Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil

Fake News Bill in Focus

The debate on digital platform regulation in Congress and society

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1. Executive Summary

Abstract:

This reports presents an overview about the public debate on Bill No. 2.630/2020 proposed by the Federal Senate in 2020. The so-called ‘Fake News Bill’ proposes the creation of a Brazilian Law on Freedom, Accountability and Transparency on the Internet. In other words, it proposes a national law for digital platform regulation. The information contained herein originates from a systematic, multi-platform analysis developed by FGV Comunicação Rio between April 15 and May 2, 2023. The data encompasses the stages of the legislative process that the Bill has undergone during the first semester of 2023 at the Chamber of Deputies, after the approval of its expedited procedure at the House, followed by the indefinite postponement of the vote. Amid an intense public and political debate about the progress of the legislative process, the analysis focused on determining the political key players and the major topics and arguments mobilized for and against the Bill on both occasions. The data collected on Twitter and Facebook indicates a predominance of the opposition to the government in the debate, with congress representatives, hyperpartisan outlets, influencers and ordinary users seeking to associate the Bill with censorship.

Keywords:

Digital platform regulation; Disinformation; Digital public debate.

 

Summary of results 

  • Opposition representatives criticized the Bill and dominated the engagement around the topic on Facebook. On Twitter, the bolsonarist right and ‘lavajatista’ profiles accounted for 62.2% of the accounts participating in the mapped debate;
  • The association between digital platform regulation, censorship and freedom of speech was the major argument mobilized over the entire period by a cluster opposing the Bill;
  • A statement by Google against the approval of the Bill intensified the mobilization for its approval in the progressive sector, with users seeing it as a confirmation of the need to regulate platforms through national legislation.

 

2. Results and discussion

1) Period before the vote for the expedited procedure

 

1.1 Public Debate on Facebook

The majority of the news articles that obtained the most engagement on the platform emphasized the negative aspects of the Bill, reinforcing the criticism that associates the project with censorship and claiming that the potential approval of an expedited procedure could mean the immediate approval of the entire Bill.

Major news links about the Fake News Bill on Facebook
Period: April 15 at midnight to April 25 at midday, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The debate included hyperpartisan representatives and media outlets, particularly Federal Deputy Deltan Dallagnol (PODE), who wrote and published a column for the Gazeta do Povo outlet with the title ‘Urgent: Brazil is being gagged’. The column stood out, reaching an even higher number of reactions and shares after its partial reproduction by Pleno News. Reactions opposing the Bill also appeared in other links to articles by Pleno News, emphasizing the existence of criticism in various segments, such as an alleged “student movement” and also in evangelic churches, highlighting a statement made by pastor Silas Malafaia, an influent figure in the Brazilian political scenario.

The few news articles containing potentially favorable elements to the Bill contributed with aspects that could help consolidate support for its approval. The Veja outlet, for instance, highlighted data from a public opinion survey on platform regulation in the country. Another Veja link cast a negative view on the movements made by the opposition to reject the Bill. In addition, a news article by UOL cited a counter argument offered by the government for accusations made by Senator Sergio Moro (UNIÃO), who also spoke of censorship. The article mentioned the response given by the Secretary of Digital Policies at the Social Communication Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic, João Brandt, who defended the Bill.

Operational aspects of the legislative process also stood out in O Antagonista and in the traditional outlets UOL e CBN, composing the framework that preceded the approval of the expedited procedure. Other highlights in this context included movements made by parties opposed to the Bill in an attempt to postpone it through a designation for evaluation by a Special Committee, as well as statements made by the rapporteur for the Bill, Federal Deputy Orlando Silva (PCdoB). The deputy mentioned the legal instruments that should compose the arsenal of sanctions available to the Brazilian State regarding digital platform companies, such as the duty of care.

 

1.2 Congressional debate on Facebook

Volume of interactions and posts per political sector on Facebook
Period: April 15 at midnight to April 25 at midday, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Even though the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Federal Deputy Arthur Lira, publicly supported the Bill and the voting attempt, opposition representatives also predominated in terms of the engagement obtained in posts about the proposal. This was especially true for members of the Liberal Party – the party of former President Jair Bolsonaro and currently the largest caucus at the Chamber of Deputies –, as well as Federal Deputy Marcel Van Hattem (NOVO). In general, the opposition group largely surpassed the engagement obtained by other representatives, considering that representatives at the center also mobilized the opposition to the Bill. The only ones supporting the Bill were government allies, who had the lowest levels of engagement in the debate.

Key congress representatives in the debate about the Fake News Bill on Facebook
Period: April 15 at midnight to April 25 at midday, 2023

Period: April 15 at midnight to April 25 at midday, 2023

. Period: April 15 at midnight to April 25 at midday, 2023

With 22 of the 25 publications with the most engagement, right-wing representatives allied with Jair Bolsonaro dominated the debate about the Fake News Bill on Facebook. They approached the topic based on the association with censorship and the restriction on freedom of speech, arguing that the population’s rights and democracy itself were at risk.
Some of these posts were calls to action asking electors to put pressure on representatives not to support the Bill. This mobilization by congress representatives also involved organizing live broadcasts with specialists, promoting the website “Censorship Bill”, and sharing content indicating that the Bill will ban Bible verses on social media.

In a smaller portion of the debate, government allies such as Guilherme Boulos (PSOL), Sâmia Bomfim (PSOL) and Rogério Correia (PT) defended the approval of the Bill. Even the rapporteur for the Bill, Federal Deputy Orlando Silva (PCdoB), reached an almost insignificant level of engagement when discussing the topic on the platform, although he did appear among the representatives allied with the government with the highest metrics. In general, government allies demanded more accountability from digital platforms and mentioned the dangers of the circulation of violent and extremist content.

 

2) Approval of the expedited procedure and postponement of the merit vote

2.1 Public Debate on Twitter

Evolution of mentions to the Fake News Bill on Twitter
Period: April 25 at midnight to May 2, 2023

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The volume of mentions to the topic on Twitter showed peaks coinciding with the moments when the Bill was on the agenda at the Chamber of Deputies: the night session of April 25, which approved the expedited procedure after an agreement, and the night session on May 2, which postponed the merit vote by request of the rapporteur, who required more time to improve the content of the proposal with new suggestions given by other representatives.

On the night of April 25, congress representatives opposed to the Bill and allied with Jair Bolsonaro predominated on the platform. Together with several other profiles against the approval of the Bill, they mobilized superficial narratives that the public could assimilate easily, sometimes resorting to a moral panic strategy that associated the Bill with negative consequences related to restrictions on freedom of speech. This included claiming the proposal equated Bible verses to hate speech and intended to remove and prohibit this type of content.

As the potential merit vote drew closer, on May 1, the mobilization of key players supporting the Bill against statements made by Google regarding the proposal strengthened this segment of the digital debate. They considered the statements “very serious” and “shameful”, using the case to justify the adoption of a platform regulation policy. In turn, key players opposing the Bill mobilized criticism against Rede Globo – a media conglomerate accused of supporting the approval of the proposal –, as well as disinformative content insisting on the narrative of Bible censorship.

Map of interactions about the Fake News Bill on Twitter
Period: April 25 at midnight to May 2, 2023

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Right wing (Blue) – 49.3% of profiles | 62.5% of interactions

Group representing the most persistent opposition to the Fake News Bill and formed by key players in the bolsonarist right, including congress representatives such as Carla Zambelli and Nikolas Ferreira and influencers such as Leandro Ruschel. Other members in this group include hyperpartisan media outlets such as Revista Oeste, which shared alleged evidence that the Bill will restrict the individual freedom of citizens. Nikolas Ferreira wrote the most retweeted publication in the group, in which he claimed that “Bible teachings” would be equated to hate speech, “disagreeing with homosexuality” will be equated to homophobia, and “being against the presence of men in women’s restrooms” will be equated to discrimination.

Referring to the proposal as the Censorship Bill, the group criticized Alexandre de Moraes and the government for allegedly censoring Google. The arguments put forth by the group also included the notion that the Bill will make it impossible to offer “free services on the internet”. There was frequent use of a threat rhetoric in these posts, alerting citizens of the alleged damages the Bill could cause. In some cases, the group used this perspective together with a narrative within the so-called agenda of customs, sharing religious and anti-LGBTQIA+ arguments. There was also criticism of traditional media outlets e the artistic class (who could allegedly benefit from the Bill), although this did not stand out.

Progressive and left-wing profiles (Red) – 36% of profiles | 26% of interactions

The group defending Bill No. 2.630/2020 is diverse, with a predominance of progressive and left-wing profiles and pages such as Sleeping Giants Brasil, Felipe Neto, Lázaro Rosa and Choquei. Unlike what happened in the right-wing cluster, congress representatives did not stand out in the group supporting the Bill. With a peak of mobilization on May 1, the episode involving Google prompted the participation of the group in the discussion, with ironic tweets questioning the fact that platforms do not interrupt the circulation of hate speech, but allegedly block content favoring the Fake News Bill. The highlights were a series of reports about the alleged interference of big tech in these publications, stating, for instance, that the platforms were responsible for promoting disinformative content associating the Bill with the censorship of Bible verses.

‘Lavajatista’ profiles (Light blue) – 12.9% of profiles | 10.9% of interactions

Group composed primarily by profiles adhering to ‘lavajatista’ views who are sometimes self-proclaimed “liberals” or “libertarians”, such as Ideias Radicais and Kim Kataguiri. This group is very similar to the bolsonarist right cluster, establishing strong associations with it by arguing that Bill No. 2.630/2020 would threaten the freedom of citizens and apply only to those opposing the Lula administration. There was also criticism against key players defending the Bill, calling them incoherent for allegedly sharing fake news. The cluster also mobilized to expose the names of congress representatives favorable to the Bill, labeling them as “censors”.

Cloud of terms related to the Fake News Bill on Twitter
Period: April 29 to May 2, 2021

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The daily world clouds representing the debate about the Fake News Bill on the dates preceding the attempt to vote the project reinforce the predominance of messages associating the Bill with censorship, restrictions on individual rights, and threats against democracy. Some frequent terms in this context were “PL da Censura” (‘Censorship Bill’), “#pl2630nao” (‘No to Bill 2630’), “PROJETO DE CENSURA” (‘Censorship project’), “Lei da Censura” (‘Censorship law’), #Censuranão (‘No to censorship’), and “#nãoaopl2630” (‘No to Bill 2630’).

The segments described in the previous analysis, including ordinary profiles, influencers, hyperpartisan media outlets, and right-wing congress representatives associated the Bill with the Federal Government. They claimed, for instance, that the proposal is equivalent to a “blank check” for the government to decide what is “true or false on social media”, comparing the country’s future to the situation in North Korea. Users intensified the negative associations between Bill No. 2.630 and the Federal Government on May 2, claiming the current administration released 10 Billion reais in amendments to approve the proposal and censor opposition representatives and the evangelic population. On the date, the group also celebrated the temporary victory represented by the postponement, claiming that “good has triumphed”.

Terms favorable to the approval of the Bill were prominent only on May 1, due to highlights of the reaction against Google. On the occasion, users reacted to the company’s actions with outrage and emphasized the urgency of regulating digital platforms. Some key players stood out in the digital public debate, such as the leader of the government allies at the Congress, Randolfe Rodrigues, and the progressive digital influencer Felipe Neto. Users also mentioned the Minister of Justice and Public Security Flávio Dino in messages commenting on the measures taken by his ministry through the National Consumer Secretariat (Secretaria Nacional do Consumidor – Senacon).

Main news links about the Fake News Bill on Facebook
Period: April 25 at midnight to May 2, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Within the context of the potential merit vote for the Bill, news articles criticizing the proposal predominated in the list of external links with the most engagement on the platform. The highlights were hyperpartisan media outlets such as Jovem Pan News, O Antagonista, and Jornal da Direita Online. The content in these links highlighted the mobilization of congress representatives opposing the Bill, emphasizing that their opposition represented a fight against “censorship”. In this context, users stressed that the actions of representatives against the proposal, together with the perception that support for the Bill was weakening, created an unfavorable scenario for its approval. A poll organized by the media outlet Jovem Pan, whose audience is notably associated with the opposition to the government, also asked users about their position on the Bill. Mobilizations by congress representatives also appeared in the only publication related to the expedited procedure on April 25: a post shared by bolsonarist representatives showing the vote count at the Chamber of Deputies and used to criticize opposition representatives who voted for the expedited procedure.

Only two of the ten major publications highlighted favorable elements to the approval of the Bill. The one with the most engagement was a comment on the measures taken by the Government against Google based on a news story by UOL. In turn, the Diário do Centro do Mundo, a media outlet aligned with the Federal Government, highlighted a statement made by the rapporteur Orlando Silva defending the Bill. The tweet shown in that news story referred to the beginning of the session to discuss the topic at the Chamber of Deputies. The text defended the protection of children and the fight against hate speech based on the “civilization” statement and in opposition to the risks posed by the big tech business model.

 

 

2.3 Congressional debate on Facebook

Evolution of the congressional debate per political sector on Facebook
Period: April 25 at midnight to May 2 at 2pm, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The monitoring of the amount of publications made and interactions reached by representatives in each political sector indicates that the opposition surpassed the engagement obtained by other political sectors by far. They showed a 91% difference compared to the interactions reached in publications made by government allies, even when the latter increased the amount of publications and surpassed the number of posts made by the opposition on May 2.

Total interactions in posts made by congress representatives in the debate about the Fake News Bill on Facebook
Period: April 25 at midnight to May 2 at 2pm, 2023

Fonte: Facebook | Elaboração: FGV ECMI

. Fonte: Facebook | Elaboração: FGV ECMI

An analysis of which congress representatives reached a higher number of interactions in their individual publications shows more details about the leadership in the opposition group. The strong names in the Liberal Party stood out by making posts with a thematic affinity in relation to the representatives that predominated at the center, such as Rodrigo Valadares (UNIÃO) and Clarissa Tércio (PP). This thematic affinity emerged through the classification of the Bill as a “Censorship Bill”, with arguments associating the proposal with the control of citizens’ freedom of speech by the government. The numbers registered are also show a considerable overlap in relation to those in Figure 02. Although it is not possible to establish a direct comparison between the periods, it is possible to indicate an increase in the mobilization of congress representatives and citizens showing a negative reaction to the Bill.

Congress representatives for the PSOL and the PT stood out in the left-wing sector, although their posts had a low level of engagement in the general debate. They celebrated the decision for the expedited procedure on April 25 and defended the approval of the Bill on May 2 as a way to respond to the “urgent” need to create a safer and healthier space on social media (particularly for children), fight disinformation, and reduce the “super powers” of big tech. They also accused the opposition – referring to it as “far right” – of disinforming the population regarding the content of the Bill.

3. Conclusions

This study continued the monitoring activities of the project Digitalization and Democracy in Brazil regarding the national debate on digital platform regulation, which is part of a wider debate on the topic at the global level. The analysis investigated the public debate in Brazil in the context of the advanced legislative process for the Bill that may become the Brazilian Law on Freedom, Accountability and Transparency on the Internet, with provisions for the fight against disinformation in digital environments. The survey collected tweets and posts made by congress representatives about the topic between April 15 and May 2, 2023, the period when the Bill received congressional support for an expedited procedure, even though it did not advance towards an approval. The vote on the matter is currently suspended.

Bill No. 2.630/2020 received support from important key players in the government in the 2023 national political context after suffering criticism during the previous administration. In line with previous studies within the scope of this project, this analysis found that key players and narratives opposed to digital platform regulation led the debate on the topic. In this context, most of the debate focused on direct and superficial associations between the Bill and the idea of censoring the freedom of speech of Brazilian citizens, with a low level of engagement around the mobilization to approve the proposal.

While the sector that defined the Bill as a threat to freedom of speech was predominant throughout the period, the attempts by digital platform companies to intervene with the debate were the only topic that prompted a larger mobilization of those defending the proposal. The small portion of users supporting the Bill and the regulation of digital platforms mentioned serious and relevant episodes in national politics, such as the January 8 attacks and the violence in Brazilian schools, to demonstrate their outrage regarding the attempts to “manipulate the debate” and “violate national sovereignty” by big tech companies. They also accused the Brazilian far right of disinforming the population regarding the Bill by associating it with censorship. Users also made frequent mentions to the claim made by bolsonarist representatives that the Bill would censor Bible verses.

4. Editorial Staff

Research Coordination
Marco Aurelio Ruediger
Amaro Grassi

Researchers
Laura Pereira
Leticia Sabbatini
Renato Contente
Mariana Carvalho
Victor Piaia
Sabrina Almeida
Dalby Hubert
Lucas Roberto da Silva
Neubiana Beilke
Maria Sirleidy Cordeiro
Thaís Rabello
Polyana Barboza

Technical Review
Renata Tomaz

Graphic Project
Daniel Almada
Luis Gomes

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