s always a political aspect. If you’re against a drug, you’re a communist,” he says.
The Editor of Boatos.Org, Edgard Matsuki, remembers that, before the pandemic, health fact-checks published on the site used to debunk the claim of “miraculous cures.” Boatos.Org was founded in 2013. “Now, during COVID-19, unfortunately, there are a lot of rumors that want to strengthen the opinion of their favorite politician, instead of talking about a cure,” he argues.
During the pandemic, fact-checkers began to gather health disinformation examples shared by politicians. “These people are influential on the Internet, and any content shared by them will resonate loudly,” says Matsuki. “It’s hard for our fact-checks to have the same reach as their content; most of the time, they don’t. Our structure is small and our reach is not comparable to that of influential people.”
Since misleading information shared by public servants has a bigger impact on the Internet, fact-checkers of agencies like AFP are trying to be as fast as possible when it comes to this type of content. In the middle of the pandemic, speed can be a challenge, since knowledge on COVID-19 has increased over time, but there are still many aspects that remain unknown.
“At the end of 2020, President Bolsonaro once again talked about ivermectin. That’s hard for us to fact-check, because there isn’t enough evidence or safe results about this treatment’s efficiency,” says Elodie Martínez, Regional Coordinator of AFP. “It’s very delicate, we can’t say what works and what doesn’t. So, we try to use all experts available and we try to constantly update all the scientific research available.” The job of fact-checkers is very difficult when one side provides false truths, and the other one can only respond with available proofs, that are often not perfect or definitive.
Agencia Lupa also had to adapt its methodology to overcome the difficulty of getting data about COVID-19. “Lupa never used specialist as the primary source of information,” remembers Natália Leal, Content Director of Lupa. “But when we were faced with an unknown disease, we had to change our strategy.”
Proyecto Comprova, a coalition of 28 Brazilian media outlets, fact-checks dubious content on social media since the elections of 2018. During the pandemic, the initiative shifted to debunk rumors about the new coronavirus. Comprova broadened the project’s reach to include posts made by politicians, which they didn’t fact-check before. Recently, the coalition showed that a tweet made by Bolsonaro that assured that ivermectin helped to control the pandemic in Africa was misleading.
Comprova’s Editor, Sérgio Lüdtke, admits that fact-checkers have had difficulties in obtaining data and answers from the authorities about the topics being researched. “At a critical time like this, when we should aim for more transparency from everyone involved, what we see is a retraction, a caution in releasing data about certain topics.”
In June 2020, in response to the federal government’s decision to restrict the disclosure of numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, media outlets O Estado de S. Paulo, Folha de S.Paulo, O Globo, Extra, G1 and UOL formed an association to investigate data independently.
Transparency: When Official Data Are Not Reliable
Open Knowledge Brazil, the national branch of the international organization, is also known as Rede pelo Conhecimento Livre (Free Knowledge Network) and has been following, since the beginning of the pandemic, the governmental outreach scenario of Brazilian data on COVID-19, demanding more transparency, access and suitability to scientific standards.
Fernanda Campagnucci, Executive Director of OKBR, mentions a number of problems in the authorities’ statements: “It’s a pernicious situation for democracy.” She recalls that the basis for all authorities should be that of public faith, i.e., institutional credibility acknowledged by the population. In exchange, the public servant should act in good faith, with the best knowledge available and certifying the truthfulness of the information they present. “But we have authorities that lie shamelessly.”
Campagnucci explains that there are different types of disinformation, like statements that contradict facts, are completely false or omit crucial aspects. She presents the example of the federal government, which focuses on the number of people that had COVID and survived, and dismisses the number of deaths. “It’s not precisely lying, but it’s misleading information that disinforms,” she assures. Campagnucci says that the amount of hidden, false or misleading data has grown to the point of creating impossible-to-overcome difficulties for the press to fact-check everything. “The Government changes their version quickly and without any sort of commitment to what was said before. Society can’t counteract.”
One of the worst stands of Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, according to Campagnucci, is to give a false impression that the problem is solved. “It’s not about creating panic, but frankly communicating facts to the population, as other leaders have done. But here we are, playing with public imagination, because some people, deep down, don’t want the pandemic to be true. It’s harder to face reality,” she added. Campagnucci thinks that Bolsonaro’s actions fit in the concept of necropolitics, characterized by a lack of appreciation for life. Statements made by the Ministry of Health are part of a strategy that some members of the government called “communication cannon” – it centralizes information, gives it a more political varnish and scans through an ideological screening even the most routine information, like paperwork.
If there’s evidence that COVID-19 disinformation spread by politicians makes citizens dismiss health care policies, Comprova’s Editor, Sérgio Lüdtke, says that there’s another long-term consequence: the press’ loss of credibility.
“It’s a very harmful effect,” he admits. “People stop trusting us and, therefore, stop consuming media outlets, which, although sometimes flawed, are still the best way to obtain reliable information in which science is expressed more popularly.”
This secondary damage of loss of credibility will remain until after vaccination, says Lütdke, and can be permanent. “We’re creating a model to consume information based on wrong interpretations of reality and information that’s shared without being properly fact-checked. This can harm other areas in the future, probably politics, because we have elections in 2022.”
Comprova’s Editor believes that the best vaccine against disinformation is good information, verified with political rigor. He also claims that journalism should be more transparent and have the support of society. “Many times, journalism makes mistakes, is very declarative and ends up collaborating with disinformation campaigns. But it’s still a better alternative than disinformation.”
Elodie Martínez, Regional Coordinator of AFP, highlights the importance of collaboration between social media platforms when promoting controls. “Brazil is a particular case. We have a lot of people that only inform themselves through social media,” she says. “It’s very important to reach those people. We know that fact-checks aren’t as interesting as disinformation for a lot of people, because disinformation appeals to emotions, like anger and sadness.”
Natália Leal, from Lupa, claims that it’s necessary to think of more structural solutions for Brazil’s disinformation problem. “Journalism is very important, but we won’t save the world of disinformation with fact-checking alone. To say that something is false or true is like trying to dry ice,” she adds. This expression is used in Brazil to refer to endless tasks that don’t have any visible results.
Leal also says that it’s important to debate about the information environment in school, as well as to invest in education to train better citizens. “Education is always the most reasonable solution, even though it’s a medium and long-term policy,” she admits. “We can’t solve it now.”
This research is part of “The Disinformants”, a series of investigations about different actors who have disinformed during the pandemic conducted by LatamChequea, the Latin American fact-checkers network coordinated by Chequeado that includes editions from participating organizations and journalist Hugo Alconada Mon.
Illustrations: Alina Najlis and Santiago Quintero
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