The contexts are unique, but the underlying premise and patterns are hauntingly familiar: a controversial, ideological, and often extreme figure rises from relative political obscurity to become a country’s hard-partisan populist leader by “saying what they want.” This individual often lies with few filters, connects with voters through personal storytelling on social media, and projects a heavy hand and air of “authenticity” to gain an almost cult-like following from voters disillusioned with the “establishment.” We saw it in the United States with Donald Trump, in the Philippines with Rodrigo Duterte, and in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro.
Disinformation has been blamed often for democratic backsliding. And while disinformation has certainly played a frightening role in influencing voters to accept larger narratives in Brazil and elsewhere in the world, to safeguard election integrity we must go beyond presuming that falsehoods are solely or even mostly to blame for shifts in voting behaviors.
On October 2, Brazilians will cast their votes in presidential, congressional, and local elections amid apprehension of January 6th-like demonstrations encouraged by the sitting Brazilian president and orchestrated by his impassioned supporters in reaction to false claims of electoral fraud. The candidates and their vision for Brazil’s future could not be more different, but the trends underpinning this election are an echo of global experiences.
In upholding democracy post-election day, we must recognize that disinformation is one component of a larger ecosystem of influence, a part of a larger crisis of trust and a tool for sowing distrust. We must understand the differences between disinformation and political propaganda. We must look to the silent majority and invest in reducing uncertainty (perhaps more than belief). And we must tailor solutions to building and maintaining an information ecosystem permeated with contextualized messaging, delivered by trusted messengers, inside an information environment where people see themselves and their experiences reflected. Different entities and organizations have different roles to play in this effort, but all have a responsibility to fortify these bulwarks of democracy.
The Broader Crisis of Trust
In the last few years, as false narratives have become seemingly more visible and arguably more mainstream, a growing number of people have begun pointing to disinformation as the crux of the rise of hard-partisans and shifts in votes. In many places, the word disinformation has become a specter.
Yet, while disinformation is an absolutely serious problem, “false information disseminated with intent to deceive” is but one element of broader illicit influence operations. Disinformation is also one byproduct of a larger crisis of trust and a tool used by hyper-partisan political leaders, influencers, and coordinated networks to sow distrust.
At a borderless, more global level, the crisis of trust has been marked by a confluence of factors, including changing patterns of media consumption, the obscuring of local journalism by prominent social media platforms, growing mistrust of traditional journalism fueled by political leaders, and the oversaturation of uncontested, one-sided, emotive communication disseminated by irreputable, hyper-partisan “news” and content creators in spaces where voters consume information (increasingly on YouTube, WhatsApp, and TikTok).
At a local, or country-specific level, this broader crisis of trust is directly fueled by and interconnected with a host of economic, political, and social factors brought together by bad actors to fuel resentment.
In Brazil, economic issues dating back to the mid-2010s and exacerbated by the pandemic, widespread corruption and the after-effects of Operation Car Wash, a rise in crime and rates of violence, COVID-19’s aggressive effects on society, and rampant inequality have all contributed to and been used by actors to sow distrust in systems and institutions.
Addressing Uncertainty, Perhaps More than Belief
Most voters are not believing everything they see online. Rather, many are reacting skeptically to false information portrayed as true online.
A poll of Latinos in the United States conducted by Equis Research in early 2022 found that the majority of the 2,400 respondents could not say with 100 percent certainty whether the false narratives tested were true or false.
The poll also found that, at least in the US, it was not low-education, low-information voters that were most likely to encounter and most likely to believe false information. It was the politically engaged, affluent, college-educated voters that were more readily believing disinformation and misinformation. Most importantly, on both sides of the aisle, the poll found that hard partisans were the most likely to believe false information, especially false information about the opposition. This trend does not seem exclusive to the US context.
For those keeping an eye on Brazil, these findings are certainly reflected in the Brazilian context, even if more testing would be needed to verify how voters encounter and believe false narratives in the country.
Disinformation vs. Political Propaganda
In thinking about longer-term solutions to safeguarding elections, we must recognize the nuances between disinformation and broader political propaganda because even as the lines blur between lies and misleading narratives, solutions must be geared to a broader crisis of trust and building engagement infrastructure where people consume information. Putting everything under the umbrella of disinformation downplays the very real issues associated with this type of problematic information as well as the issue preferences and lived experiences that shape voting behaviors.
Disinformation is outright false information spread with the intent to deceive. These often come in the form of verifiable claims. Propaganda is the deliberate spread of information or ideas to influence a person, group, institution, or nation in support of, or against, an idea or cause. These often come in the form of broader narratives, sometimes with a grain of truth framed in a misleading way.
Understanding how an entity or messenger’s mission and space in the democratic ecosystem offer them competitive advantages to address disinformation vs. political propaganda and add value in reducing uncertainty and building trust is imperative for the future of Brazil’s democracy.
Different Organizations Add Different Value into a Stronger Information Ecosystem
Brazil has built a strong apparatus to verify falsehoods over the past four years. As Cristina Tardaguila noted in a recent Americas Quarterly article, Brazil has more professional fact-checkers than ever before, and the electoral courts have partnered with social media companies to share verified information through Facebook and WhatsApp. This is a hugely positive step in the right direction. As journalists and non-partisan actors focus on fact-checking and verifying false and misleading claims, grassroots organizations, political organizations, and political parties must focus on building trust and connecting with voters by meeting them where they are, both by recognizing their concerns and by meeting voters where they consume information.
Hyper-partisan actors are building a telescope through which they prompt voters to see the north star they are projecting. They filter messaging through the lens of people’s pre-existing beliefs. Bad information doesn’t stick in a vacuum – actors harness resentments, doubt, and underlying drivers of identity to build community and drive wedges between groups.
Grassroots organizations, political organizations and political parties can help dismantle some of those telescopes by building two-way communication with voters, by identifying who the uncertain are, and by filling information voids with factual, contextualized messaging people can identify with. This differs from the work fact-checkers do, and it should, because disinformation and political communication should not be conflated.
Looking to the Future
With polarization in Brazil at a high, the upcoming elections will mark a boiling point for the frustrations and fears that have overwhelmed Brazilians throughout years of pandemic losses, economic hardships, and social divisions.
Few issues are as nuanced and complicated as the issues associated with how information is consumed, disseminated, and how narratives impact our beliefs and actions in times of election. And while we do not yet know which way the October 2 first round will go, there is no doubt distrust and false claims of electoral fraud spread by the president himself have set a tone in Brazil that will not disappear with the announcement of results.
Looking to safeguard this year’s electoral outcomes and counteract a larger ecosystem of distrust, a new era of strengthening information integrity in elections should include complementing existing efforts of verification and media literacy with:
- More investment in building trust with communities through avenues of two-way communication;
- Recognizing that the tactics needed to address disinformation vs. political propaganda may differ;
- Taking care not to over-simplify the various realities that contribute to voter preferences and electoral outcomes;
- Focusing on filling information voids with good, fact-based information spread through trusted messengers;
- Assuring fact-based, contextualized information and messaging is present in spaces where people actually consume information;
- Minding our lanes – for many organizations, this means not being at the frontlines of countering outright disinformation, but rather simply meeting voters with good messaging where they consume information.