Q&A  | 

Citizen empowerment to tackle disinformation in Brazil, with Fabro Steibel

“Media literacy must be addressed, and it goes far beyond how much internet access you have”

Tags: 'Citizens' 'disinformation'


Reading Time: 5 minutes

Fabro Steibel is the Executive Director of the Institute for Technology and Society of Rio, Professor of New Technologies and Innovation at ESPM Rio, and Open Government Fellow at the Organization of American States. He holds a post-doc in e-government from the Universidade Federal Fluminense and a PhD in Media from the University of Leeds. Fabro is also an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University and a former Global Council member of the World Economic Forum.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s acceleration of digital usage saw internet access in Brazil grow seven percentage points in 2020 to 81% of the population, according to data from the Regional Center for Information Society Studies (Cetic). However, access to the internet is by no means democratic. For instance, poorer Brazilian families were not able to get the emergency aid given by the federal government during the pandemic because they did not have a cell phone or internet connection. How deep is the digital gap in Brazil, and how is it being bridged?

Brazil has always been a divided country, and the use of the Internet is no exception. The digital gap is decreasing year after year, but the fact that one out of 5 Brazilians is still disconnected from the Internet, in 2022, is of great concern. If we look at where those populations come from, the picture is even worse: there is a gender, age, racial and social aspect directly associated with those with less internet connectivity. If we consider that during the COVID-19 pandemic internet was the main source of work, education, leisure, and community building, it is even more dramatic.

Even so, we must acknowledge the advances in recent decades. Brazil is one of the most connected developing countries, and internet usage is spread out amongst those who have connectivity. Government services in the past years have been increasing the availability of e-services, and this represents an increase in access to welfare and public services.

Nonetheless, there is a shortage of investments to reduce the digital gap, particularly as a government priority. One sad example is the connectivity of public schools: less than half of those institutions are connected to the internet for educational purposes. This is something that civil society has raised attention to for several years, but the overall picture does not change, despite some small advances at the state level. One good example of these, however, is the increase of connectivity in rural areas, particularly those related to large rural activities, such as agribusiness.

Is Brazil far from reaching equal access to the Internet? If so, how long will it take to get there?

Connecting the 19% of the population is not a simple task, and we need to consider that those already connected might be in danger as well. There are some challenges of connectivity that are hard to win. Brazil has continental areas that are still beyond simple solutions, such as remote regions in Amazonia, or rural areas with almost hundreds of kilometers from a connectivity point.

There are challenges that are an obligation to win. For example, urban areas that are peripheric, less than 5km from the city center of main urban areas, or the cost issue, considering that Internet can be expensive in a country where around 6 out 10 families live on minimum wage.

Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro was one of the global leaders to dismiss the COVID-19 crisis. He likened the virus to a “measly cold”, calling the lockdowns a “media trick,” or promoting a massive TV ad campaign with the slogan “BrazilCannotStop.” In this scenario, citizen empowerment is key to understanding, de-activating and breaking the infodemic chains. What makes it more urgent than ever before?

Mis and disinformation networks in Brazil are striking high, and operational. As in other countries, they are largely sponsored by elected politicians, media sources, and social media influencers. Those actors can create and promote social bubbles where their message gains votes, audience, and advertising revenues.

The lack of an informational ecosystem is a challenge that we still need to understand and address as a society. Part of the problem is based on a shortage of funding for local journalism and on the emergence of disinformation business models, which profit from this kind of information. Another share of responsibility is how online advertising can be exploited to fund disinformation producers.

We agree on what the problem is, but there is no clear agreement on which solution we need. In Brazil, the legislative debate of the “fake news law” is a good example of that. Some believe we need to invade people’s privacy to monitor what is said online, challenging the role of privacy and promoting surveillance methodologies. Others will argue that platform algorithms need to be more transparent and suggest obligations for better content moderation delivery. Others will consider that the problem is responsibility, sending those who profit with disinformation to jail or to lose elected mandate. Nonetheless, all solutions have pros and cons, and no one seems to reach a consensus point in terms of efficacy and protection of vulnerable populations and democratic values.

Disinformation does not affect everyone in the same way. In Brazil, the so-called “zero-rating practice” creates favorable conditions for disinformation since it allows users to access only the headlines shared on instant messenger apps and social media, while access to the original publication is reserved for users with higher data packages. Who is more prone to disinformation, and which consequences will they suffer?

Due to the shortage of public funding to lower internet costs and increase connectivity infrastructure, zero-rating is what speeds up those with lower changes of connectivity to be connected. This for sure is a partial experience of what connectivity is; at the same time –supporters will say–, it increases the speed of when those disconnected will become connected. Those who criticize zero-rating will argue that it is not the role of private sector to increase connectivity and that zero-rating is a walled, reduced experience, of what connectivity is, and require governments to do more, and faster.

We are learning that one of the possible impacts of zero-rating is to reduce the capacity that citizens have to double-check information.

Fighting disinformation is more complex than just full internet access. We need to address the issue of media literacy, which goes far beyond how much internet access you have. We should aim for equality of access conditions between those with more and fewer resources, giving priority to those with less access (in particular those with only zero-rating connectivity) to receive more investments.

Which tools, initiatives, and policies are already working to help Brazilians become more critical consumers of information?

As a rule of thumb, better politicians, a better media ecosystem and better information access generate a better information ecosystem. This is not a scenario that will be improved in the short term, more likely, something related to a middle-term goal for the country. This is not to say that people are not learning, improving their capacity to be skeptical of the information or becoming more information savvy.

Polls suggest Bolsonaro will struggle to secure a second term when about 150 million Brazilians head to the polls in October to choose their next leader. In terms of digital empowerment and disinformation, how would Brazil face the meaning of such re-election? How challenging could it be for the country, in this time of uncertainty and polarization?

The 2022 election will be a by-product of politicization. The only possible prediction is that 7 out of 10 Brazilians will have a president they dislike and that 4 out of 10 will have a president they hate. These are far greater numbers than in previous years.

In Brazil, as in other countries, polarization has been used to ignite voters, and to succeed in the current ballot system. The impact of polarization on society has long term effects. Media find incentives to become polarized, and so do business and civil society, and for legislative purposes, these refer to a process of opposition rather than convergence.

That said, elections are the best experience that we produce as a democracy, and the fact that we have elections and people manifest their will using the vote, itself, is of great meaning. Brazil, like other countries in Latin America, has a short experience with democratic regimes. Having elections and polarization can be understood as a by-product of democracy itself. At the same time, what becomes clearer with time, if politicization continues to increase, we might struggle to secure democratic institutions in the long term, a reason why polarization is not a path we should promote.