The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the first half of 2020 bringing along with it much ignorance and uncertainty. This was a fertile time for the spread of lies and misinformation about the disease. In Brazil, this process was detailed in a study by Marilia Gehrke and Marcia Benetti, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). They identified the main themes, platforms, and actors involved in the dissemination of false content during the early days of the pandemic in Brazil.
In their paper, published in the journal “Fronteiras – Estudos Midiaticos,” they show that lying about the performance of the federal government, attacking opponents of President Jair Bolsonaro, advocating for useless treatments, and sharing false – and conflicting – information about vaccines were tactics employed by people around or supporting Bolsonaro – when not by the president himself. Social media channels were the primary spreading vector.
The UFRGS research duo analysed 407 texts classified as false by Latam Chequea Coronavirus – a collaborative platform created by fact-checking agencies in Latin America that brings together, in Brazil, the work of the Agencia Lupa, Aos Fatos, Estadao Verifica, and Agence France-Presse (AFP). The texts were published between March 15th and July 21st, 2020.
The authors defined “disinformation” as false content created and disseminated to deceive the public, harm the reputation of people and institutions, and obtain financial or ideological advantage. They avoided using the term “fake news” because it has been “widely used by politicians to attack the credibility of the press and also because it is a paradox since, by definition, the news is rooted in a factual basis.”
First, the researchers evaluated the topics covered by the texts, which they classified into seven categories: China, Contagion, Cures, Data, Economy, Politics, and Others. The most frequent was Politics (25.55%) – an umbrella term covering government acts – followed by Cures – which included treatments and vaccines – with 20.64%. In third place, Data – as in false data and statistical content – (19.66%) was followed by texts on Contagion, including social distancing (18.43%). The fifth place belongs to the Economy (7.13%) and sixth to China’s role (6.39%) in the pandemic. Only nine articles (2.21%) could not be framed in predefined categories and fell into Others.
After this first screening, Gehrke and Benetti selected 300 fact-checked texts from Agencia Lupa and Aos Fatos for a more in-depth qualitative analysis, “seeking to understand the main meanings constructed in each topic and the disinformation strategies.” According to them, under the theme of Politics, the dominant narrative sought to favor President Jair Bolsonaro – either by boosting his image or slandering his opposition – particularly the Workers’ Party (PT), the governor of São Paulo, João Dória (PSDB), and the then speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia (DEM).
According to the researchers, these fake contents sought to benefit Bolsonaro by showing the federal government as “sensitive to and concerned with the livelihood of those who are most vulnerable” by announcing non-existent projects or distorting his role in releasing economic aid to the population affected by social distancing measures; as a “competent and responsive” leader, with false or misleading information about confronting the pandemic in the country and compliments of global leaders or institutions to the president’s conduct; or, paradoxically, as “prevented from fighting the pandemic” by a distorted reading of decisions of the Supreme Federal Court (STF) on the subject.
In this sense, they also highlight texts that sought to harm opponents of the president, such as those who accused the PT, its members, and other rival politicians, such as Dória, of being “irresponsible” for being against the indiscriminate use of chloroquine, which had already been rejected by scientists as a possible treatment for COVID-19, or as “hypocrites” for allegedly failing to comply with measures of social isolation, among other criticisms.
Aligned with these attacks, disinformation content’s second most frequent theme addressed bogus treatments for COVID-19 and vaccines. Examples of the first type mainly praised not only chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine but also ivermectin, nitazoxanide, and azithromycin – all drugs proved to be useless against the disease and that at some point were, or even continue to be, defended by Bolsonaro or his followers in the fight against the pandemic. Moreover, they also used nonsense advice such as intaking hot water, teas, certain foods, or condiments as possible “homemade cures.”
Regarding COVID-19 vaccines – which were still developing at the time of research and had barely completed the first stages of safety and efficacy tests – the fake contents analysed by researchers were sometimes contradictory. They were sometimes portrayed in an exaggerated optimistic way, such as when stating that “the vaccine cures in three hours,” and sometimes they appeared under a conspiratorial bias, linked to plans for population monitoring and world domination by actors such as Bill Gates. Their safety was also questioned.
Closing the themes covered, almost 85% of the fake content analysed by UFRGS researchers under the Data category (numbers, and statistics) we can find claims such as that hospitals were actually empty; deaths from other causes were registered as COVID-19, accusations against doctors, health facilities, or even local governments of doing this for financial advantages or more public resources; distortions around the survival rate of the infected; and unrealistic expectations about the end of the health crisis.
Regarding Contagion, the main target of the lies were social distancing measures, including assertions that they were useless or that isolating – even by force – groups considered to be of greater risk, such as the elderly, would be enough; or that other preventive measures, such as the use of masks or hand sanitisers, were dangerous.
Next, Gehrke and Benetti sought to identify the main disinformation strategies used to disseminate false content in Brazil in the early days of the pandemic. They applied classifications proposed by other researchers who postulated seven basic types: Fabricated Content, Manipulated Content, Impostor Content, False Context, Misleading Content, False Connection, and Satire or Parody.
According to Gehrke and Benetti, almost half of the false contents of the qualitative analysis (48.34%) resorted to creating a False Context, such as using actual facts or genuine images out of their corresponding real situations. “The fact occurred, but not for that reason; the image is genuine but refers to another situation; the document is true, but it does not concern that subject; the video is real, but it was shot before the fact that it is being connected to,” they said.
The second most recurrent type of misinformation was Manufactured Content (28.67%); that is, totally false and deliberately created to deceive. This group includes messages trying to take advantage of the population’s ignorance and lack of knowledge about science and the role of institutions, creating actors, research centers, or statements out of full cloth.
The third most widely used strategy was Impostor Content, which applies the official logo or visual identity of an organisation (ministries, political parties, tech companies) in false content or falsifying statements from genuine sources. It was found in 12.33% of the texts analysed. The fourth category, with 7.33%, was Misleading Content, where originally accurate information is distorted with tactics such as using an incorrect scale to show or compare unmatched data.
Actors and Media
As for those responsible for spreading disinformation, the study identified 50 people or institutions backing 60 pieces of false content. Not by chance, almost all of them came from people around or supporting Bolsonaro. At the top of the list is congressman Osmar Terra; then comes President Jair Bolsonaro himself; one of his sons, Carlos Bolsonaro; economist and far-right influencer Rodrigo Constantino; state representative André Fernandes; former congressman Roberto Jefferson; and the Midia Five and Gazeta Brasil websites.
Other prominent names cited by the authors are journalist Alexandre Garcia, Evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia, businessman Winston Ling, former presidential advisor Arthur Weintraub (currently an oponent of the president), congresswoman Bia Kicis, congressman and president’s son Eduardo Bolsonaro, the late philosopher and far-right-wing “guru” Olavo de Carvalho, former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, and even the Federal Government’s Communication Department, which made an institutional defense of the use of chloroquine.
“We are not saying that these actors created the rumors and misleading content, but that they played a fundamental role in the distribution and reach of this type of material,” the authors said. “In general, people who assume the role of a non-scientific authority use their rank within a network to put into question information from expert systems such as the press, universities, and international organizations. Then, when suitable, they distort science and take technical information out of context. In common, such actors all shared false content which opposed social distancing and favored keeping the economy wide open and attacked politicians who took measures to contain the spread of the disease, such as the governor of São Paulo, João Dória. They also question the data on the pandemic”.
As for the platforms used to disseminate misinformation, the researchers noticed that many texts were shared in one or more of them. Nevertheless, they identified Facebook as the source of most fake content (65.11%), followed by WhatsApp (15.82%), and Twitter (6.9%). According to the researchers, the phenomenon may have been fueled by the fact that many of the plans offered by mobile operators in Brazil give unlimited access to social media and messaging apps, and some degree of sample bias. Fact-checking agencies may also check more content from Facebook due to a partnership with the platform that makes asking for verification of content and denouncing disinformation relatively simple to users..
By the very nature of the platforms, text was the primary format for spreading disinformation (52.76% of occurrences), either alone or often accompanying images and videos, which were themselves the main formats in 24.74% and 20.04% of events, respectively.
“Although the text is naturally the most recurrent format, since it works as both foundation and complement to other materials, the number of images associated with disinformation present in a quarter of this study’s corpus is noteworthy,” the authors wrote. “The use of images along the texts has, among its main functions, to illustrate and selectively to emphasize the elements of disinformation, not to mention encouraging false beliefs about public personalities and attributing disinformation to them.”
Given this scenario, the researchers emphasise in their final considerations that, although lies are not a modern invention, modern technology and a logic that benefits impostors financially, favour their dissemination, creating what they called “an environment of absolute information insecurity.”
“This disinformation environment was already a major problem, but in the context of the pandemic, it has become even more of an issue because it has an immediate effect on the healthcare system, on people’s behavior, and, ultimately, on life itself”, they said. “Disinformation depends essentially on maintaining prejudices and’ beliefs that paralyze the ability to think and act freely.’ False content is produced and shared to maintain dogmatism, since poorly informed subjects are easier to persuade and motivate. More than the specific allegations of each content, cherished beliefs and convictions, as well as the political and economic interests of those who produce and share lies and fraud, are important.”
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During the height of the pandemic, Brazil’s then-president Jair Bolsonaro was a prolific promoter of pseudoscience – as a new study documents
The post Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil’s superspreader of disinformation during the pandemic appeared first on The Skeptic.