Facebook subsidiary and encrypted chat service WhatsApp has banned more than 100,000 accounts ahead of the upcoming federal elections in Brazil, where leftist Workers' Party candidate Fernando Haddad will face down far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, Bloomberg reported on Friday.
Facebook has recently bragged nonstop about its "war room," an office in its Menlo Park, California headquarters where employees monitor attempts at organised disinformation efforts online (or at least make it look like they're doing that). WhatsApp is a popular chat app that has a large overseas userbase, but its encrypted nature makes it very hard for Facebook to monitor by design.
As the Guardian noted, the Brazilian press has been buzzing with reports that Bolsonaro's backers in the business world have been illegally colluding with the candidate in a multimillion-dollar plot to bombard WhatsApp users with "hundreds of millions" of propaganda messages before the Oct. 28 runoff elections:
But according to allegations in a front-page report by the Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil's leading newspapers, Bolsonaro has been getting an illegal helping hand from a group of Brazilian entrepreneurs who are bankrolling a campaign to bombard WhatsApp users with fake news about Haddad... In some cases overseas numbers were used to get around the platform's spam controls.
"The practice is illegal since it constitutes undeclared campaign donations by companies, something outlawed by electoral legislation," the newspaper said.
"My adversary is seeking to benefit from electoral crimes," Haddad tweeted.
"What we are facing here is an attempt at electoral fraud," he added, claiming to have information suggesting 156 entrepreneurs were involved in the campaign.
Haddad is demanding an investigation into the WhatsApp spam campaign. According to Bloomberg, other political parties are demanding Bolsonaro be "declared ineligible," and there is a police investigation into the matter:
... The country's top electoral court responded on Friday night by saying it will open a formal probe against Bolsonaro. Several political parties, including Haddad's Workers' Party, are jointly requesting that Bolsonaro be declared ineligible for 8 years for abuse of economic power and misuse of digital communication.
Brazil's federal police also opened an investigation into allegations of spam message campaigns on WhatsApp related to the election.
However, with Bolsonaro widely expected to be heading into a landslide victory in the runoff, and advocating things like legalising mass-arrests and indiscriminate lethal force by police and appointing generals to key posts in his administration, it may well be too late for something like a WhatsApp propaganda scandal to stop him.
WhatsApp told Bloomberg they had identified and eliminated the 100,000 fraudulent accounts using "have cutting-edge technology to detect spam that identifies accounts with abnormal behaviour so that they can't be used to spread spam or misinformation" and that they were taking legal action against companies involved.
Yet the New York Times wrote on Friday that the estimated 120 million Brazilian users on WhatsApp have been deluged with spam for months, including everything from fake information on how to vote to thousands of videos and images disseminating lies and propaganda.
While Facebook has seen the Brazilian elections as an opportunity to prove it is up to the challenge of fighting back against the use of its platform to subvert the democratic process, the Times wrote that many Brazilians simply see its response as part of a conspiracy to manipulate the news cycle:
It does not help that many Brazilians view the work of the fact-checkers as part of a nefarious effort by big corporations like Facebook to shield Brazilians from the truth.
"When we do the debunking, a lot of times people just don't trust the debunk," said Leonardo Cazes, an editor working on the "Fato ou Fake" news literacy project with O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper.
.. "People entered this election with a sense of hyperpolarisation," said Roberta Braga, an associate director at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank. "There is a lot of distrust in politics and politicians and political establishments in general."
WhatsApp has also considered making changes to the way it works in Brazil, including imposing tighter caps on the number of messages that can be forwarded, the Times wrote. The exposure of the alleged business plot to engage in even more spam is notable, though it seems that their playbook was to simply continue hammering WhatsApp with messages "similar to those already in circulation," the paper added.
The ongoing mess in Brazil shows that despite efforts by management to respond, Facebook and its properties' uses as a political and electoral weapon appears to be growing at a rate that it either lacks the ability or the nerve to control.
WhatsApp is particularly popular throughout Brazil because it is free, while local service providers generally offer inflated rates for SMS capability. As the Washington Post noted, the chat app's invite-only group feature has been used for organising purposes there by everyone from "disgruntled Uber drivers, feminists, and hard-line conservatives" to union activists.
By the same token, WhatsApp and other social media services have enabled propaganda networks that are contributing to the chaos of an already disturbing election season, potentially helping pave the way for a candidate who promises to restore order through autocratic means.
"The country is a pressure cooker," philosopher Francisco Bosco, who has published work on social media and politics in Brazil, told the Post. "Social networks increase the pressure and allow it to be organised pragmatically. The conflicts and tensions are laid out every day, often in reduced, simple terms that contribute to a polarising environment and scapegoating."