A new website launched by the Brazilian federal government with the official purpose of fighting disinformation through the use of language appropriate to fact-checking initiatives has prompted criticism from independent verification professionals and agencies, which see an undue appropriation of their format — which is by principle, impartial and nonpartisan.
Launched on March 25th by the Communication Secretariat (Secom, by its Portuguese acronym) of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's government, the Brasil Contra Fake [Brazil against fake news] website has, like other governmental publications, an obvious bias in favor of the authorities and policies in power. According to its launching release, however, its goal is to make it "possible to check if a content received is fake news" — a vocabulary use befitting information verifiers.
The mixture between fact-checking and propaganda, added to the unauthorized reposting of content, the non-identification of some sources, and the lack of criteria for what to publish, outraged journalists who have been working for a long time with fact-checking. They launched stories against the initiative and spoke out on social media. In response, the government has made minor adjustments to the site, said that criticism is welcome, and that it does not intend to be a fact-checking agency.
The controversy allows for reflections on the differences between journalism and propaganda, and exposes the challenges of the Brazilian government to fight disinformation, after suffering a coup attempt on Jan. 8 orchestrated by people radicalized from online distortions and lies.
Most of the content of Brasil contra Fake, in its first week of life, was a hailstorm of government-related denials: "It is false that the government will monitor phone calls, WhatsApp and social networks 'starting tomorrow'"; "It is false that the Ministry of Finance has announced a 'transvestite scholarship' worth R$ 1.8 thousand [US$ 353]"; "It is a false rumor that a bill prohibits outdoor church services"; "It is false that vaccines against Covid-19 cause sudden illness"; "Minister of Justice did not meet with drug dealers in the Complexo da Maré," were some of the stories published on the portal, rebutting false news circulating in social media.
According to the stories, some of these denials were verified by government officials themselves, while others repeated, without prior authorization, content produced by independent fact-checking news outlets. This was the case, for example, of a publication refuting that the wife of one of the most powerful Brazilian drug dealers, Willians Camacho, aka Marcola, had taken a position in the Ministry of Public Safety. This information was originally reported by Agência Lupa, one of the pioneers of Brazilian fact-checking.
Besides these publications with refutations of falsehoods, the government site also includes reports on official actions, and texts that rebut opinions — by nature, subjective and impossible to refute.
Among these publications that do not fit into the category "fact checking" are: A statement about the extension by the federal government of the deadline for the re-registration of firearms; an article on how changes in the structure of the Office of the Comptroller General (CGU) interfere in the fight against corruption; and a story defending the participation of the first lady in a public TV station. In this last case, as in other stories, there is no source to back-up the publication, contrary to another basic principle of fact-checking.
This confusion between public relations and information verification, added to the appropriation of content and the lack of criteria on what to publish, contradicts practices established by fact-checking professionals. According to them, verification must always be independent and transparent about its criteria. It is also necessary to make explicit which sources support your information. By camouflaging an advertising initiative with the appearance of journalistic impartiality, the journalists say, the government ends up undermining who is really neutral, and contributes to the very disinformation it says it intends to fight.
"Fact-checking only exists if it is transparent, independent and non-partisan. It is a type of journalistic tool created precisely to counter what the government's website is doing, which is propaganda," Cristina Tardáguila, program director of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in Washington and founder of Agência Lupa, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). "When the government names a propaganda webpage a fact-checking webpage, it envelops the propaganda with contours of truth, and nullifies those who actually fact-check their propaganda."
"The big problem was that the government mixed up clarification stories, official information, and fact-checking," Nalon told LJR. "The government obviously must be accountable, but it is a stakeholder, and stakeholders are sources in journalism, not practicing journalism itself. Fact-checking is a journalistic technique with a methodology that guarantees some degree of impartiality and neutrality. When it is used by the government to make propaganda, however, it loses its reliability.”
According to Natália Leal, current CEO of Lupa, the site embodies "discourse appropriation, which shows a lack of knowledge of what fact-checking is, on the part of Secom and the government’s Press Office. Checking is done based on two principles: Transparency and non-partisanship. If there is a side, and every government has a side, then it is not fact-checking.
In the press, the impact of the initiative was very negative. Lupa published a text enumerating the initiative's problems, from a technical point of view. On social media, journalism professors, like Pedro Burgos, said the initiative was "terrible." The three largest Brazilian newspapers, Folha de São Paulo, O Globo, and Estado de São Paulo published news and stories critical of the initiative.
The government reacted to the repercussions, and stopped using the specific vocabulary of fact-checking sites. Whereas in its description at launch the webpage stated, "We are here to help you check facts about the Federal Government," it has since been updated. It now has a slightly more neutral version, "We are here to help you and clarify Federal Government actions."
President Lula himself tweeted that it was "a platform for checking information and combating disinformation," but now the site no longer claims to serve this purpose.
In response to queries from LJR, Secom said that "the website Brasil Contra Fake is not a fact-checking agency. It is a space for information and clarification on misinformation regarding institutional actions and public policies of the Federal Government.”
The website, added Secom, seeks to refute "false or distorted news related to the policies of the Federal Government and all related topics." The work is done by its own employees.
In addition to adjustments in the official discourse, the team responsible for the site also set up a meeting by video call with representatives of fact-checking news outlets last week.
According to two people present at the meeting, who declined to be identified, representatives of Secom apologized for having reposted information without prior authorization, and said they did this because they thought it would be no problem. They also promised to adjust the discourse employed to avoid friction.
"The dialogue with the platforms and with the entities that debate the problem of disinformation will be constant and expanded, especially due to the gravity of the theme,” Secom told LJR. “We will always listen to and process all constructive criticism on this issue or any other that involves Secom."
The website Brasil Contra Fake is part of a wider campaign, which also includes broadcasting ads about disinformation in open and closed TV channels, in radio stations in the interior of the country, in movies, portals and websites, and in social media. This is the first phase of the campaign, which initially planned to run for three months.
The government did not reply to LJR’s queries about the cost of the initiative, but told Lupa that "the campaign had a media investment of R$20 million [close to US $4M]."
In addition to the errors it has already admitted to, the website sparked a discussion about to what extent the confusion between journalism and propaganda is harmful, and about who has the right to use each language.
For Taís Seibt, a journalism professor at Unisinos, in Rio Grande do Sul, who did her doctoral thesis on fact-checking, a governmental fact-checking could be welcome, as long as it is based on facts and makes its sources clear.
"The problem is not the initiative itself, but how it’s being carried out. But it could be a good initiative if it presents clearer methods based on facts and data," Seibt told LRJ. "We need more actors producing quality information based on facts, and it is possible to use this format of fact checking. But one basic thing is to show the sources, and to back up the claims with evidence. If this is not being done, it becomes another problem to be combated.
Seibt noted that there have already been several other official initiatives claiming for themselves the term fact-checking. In 2018, during the presidential term of Michel Temer (Brazilian Democratic Movement or MDB), the Ministry of Health launched a website using the language. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, some Workers’ Party (PT) state governments also employed this strategy. In last year's elections, several candidates had websites of this type, including Lula himself. In this case, the current president's verification page was taken off the air by the Justice Department, because it was deemed veiled propaganda.
For Tardáguila, from the ICJF, this practice was always wrong, and it "takes on a new scale" when it starts being practiced directly by the Presidency of the Republic. She also stated that this effort is probably futile.
"As a reporter, and I’ve been a reporter all my life, whenever I received an official statement, I was sure the statement was a lie. Society has the same stance regarding government denials," she said. "It's a lot of money and a lot of effort focused on an action whose return will certainly be very low. The person who believes in absurdities will not stop believing because the government has denied them.”
Besides the controversy about the differences between journalism and propaganda, the case also reveals the difficulty of the Brazilian government, which took office in January, to combat misinformation. Members of Secom report that there is an urgent search for measures that make clear that the government wants to combat the so-called fake news and misinformation. This rush faces a complex problem, for which there are few precedents.
"If we knew how to fight disinformation efficiently, we wouldn't be facing all the problems we are currently facing," Tai Nalon, of Aos Fatos, said. "I understand there is a rush to combat disinformation, especially that which comes along with extremism and paranoia. But certainly the government has much more efficient strategies to do this, precisely because it has data, money and influence. It is able to run more structured and planned campaigns. It seems complicated to me to use a journalistic guise for official clarifications.”