Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil


The circulation of links about mistrust in the Brazilian election system on Facebook and YouTube

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This study investigates the circulation of content that incites the public to believe in the existence of ballot fraud and election manipulation in Brazil on Facebook and Youtube between 2014 and 2020. The analysis is based on a corpus of 103,542 posts with links in Portuguese on both platforms. Our goal is to provide a documentation on the history of narratives that feed disinformation processes regarding the electoral system in Brazil. In general terms, the research has shown that this discursive production follows the trend of peaks of circulation of URLs in election years, but persists during non-election years thanks to a verified potential of engagement. Given the harmful effects of the publication of fraudulent statements, among which we highlight questioning the legitimacy of processes that are fundamental to the health of democracy, this document focuses on digital engineering and electoral mistrust. In this context, this study is part of contemporary discussion both inside and outside Brazil, which has mobilized multiple actors aligned with the maintenance of mechanisms that sustain democratic regimes, beliefs and institutions. 


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  • Posts and URLs on the alleged existence of ballot fraud and election manipulation in Brazil are becoming increasingly numerous on Facebook and YouTube. The circulation of publications about these topics has increased steadily in years between elections (2015, 2017 and 2019), in general election years (2014 and 2018), and in municipal election years (2016 and 2020).
  • As expected, the frequency of messages about mistrust in the electoral system was exponentially higher in 2018, but 2020 has already become the second year with the most content of this type. Putting together the reports and suspicions of manipulation of vote counting by the electronic ballot in 2018, we highlight links with calls to action, using official instruments of public consultation of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.
  • In seven years, we identified 337,204 publications that raised suspicions about the legitimacy of Brazilian elections. Most of them, 335,169, were located on Facebook and added up to 16,107,846 interactions. The rest were 2,035 posts on YouTube, with 23,807,390 views.  The YouTube statistic is more representative of the reach of these messages because it consists of everyone who watched the content, not only those who interacted with it through reactions, comments or shares. This demonstrates that the reach of the message on Facebook was higher than the data obtained through the statistics in this platform.
  • Some of the most popular links that spread online are repeated in different years. The most shared link was published in 2016, but reached a higher level of engagement in 2019. A significant portion consists of hyperpartisanized channels and pages.
  • In 2020, the most shared links were also republications of old content that is easily accessible online. That does not mean that there is no new content in the topics analyzed. In this municipal election year, the page Jornal da Cidade Online alone hosted six of the new links that are among those most frequently shared.


Part 1: Circulation of links 

The volume of publications confronting the electoral system increased exponentially during the presidential race in 2018, as predicted, but this trend continued throughout 2020 in the context of the upcoming municipal elections, although with a lower average of interactions per post, which will be explained in the next topic. Together, these two years represent half the posts on Facebook (48.2%) and on YouTube (45.3%). Similarly, 2018 and 2020 together add up to 50,931 posts with links, which represents half (49.1%) the corpus of 103,542 publications analyzed over these seven years.

In light of this, 2020 has become the second year with the most content about the topic in the period, even with only nine months of data. Until the first half of October 2020, the volume of posts with links about the topic represented 56.0% on Facebook and 72.4% on YouTube of the volume during the entire year of 2018. As shown by the figure below, there were at least 32,052 links published on Facebook during the election year of 2018, which represents 30.9% of the sample. 

Evolution of posts per month on Facebook

Evolution of posts per month on Youtube

Part 2: Digital interactions and reach

The variation in the volume of interactions and reach over the years on Facebook and YouTube follows the trend of the circulation of links, which evidences that this is an oscillation in the debate itself and not a particular behavior present in either platform. In general, the election years concentrate peaks of interactions with these contents over the months of September and October, when the campaigns and voting take place. Non-electoral years, on the other hand, present a stable pattern in terms of occurrence and engagement. In the period between January 2014 and October 2020, 16,107,846 interactions were recorded on Facebook and 23,807,390 views were recorded on YouTube.

Once again, we highlight the exceptionality of 2018, which represented 6,609,658 (41%) of the total interactions on Facebook and 12,391,949 (52%) of the total views on YouTube. 

Links with the most engagement on Facebook

Part 3: 2020 Elections

As seen in the first section, the figure showing the evolution of the topic on Facebook indicates an increase in posts about the topic in 2020, reaching higher levels in just nine months than those recorded in 2014, the second year with the highest incidence of these discourses.This section seeks to understand the reasons for this increase and to identify how electoral fraud narratives are being forged in the context of the municipal elections, in which there is greater fragmentation of the debate compared to general election periods. The analysis comprised the fifteen most shared links in 2020 and identified how they were shared over the analyzed period.

Most shared links in 2020 over time

Posts versus engagement on Facebook

We observed that the three most shared links are, in fact, old publications with a strong presence on the networks since at least 2018. This is an important characteristic if we take into account that their circulation can be revived with the publication of new links, images and texts.

However, the old links were also accompanied by six articles that were first published in 2020. The number of new links, together with the general increase in shares about the topic, suggests the existence of an intentional campaign to promote this topic. In addition, we highlight the presence of links on the pages Jornal da Cidade Online, which hosted six of the most shared links, and Folha Centro Sul, with three links.

However, this movement to create a “disinformation campaign”, which saw an increase in publications in 2020, was not accompanied by an increase in engagement about the topic, as shown in the figure above. This movement deserves further investigation by means of a research designed to understand the factors that cause this disparity between increased posts and degree of engagement.


This study is the result of an effort to conduct a historical analysis of how the circulation of content about alleged ballot fraud and election manipulation in Brazil behaved over time and discursively on social media platforms. Specifically, we observed the presence of posts that contained links disseminated on Facebook and YouTube between the years 2014 and 2020. The analyzed data validated the perception that the narratives of distrust in the electoral system, in this period, were associated with higher engagement and recurrence in digital environments. Therefore, it was possible to observe a wide circulation of dangerous, hyper-partisan content and fake news in the study corpus, which suggests patterns of polarization, intolerance and disinformation in the country’s recent history.


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