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Bolsonaro’s failed attempt to stop platforms removing disinformation is still something to fear

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: Conspiracy theorists take over Istanbul, Cuba seeks WHO vaccine approval, and Bolsonaro’s failed attack on social media platforms

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BRAZIL’S PLATFORM WAR 

Last week, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil signed a sweeping order prohibiting social media companies from removing content, unless they have a court order to do so.

The decision, which came on the eve of a series of pro-Bolsonaro rallies, was unprecedented — apparently the first time a leader anywhere has tried to stop platforms from taking down material that violates their policies. On its official Twitter account, the Brazilian government declared that it was “taking the global lead in defending free speech on social networks.”

The decision threatened to unleash a flood of disinformation. Brazil’s online spaces are rife with fake news and coronavirus conspiracy theories — a 2020 study found the country was behind only the United States and India when it came to the circulation of false claims  — and platforms have been taking steps to remove and flag Covid-19 disinformation since the early days of the pandemic. 

YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have all taken down material posted by Bolsonaro containing false claims about the pandemic and vaccines. The government decree appeared to be designed to tie the hands of those very companies. 

“What it does is it takes out the power of one of the only actors that was trying to find ways to fight against this kind of misinformation,” Nina Santos, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute of Science & Technology for Digital Democracy, told me.

In June, I talked to Artur Pericles of the Brazilian research hub InternetLab about the possibility of Bolsonaro introducing such a policy. He told me that any attempt was unlikely to survive legal challenges — and that is precisely what happened. On Tuesday evening, Brazil’s Supreme Court and Senate prevented the legislation from going into effect. However, it is probably not the last we hear of Brazil’s content moderation war. 

In about a year, Brazilians will head to the polls for a highly anticipated presidential election. Taking his cues from Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, who is trailing rival candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is already laying the groundwork for a Brazilian Big Lie, attacking the country’s electronic voting system and doubling down on baseless election fraud conspiracy theories. “Only God will take me out of Brazil,” he told supporters at a rally last week. Bolsonaro’s actions prompted Human Rights Watch to issue a statement warning that he is “threatening democratic rule” in the country. 

As the election campaign heats up, platforms will have to decide what to do about related disinformation, and their decisions could spark further confrontations with the government. Bolsonaro could also introduce a new decree on content moderation that has a better chance of standing up in court. 

“Nothing prevents him from doing this kind of thing because he believes this is how the communication ecosystem should exist,” said Santos. “I think we have to be very attentive and worried.”

IN OTHER NEWS:

Thousands of conspiracy theorists descended on Istanbul last weekend, staging Turkey’s largest anti-vaccine rally yet. Protestors railed against Bill Gates, microchips, the World Health Organization, vaccine and mask mandates. “They called us bigots and anti-science. They wanted to vaccinate us from afar, like animals,” declared Abdurrahman Dilipak, a firebrand conservative columnist, addressing the cheering crowd. Turkey’s Medical Association, meanwhile, lambasted authorities for allowing the event to take place. Throughout the pandemic, the state has prohibited public demonstrations, including those by women and LGBTQ groups, citing public health concerns. “By keeping silent toward those who openly ignore science and oppose vaccinations,” the association said in a statement, the government “has demonstrated its insincerity and unreliability in the fight against the pandemic.”

France is also seeing ongoing demonstrations against Covid-19 measures. On Saturday, 120,000 people took to the streets in cities across the country in protest against the government’s health pass, which requires people to have a negative test to enter cafes, restaurants and a number of other public spaces. The introduction of the system has kicked off a wave of unrest, including weekly demonstrations and vandalism targeting vaccination centers. The most recent protests come amid revelations this week that 3,000 health care workers in the country were suspended for refusing to get vaccinated. It’s not the only nation rolling out such mandates, either. In the United States, President Joe Biden recently issued an executive order requiring vaccination for people who work in health care centers that receive state and federal funds — a decision that affects seven million workers nationwide and has sparked fury in some conservative circles.  

Meanwhile, Cuba is looking to the World Health Organization to approve its two domestically produced coronavirus vaccines. According to the state-run pharmaceutical group that produces the shots, the WHO will begin reviewing the Abdala and Soberana 02 vaccines this week. The island nation is the first Latin American country to develop its own vaccines and roughly 40% of its population has already been fully immunized against the virus, according to government sources. Mexico and Argentina have expressed interest in buying the jabs, and Iran is already producing Soberana 02. Cuba’s appeal to the WHO comes as the country battles one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world, and recently began administration of the vaccines to two-year-olds. Though officials claim that the shots are more than 90% effective, trial data is yet to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. 

Coda Story’s Masho Lomashvili contributed to this week’s Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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