Flooding in Rio Grande do Sul: wave of right-wing disinformation reinforces the need for regulating social media platforms

Podcast discusses the urgency of governmental actions to tackle disinformation amid the tragedy

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Amid efforts to mitigate the impact of heavy rains, the population has been dealing with the spreading of fake news - Anselmo Cunha/AFP

Almost three weeks after the rains began, the climate tragedy in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul is far from over. In addition to a scenario in which more than 2 million people have been affected and 92% of municipalities have been hit by the floods, the state still has to curb one of the side effects of the tragedy: fake news

On Friday's edition (17) of the podcast Três por Quatro, produced by Brasil de Fato and presented by journalists Nara Lacerda and Nicolau Soares, the mechanisms used by the far-right to spread disinformation were analyzed, as well as the effects on the population affected. The podcast also looked at the government's actions over the last few days to deal with the damage caused by the floods in the state. 

The podcast’s guests included João Feres Júnior, a professor of Political Science at Rio de Janeiro State University (Uerj, in Portuguese) and scientific director of the Public Debate Monitor, and João Brant, secretary of Digital Policies at the Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency of the Republic (Secom, in Portuguese). José Genoíno, former Workers’ Party president and a regular commentator on the podcast, is another name in the line-up for the episode.

“A task force should be set up in the Ministry of Justice, together with Secom, to monitor and identify the culprits [of spreading disinformation] as quickly as possible and punish them,” says Professor Feres Júnior about the fake news about the tragedy.

Feres Jr., who works to monitor the behavior of the far right online, highlights the profile of those who create and disseminate false messages, especially in times of crisis. “Exploiting a calamity, a catastrophe, even at a very high price for human lives, for property, for everything, is something they [Bolsonaro supporters] have already done frequently after Jair Bolsonaro's defeat in the last presidential election,” he says.

José Genoíno emphasizes the need for the left to take a tough stance against those spreading lies. He criticizes the good neighbor policy, which he believes is ineffective at curbing this behavior. 

“There's no point in fearing polarization [...] these people are not good [...] In the face of a tragedy, the guy who thinks he has to lie to get people to their deaths more quickly has no parameters. It's absurd. It's barbarism against civilization. And there's only one way to deal with barbarians: wage a democratic war, an information war. [...] We have to understand that they are the new enemies, just like Nazism was, just like fascism was. We must consider them enemies that have to be destroyed. We can't connive with these people in the name of freedom of expression – this is the freedom to kill,” Genoíno argues.

The anti-democracy of disinformation 

Faced with the spread of fake news, João Brant, from Secom, emphasizes that tackling disinformation requires a broad understanding of the current scenario. It is necessary to know when fake news is no more than disinformation about political opinions, and where it effectively interferes in the search for solutions to emergencies.

According to the secretary, the federal government must pay attention to movements in which there is a “set of articulated, organized, ordered efforts, with political and financial interests to dismantle the capacity to respond to events, or undermine the population's confidence in the action of public power," he explains. “This has an impact, and can often be characterized as a crime under article 257 of the Brazilian Penal Code [which deals with hindering aid in the event of a disaster]. So, the government needs to act having this in mind.”

From the point of view of the Lula government, José Genoíno stresses the importance of combating disinformation immediately, even characterizing such acts as a crime. For him, it is necessary to create an “action office to take immediate measures against disinformation, working 24 hours a day across the board”. 

“This cultural war, this war of intolerance – we have to win it. Because they want to pin on the Lula government what happened with the pandemic on the Bolsonaro government, using Rio Grande do Sul as a laboratory for these lies,” he says.

Regulating networks and guaranteeing truth

The tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul is, once again, highlighting the need to regulate social media platforms in Brazil. Bill 2630/20, known as the “Fake News Bill”, came up again in 2024 after Elon Musk, owner of X/Twitter, attacked Brazil’s Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes in early April. At the time, the billionaire, heir to diamond deposits and owner of Tesla, accused the magistrate of illegalities in blocking X accounts.

Despite the commotion over the attack by a foreign political actor on Brazilian institutions, the case did not generate any results in terms of regulation. On the contrary, the bill's rapporteur, federal deputy Orlando Silva (Communist Party of Brazil), was removed from his post. Arthur Lira (Progressives Party), president of the National Chamber of Deputies, ordered the creation of a group to debate the issue, postponing a possible decision by the House.

According to Brant, the Fake News Bill is not aimed at limiting or restricting citizens' freedom on the internet, but at combating the spreading of disinformation in the digital environment.

“Basically, what we advocate for is that a crime offline should be treated as a crime online, that platforms should have greater responsibility. Therefore, there's no impact on the right to freedom of expression,” said the secretary.

Despite emphasizing the priority of saving the lives of the people in Rio Grande do Sul, João Feres stresses the importance of regulating social media platforms, saying “Brazil can’t sustain itself for long without regulating this process of moderating online content. Because without it, you're at the mercy of the immediate decisions of judges, political will, the platforms, the actions and effects of the executive power. And that's in nobody's interest.”

New episodes of Três por Quatro are released every Friday morning, discussing the main events and political situation in Brazil and the world.

Edited by: Thalita Pires