The Brazilian presidential election has fueled a misinformation emergency that has tipped the LGBT+ community into a boiling pot of fake news. This is part of a broader global problem and we need a global plan to stop it.
Since the beginning of this year’s election race, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro deliberately galvanized Christian voters by framing the election as “a fight between good and evil,” repeating the scare tactics about the LGBT+ community he used in 2018. Bolsonaro’s tactics have also dragged his opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva into an outright contest of who is the true Christian among them.
Caught in the crossfire of this horrendous political battle are numerous victims including the country’s LGBT+ community. Bolsonaro has blatantly fueled misinformation about Brazil’s transgender and queer communities, claiming falsely that a Lula victory would lead to genderless toilets in schools and repeating false claims made in his 2018 campaign that the LGBT+ community wanted to promote homosexuality to children.
These allegations are not without consequence.
Brazil has the highest murder rate of transgender people in the world and life expectancy of a trans woman is only 35. In 2021, while Bolsonaro dismantled Brazil’s human rights protections, the NGO ANTRA recorded 140 murders of trans people. In this year’s election, 80 percent of trans candidates running for office reported being threatened or intimidated by far right groups. The impact is also personal. I have found that some of my closest relatives in Brazil who were previously supportive of my sexuality not only embrace anti-queer rhetoric but are also advocating against our democratic institutions. Some even told me that they would support a coup by Bolsonaro if he loses the election.
It seems hard to believe, but misinformation gets attention, no matter how absurd. For example a video stating that Lula has a pact with the devil was circulated just before the first round of voting. On election day, Oct. 2, searches associating Lula and satanism increased by 2,500 percent. Lula later posted that he never had talked to Beelzebub. This is not the sole territory of the right wing either. A few days later, an old video of Bolsonaro attending a Freemasons ceremony was shared by Lula’s team and searches for Bolsonaro and satanism increased by 5,000 percent.
This kind of campaign behavior has ill-effects well beyond voting day.
In Poland ahead of the 2019 general elections, misinformation campaigns fueled anti-queer sentiment across the country in an attempt to rally voters. This strategy was later translated into discriminatory policy with Parliament approving an “anti-gay propaganda” law. In Ghana, online and traditional media almost uniformly broadcast hate against queer people and the government is close to approving one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBT+ laws, with a concurrent spike in phobic attacks and so-called “corrective rapes.”
But LGBT+ minorities are not the only victims. We are all suffering the broader impacts of this borderless global crisis that is having a devastating effect on much wider debates including climate change, vaccination, and economic development. In a cover story in “Science” magazine, noted biologist Carl Bergstrom said misinformation “poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision-making, endangers the well-being of the planet, and threatens public health.”
We are in dangerous territory for democracy and what we really need is a global plan to stop it. The 10-point action plan recently released by Nobel Prize Laureates Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, is a good starting point. On one hand, there is growing awareness about misinformation with calls to action to regulate social media platforms. However, as happened with climate policy in its early stages, there is still a lot to be done to define the best political responses and potential avenues for regulation.
Recently, I joined a group of researchers and advocates from around the world who see misinformation as an international crisis and are urgently working to develop the tools to fight it. We will collect the best evidence possible. We are calling for the creation of institutions to manage this global problem and to build a space for consensus-building and advice on solutions.
I sincerely hope that, in Brazil, the next government will act boldly to stop the deterioration of the information environment. However little has been said during the campaign and a bill introduced in Parliament to regulate fake news was rejected with big tech platforms declining cooperate. Brazil’s new government could make a major contribution towards ending the global information crisis and horrific attacks on the human rights of the LGBT+ community by supporting a coordinated response. There is a lot to do, but the time is now. We don’t want to look back in a few years, wishing we had done more.