Brazil election: WhatsApp takes centre stage amid bitter campaign battle

Christopher Davidson
October 22, 2018

The announcement came after the electoral court said it would look into allegations Bolsonaro had illegally sanctioned several defamatory mass messaging attacks via WhatsApp in an attempt to undermine his rival.

One of Brazil's top newspapers on Thursday claimed Brazilian entrepreneurs were bankrolling a multimillion-dollar campaign created to boost Jair Bolsonaro by inundating WhatsApp users with messages undermining his leftist rival Fernando Haddad. But WhatsApp has been flooded with falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

Haddad now alleges that businessmen supporting Bolsonaro have been paying to bombard voters with misleading propaganda in violation of electoral law, which his rival denies.

The recriminations highlight the outsized political role of WhatsApp in the election in Brazil, where its more than 120 million users rival the reach of Facebook's main platform, in a country with a population of nearly 210 million.

The Social messaging service WhatsApp has now become an important way through which Brazilians keep in touch with family, friends, colleagues.

Polling firm Datafolha found that two-thirds of Brazilian voters use WhatsApp.

The messaging app allows groups of hundreds of users to exchange encrypted texts, photos, and video out of the view of authorities or independent fact checkers, enabling the rapid spread of misinformation with no way to track its source or full reach.

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Numerous fakes portray Haddad as a communist whose Workers Party would turn Brazil into another Cuba, convert children to homosexuality and plans to rig voting machines.

The tech company said previously it had banned hundreds of thousands of accounts inside Brazil found to have engaged in spam or automated "bot" behavior ahead of the election. That would amount to soliciting illegal campaign contributions in what they call an "abuse of economic power" undermining the election. His leftist Workers' Party claims it has witnesses saying Bolsonaro had asked business leaders for cash to pay for the bulk messaging.

Bolsonaro said in an online video that he had no knowledge of such activity and called on any supporters doing so to stop.

"We are also taking immediate legal measures to prevent companies from sending mass messages via WhatsApp and have already banned accounts associated with those companies".

Justice Rosa Weber, president of the Electoral High Court (TSE), will release a statement on Friday (19th).

"We have to get Haddad elected", he said, acknowledging that he didn't vote for him in the first round because he'd "lost faith" in the Workers' Party as a result of the corruption scandals it has been involved with.

It remains unclear whether the accusations have had any bearing on opinion polls.

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