This week, Brazil’s Federal Police used Twitter to announce a new censorship program to “identify and punish the authors of ‘fake news'” ahead of the country’s upcoming presidential election. The announcement echoes French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to introduce legislation that could involve blocking entire websites, ostensibly to stop the spread of misinformation during election campaigns.
Polícia Federal dará início nos próximos dias em Brasília às atividades de um grupo especial formado para combater notícias falsas durante o processo eleitoral. A medida tem o objetivo de identificar e punir autores de "fake news" contra ou a favor dos candidatos. pic.twitter.com/ZDSAt4p1BL
— FENAPEF (@FENAPEF) January 9, 2018
Brazil’s incoming electoral tribunal president Luiz Fux is creating the program, which will be made up of “various authorities,” according to Bloomberg. Supporters of the Federal Police’s task force want to enact a law that would permit and define the online censorship plan, the Intercept reports. However, even in the absence of new legislation, Brazil’s law enforcement agency reportedly plans to go ahead and enforce its plan, leaning on a censorship law from 1983 – one that was enacted during a time of military dictatorship in the country and about two decades before Facebook was even created, as the Intercept points out.
Brazil’s Federal Police and France’s Macron are both trying to rationalise censorship as a means to stamp out election interference following the 2016 US presidential election. But there are a number of other measures government bodies and tech companies can take that don’t involve silencing and punishing people for posting so-called fake news. Macron even suggested other, less extreme approaches during a speech this year, such as increased transparency around political ads.
It also remains to be seen what exactly Brazil and France define as “fake news.” The term itself, which in simpler times signalled falsified information, has been distorted, and is often used by President Trump to criticise unflattering news about the administration. It’s especially hard to take the term seriously when a major fashion brand is selling jeans emblazoned in it. Without a rigid definition of what constitutes fake news, it’s easy to imagine corrupt authorities bending the law in their vested interests.
Censorship programs set dangerous precedents for freedom of expression on the Internet. The distribution of misinformation on social media is undoubtedly an issue that is influencing public opinion, but allowing governments to shape and silence discourse online isn’t a win for democracy.