The Infodemic: Bolsonaro welfare lies; LGBTQ shaming in Putin’s referendum

Natalia Antelava


Welcome back, and a very special welcome to all our new subscribers. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the lockdown. 

Protests in the United States have taken over our screens and headlines. Other narratives — both real and fake — are battling for our attention. But all sorts of important things happen when we are looking elsewhere. Let’s dive in.

Rumours are circulating in France that the country’s newly launched contagion-tracking app StopCovid can access users’ contacts, and even that it is installed automatically, without consent, on all phones in France (not true, say experts from Numerama, a tech-focused media outlet). Interestingly, the rumour about the app accessing contacts seems to have been started by Jean-Luc Melenchon, a prominent left-wing member of the National Assembly.

The UAE’s The National newspaper has offered a textbook example of how real news can also be disinformation. The front page of its website featured a story headlined “Nations pledge millions to alleviate crisis in Yemen,” with a focus on Saudi’s promise of $500m at an online UN fundraising summit it also controversially co-hosted. All technically true, but the real story is that the figure is a billion dollars short of its target and half the amount pledged last year. The UN says that between the ongoing war — in which the UAE has been a key belligerent — the spread of coronavirus and, now, decreased funding, Yemen is facing a “macabre” tragedy. 

In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s promises of increasing welfare payments to help people during  the coronavirus crisis turned out to be fake news, reveals an investigation by Folha de S.Paulo, one of the country’s leading dailies. Here’s what you need to know:

  • In March, as the coronavirus began to ravage Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro announced an infusion of funding into Bolsa Familia, the conditional cash transfer program that lifted millions out of poverty in the 2000s 
  • Bolsa Familia provides small monthly cash transfers to female heads of poor households. Payments are conditional upon children attending school, and receiving vaccinations and medical checkups
  • The model was pioneered by the left-wing former president Lula da Silva, and has been emulated around the world, but it has long been a target of Brazil’s austerity-minded right. Bolsonaro’s ascension to power presented a chance to defund it, but the coronavirus crisis forced the president into promising to expand it instead 
  • In reality, the extra funding didn’t even cover the amount Bolsonaro’s austerity budget has cut from the welfare program over the past year. The Covid-19–era funding infusion went mostly to wealthier states in the south of Brazil. Poorer northern and northeastern states — which largely vote against Bolsonaro — actually received less welfare through Bolsa Familia last month than in the same period in 2019

Why this matters: When the pandemic hit, Brazil was still in recovery from a major recession, which had reversed a trend of poverty reduction. The coronavirus crisis has only compounded the ills facing the country’s poor, and mired the Bolsonaro administration in a major political crisis. 

The president faces threats of impeachment, widespread criticism of his science denialism, and a new national record of 1,262 Covid-19 deaths in 24 hours on Tuesday. Revelations about the gutting of Brazil’s largest and most popular welfare program are not the news Jair Bolsonaro needs. 

Meanwhile, Facebook placed a warning label on a post by Eduardo Bolsonaro — the president’s son and a legislator himself — that included a fake Churchill quote: “The fascists of the future will call themselves antifascists.” The same quote, in English, caused controversy in 2018, when it was shared by Texas governor Greg Abbott. Eduardo Bolsonaro used the fake quote to attack anti-government protesters, who have been mobilizing against his father.  

Russia is still reporting thousands of daily coronavirus cases, but officials say the health crisis has passed its peak, and that it is now safe for the country to hold a constitutional referendum on July 1. The announcement was made on Monday. The day after, Russia’s Federal News Agency published this jaw-dropping video

  • Set in 2035, it shows a little boy being adopted from an orphanage in Russia. He is picked up by his new father who leads him out into the street. Two smiling women — orphanage employees — accompany them
  • “Where is mommy?” the boy asks, once they are out on the street. “Here,” the father says pointing to a man wearing a necklace and a feminine sweater, waving to the boy 
  • The boy looks horrified. The women stop smiling. The man with the necklace holds up a gift for his adopted son: a maroon leotard 
  • “Is this the Russia you will choose?” asks a somber voice as the new parents usher the child into their car

What does this mean: Vladimir Putin needs people to vote on July 1. The referendum includes anti-gay marriage provisions, which political commentators in Russia believe that Putin hopes will get people into the polling booths. But the real value of the referendum for Putin is that it will reset the clock on the term limit of his presidency, allowing him to potentially stay in power until 2036. 

Why this matters: Thirty percent of Russians say they want gay men and lesbians “isolated” from society, according to a survey published in April by the Levada Center. This is the very sentiment Putin is using to hold on to power. By stoking flames of homophobia and then putting measures in place to limit LGBTQ rights, he has scored political points in the past. Russians are paying a hefty price. Here is the story of a young woman facing 20 years in prison for inviting a gay man onto her YouTube show. 

Meanwhile: The hashtag #RussianLivesMatter is trending on Russian Twitter. The campaign against police brutality started with a killing of a man by National Guard officers in Yekaterinburg on May 31 and spilled onto the streets, leading to dozens of arrests. 

Before you go: This China researcher says she noticed fake photographs that appear to show U.S. protestors asking Beijing for help. She says she couldn’t figure out who Photoshopped them or why, and we couldn’t either. The images don’t seem to be circulating widely, but Shelley Zheng, who spotted them, has some good advice: reverse search images using TinEye or Google before posting or publishing them. 

Good social media hygiene is more important than ever, so check before you share. See you on Friday! 


P.S. Sasha Tyan, Gautama Mehta, Dave Stelfox and Anastasia Ghviniashvili have all contributed to today’s Infodemic  

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