Netizen Report: How WhatsApp (and $3 million) helped carry Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to victory

Stencil art in Wisconsin, US. Photo by David Drexel via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This report covers the events we tracked in October 2018.

On October 28, Latin America's largest democracy elected a president whose campaign was propelled by violence, vicious rumors of fraud and a cascade of online news and information that has proven to be false.

President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has served in Brazil's National Congress since 1991, openly expresses misogynistic and homophobic views and recently vowed to “put an end to all activism in Brazil.’’

Just ten days before the final vote, Bolsonaro’s campaign was found to have spent $3 million to spread news on WhatsApp. Folha de São Paulo, one of the most important news outlets in Brazil, uncovered the scheme that laid bare the possible roots of many of the viral, divisive messages and false reports that spread on social media in Brazil during the months before the election. Despite efforts by multiple fact-checking groups, and some interventions by Facebook, disinformation appears to have played a major role in Bolsonaro’s campaign.

Those who have sought to expose disinformation efforts have also paid a price for it. Shortly after Folha de São Paulo reporter Patricia Campos Mello wrote about the $3 million WhatsApp scheme, she began receiving threats and had her personal WhatsApp account hacked. The attackers erased a few of her conversations and sent pro-Bolsonaro messages to her contacts.  A reporter at Estado de São Paulo, a different newspaper, was doxxed after writing a follow up to Mello’s story. According to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), there have been 141 cases of threats and violence against journalists registered during the coverage of 2018 elections.

Bolsonaro’s campaign may face tough questions from Brazil’s judiciary, as the WhatsApp scheme may have violated Brazilian election and data protection laws. But for now, the far-right candidate is sitting proud, preparing for his inauguration and actively communicating with his followers on WhatsApp.

In other news…

Two Indonesian men were arrested for “transmitting and spreading electronic information containing immorality”, a crime under Indonesia’s Electronic Transactions and Information Law. The two were running a gay meetup and match-making group on Facebook. On October 18, police raided their apartment and confiscated five mobile phones and 25 condoms.

Three journalists in Myanmar were arrested on October 11 and charged with causing “fear or alarm to the public” after they published an investigation on Eleven News Media into public spending on Yangon’s city transit system. The Burmese free speech advocacy group Athan has recorded 43 legal cases filed against journalists in Myanmar since April 2016.

Vietnamese journalist Do Cong Duong was convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced to five years in prison on October 12, over his efforts to report on corruption, land misuse and forced evictions on Facebook and YouTube. He was sentenced separately in September 2018 for “disturbing public order.”

Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency has made 209 arrests so far in 2018 under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. Passed in 2016, the law criminalizes some forms of online harassment (defined as “indecent” communications) but also grants the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority significant powers to remove speech from the Internet “if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security, or defence of Pakistan.”

Nigerian journalist Jaafar Jaafar went into hiding after receiving multiple death threats in mid-October after publishing video evidence of a local governor accepting USD $5 million in kickbacks from private contractors.

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing on October 2. Khashoggi went into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to collect paperwork for his marriage and never returned. Istanbul’s chief prosecutor issued an official statement on October 31 saying that Khashoggi was strangled upon entering the embassy, and that agents of the Saudi government then dismembered his body. An op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi had previously worked as an editor for Al Watan, one of the most pro-reform media outlets in the kingdom.

It has been one year since the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Best known for her independent news blog, Running Commentary, Caruana Galizia was the first to break the news of Maltese politicians’ involvement in the Panama Papers in April 2016. Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb on October 16, 2017. Her supporters say the investigation of her murder has “not been done independently nor impartially” and continue to call for justice in her case.

On the eve of elections, ISPs in Cameroon slowed down social media and mobile messaging services. This is nothing new for Cameroon, where the country’s anglophone region has sustained more than 230 days of internet shutdowns since 2016.

Internet access is too expensive. The World Wide Web Foundation’s latest Affordability Report shows that internet access is unaffordable in 60% of countries. In November, the Web Foundation will release a new report showing that global rates of internet adoption (i.e. people coming online for the first time) are falling fast — from 19% in 2007 to just 6% in 2017.


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