Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil

Opinion | Conspiracies, Fake News, and Other Dangers of the ‘Electoral Fraud’ Myth

Anti-systemic actions through campaigns of disinformation have concrete effects in the democratic processes

By Tatiana Dourado* **

Conspiracies usually rely on singular, imperceptible, and often unimaginable aspects to sustain paranoias and deliriums. It only took some “cheese” and “pizza” in the emails from the head of the campaign of Hillary Clinton leaked by Wikileaks in 2016 for users from 4Chan and Reddit to associate the initials to “child pornography” and motivate a whole chain of speculations about the supposed network of child pornography in restaurants. In the United States in 2020, the most discussed conspiracy was Qnon, which, since at least 2017, claims the existence of a siege against Donald Trump controlled by the elite – or “Deep State” – which practices pedophilia and Satanism worldwide. After November 3 and the defeat of the Republican candidate, it was turn for the electoral fraud topic to occupy an even more prominent position. Unsurprisingly, this topic has mobilized the anti-systemic front in Brazil in the municipal elections this year.

The coalition of fact checking for the electoral process kept by the Superior Electoral Court in partnership with Brazilian projects computes around 30 completely false facts in circulation in the social media platforms in the month of November alone (until the 18th), between the first and second rounds of the elections. These made-up and professionally-confirmed fake stories claim, for example, that: voting is optional for those who are over 60 years of age; who has been diagnosed with Covid-19 cannot vote; that the vote will not be computed without a certificate, that codes of the ballots were sent to Venezuela, that the election will be invalidated if 51% of the votes were void; that the Superior Electoral Court censored WhatsApp to prevent accusations of fraud; that an electronic ballot cannot be audited; that a ballot media was found in a toilet, among others. One of the consequences of the belief that the deposited vote in the electronic ballot will serve another candidate, or that will not be considered by the Electoral Justice, is the validation of fake news.

From this point, other consequences are even more concrete. It has been increasingly more common the flagrant arrest for the recording of votes, as well as commotion in the electoral sections due to mistakes from the voter themselves in the ballot, as seen in 2018. In 2020, there are news of arrests for breaking the vote secrecy in Alagoas, Paraná, and Rondônia. The most unexpected, however, was the hacker attack to confront the security of the electoral system in the first round. It could not be more opportune for the electoral conspiracies to leave the digital underworlds and surface to daylight in the second rounds, strengthening the theories until 2022. Almost daily, “ballots”, “fraud”, “Smartmatic”, “Barroso”, etc., appear as trending topics on Twitter. When an expressive number of messages about anti-systemic events get trending online, there are strong signals of the machinery of artificial methods, such as the use of bots, to simulate a spontaneous collective action. Although the trending topics are a thermometer of what is most discussed in the microblog in a specific moment, often favoring campaigns of disinformation, orchestrated actions of such kind are flagged simultaneously in different platforms (such as Facebook and WhatsApp, among the most popular ones). These methods are strategic to tackle topics, mobilize publics, spread memes and fake news, generate social commotion, and create a mantle of legitimacy for inconvenient subjects.

Shortly before the first rounds, and, therefore, of the cyberattack, it is worth mentioning that the report published by FGV DAPP had already showed a significant volume of dangerous discourses about the electoral system on Facebook and YouTube in this year of municipal elections. Adepts of the conspiracy theories – and we can frame the myth of fraud in the ballots as one of them – do not question what they believe, or keep themselves relaxed. On the contrary, they are keen on new findings, recycle hypothesis, and repeat arguments to refute contrary opinions, negate happenings and invalidate scientific discoveries. Conspiracies, thus, would only be conspiracies if they would not lead to assaults – as many happened motivated by hate discourses against immigrants – and if they were not brought to the political field and tackled in electoral contexts, as this case illustrates. Conspiracies have real implications and this is increasingly more visible in the case of distrust in the electoral system that as an electronic ballot as its main guinea pig.

*Tatiana Dourado is a researcher from FGV DAPP, journalist with a phD Contemporary Communication and Culture by the UFBA, and researcher associated to the INCT.DD. She researches fake news, political communication and digital democracy. | @tatianama

**The manifestations expressed by the participants of the panels from the Fundação Getulio Vargas – in which are identified as such, in articles published through general communicative vehicles – exclusively represent the opinions of their authors and not, necessarily, the institutional position of the FGV.


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