A Brazilian ‘Ministry of Truth’ is in the works

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By Webdesk

On March 25, the Brazilian government launched a multifaceted campaign to combat “disinformation,” including a website dedicated to identifying and exposing “fake news.”

The initiative, seen by many as a tool for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government to delegitimize criticism of her under the guise of “fact-checking”, raised serious concerns about the government’s outreach, freedom of expression and the future of fragile democracy in Brazil.

“Government fact-checking doesn’t exist,” said Christina Tardáliga, senior program director at the International Center for Journalists. tweeted following the news about the initiative. “This appropriation of the term is misguided and offensive. What the government is doing is propaganda.”

Attempts by a government to appoint itself as the arbiter of what is real and what is fake would undoubtedly be alarming in any country, but the risks are particularly high in Brazil.

This is because, despite their routine outbursts against the prevalence of “misinformation”, Brazilian governments – both the right and the left – have a long track record of relying on what can only be described as “fake news” to advance their political agendas .

Lula’s far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, for example, spent his entire tenure accusing his critics of spreading “fake news” while spreading misinformation on a wide range of topics from COVID-19 and vaccine science to corruption and feminism .

And Lula is hardly any better. Like Bolsonaro, the left-wing president also has a habit of making impassioned speeches against “fake news” and spewing misinformation to advance his government’s interests, almost in the same breath.

For example, just three days before launching his campaign against “fake news,” the president unleashed a wave of misinformation against Senator and former judge Sergio Moro, who once sent him to prison.

This year, the Brazilian Federal Police launched an operation against members of São Paulo’s powerful drug cartel, the First Command of the Capital (PCC), for plotting to assassinate Moro. Investigators said they received a tip about the murder plot from a former PCC member currently in witness protection and gathered evidence supporting his claims by secretly checking the phones and emails of active cartel members.

Lula, however, dismissed the work of his own police force, suggesting that the assassination plot was probably a politically motivated “set-up” by Moro. Although Lula later admitted that he has no evidence to support this claim and called for caution, a wave of abuse and condemnation had already been unleashed against the former judge. The episode clearly showed that Lula is only concerned about disinformation when it is directed at him and his government.

Lula’s relationship with “fake news” and disinformation isn’t limited to a one-time comment to hurt an old adversary either. The president has an established history of using public money to support media outlets that publish misinformation favorable to him and his Workers’ Party (PT).

Today, there are still numerous websites and TV channels in Brazil that exist solely to spread pro-government “fake news”. Of course, the output of these Lula-friendly outlets is not expected to be monitored by the government’s new “fact-checking” website any time soon.

It seems that with its new anti-disinformation initiative, the Lula government has not only given itself the opportunity to dismiss any criticism of its work as “fake news”, but has also laid the groundwork for creating “official” facts and truths that could lead to the silencing of dissenting voices, widespread censorship and, perhaps most crucially, the erosion of public trust in Brazil’s leading independent institutions.

For example, Lula’s PT is convinced or considers it an indisputable “fact” that former President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-picked successor after his first term, was removed from power, not by a legal impeachment process, but by a coup. Of course, this is not a “fact” accepted by Brazil’s legal system, but an interpretation of events by a political party.

What happens if the government’s new “fake news” initiative decides to “fact check” an allegation or news story related to Rousseff’s impeachment? Will the “official” facts it presents transcend the Supreme Court’s position on the matter? How will Brazilians feel about the discrepancies between government-approved facts and Supreme Court decisions? The problem is not limited to party politics either. What will happen if the government-approved facts about a pandemic or natural disaster are found to conflict with the illicit facts established by a scientific body?

All governments engage in propaganda and many use “friendly” media outlets to further their agendas. However, the Lula government’s attempt to dictate through an official body what is real and what is fake takes the manipulation to another level.

And all this is happening as the lower house of Brazil’s Congress finally appears poised to pass a bill against “fake news” that experts say could be used to quell dissent, censor views that are not approved by the state and giving politicians the right to spread. disinformation with impunity.

The so-called Fake News Bill, first proposed in 2020, makes it a crime to create or share content allegedly posing a serious risk to “social peace or to economic order” without defining these terms. It also makes it a crime to be a member of an online group knowing that its primary activity is to share defamatory posts, even if the member did not create or share those posts. It prohibits the use of “manipulated” content for the purpose of “ridiculing” political candidates, potentially ending legal political satire in Brazil. It also puts legal pressure on social media sites to monitor the content shared by their users, introducing deterrents that can lead to political expressions being censored or silenced. Furthermore, it orders social networks to store personal data and conversation histories of Brazilians who use their services.

If the proposed bill becomes law, Brazilians could face significant fines or even prison terms for sharing harmless political commentary or satire online. At the same time, however, the bill gives complete freedom to politicians to say what they want online, without any consequences. employ.

This bill, along with the government’s new “fact-checking” service, could be seen as founding a Brazilian Ministry of Truth – the beginning of a nightmarish new reality where the government single-handedly decides what the truth is and punishes. those who refuse to repeat it.

The fight against “fake news” is an important one. The rise of social media has made disinformation more effective and easier to spread. But the Lula government’s response to this looming threat is wrong, and the solutions it proposes are likely to be more damaging to Brazilian democracy than the problem itself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

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