The attempts by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro to engineer social media regulation to keep his messages and those of his supporters safe from removal is yet another move which appears to be taken straight from the authoritarians’ playbook so dear to his close ally and role model, Donald Trump.
Bolsonaro’s motives to go after social media platforms are obvious. If social media sites dared to de-platform Trump, they can easily come after the far-right president of Brazil and his followers for spreading disinformation and sharing incendiary speech ahead of the presidential elections in Brazil – which polls predict Bolsonaro is set to lose.
Disinformation has long been a feature of Bolsonaro’s social media activity, with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube already removing several of his posts due to their unfounded claims about COVID-19. But some analysts such as Direitos Na rede – a coalition of Brazilian civil society and academic organizations – say social media platforms are not doing enough to contain Bolsonaro and are tolerating alleged repeated violations to their terms of service.
The regulation, first passed via the executive as a provisional measure, sought to limit the speech that social media platforms could remove from their sites, precluding their ability to fight fake news, harassment and hate speech online. As predicted by analysts, the measure was quickly struck down first by the Brazilian Senate and then its Supreme Court.
Worrying vision for content moderation
But Bolsonaro’s team was likely aware the provisional measure – a shortcut only available to the executive to enact laws during emergencies – would be short-lived. Signalling that the government’s intentions still stand, the measure was later reintroduced in the form of bill proposal which will push Congress to reopen the discussion on Bolsonaro’s worrying vision for content moderation.
The proposal helps Bolsonaro reinforce to his followers the idea that social media platforms are attempting to muzzle conservative voices, and it indicates the president’s commitment to protecting the type of incendiary speech which characterizes both his administration and his supporter base. In short, it gives renewed legitimacy to the president’s divisive rhetoric.
The timing is also no coincidence ahead of what is bound to be a highly contested election. Bolsonaro appears set on amending the Marco Civil da Internet – Brazil’s internationally-lauded, progressive internet regulation developed following extensive public debate. He also has specific aspirations for how information is to be governed online – from top-down government directive and with a disregard for potentially illegal and harmful speech.
The move is also part of wider efforts by conservative voices in the US and Brazil to push for minimal content oversight in the name of freedom of expression, and the proposed regulation is plagued with contradictions, exposing an inadequate understanding of the complexities of content moderation.
The regulation would limit content takedown to what the government deems ‘just causes’ – such as nudity, terrorism, crime, violence, or copyright infringements, but not hate speech and disinformation.
For anything not considered a just cause, platforms would have to obtain court orders to authorize takedown and, due to the sheer volume of content being managed, this would render content moderation unviable. In short, the measure appears to be designed to force platforms to carry speech that would otherwise be subject to removal.
Bolsonaro’s proposal also seeks to alter intermediary liability rules that – with minor variations across countries – have set the basis for content moderation regimes in Brazil and beyond. These rules, enshrined in the Marco Civil da Internet, free social media sites from responsibility for content generated by third parties on their platforms – unless instructed to remove it by a judicial order – but give them the right to moderate content in order to curate the user experience.
Departing from this model, Bolsonaro’s regulatory proposal seeks to take control over content moderation by having government determine on behalf of platforms what speech can be removed and what speech must be carried on their platforms.
Proper content moderation is necessary to build safe and inclusive digital spaces and protect freedom of expression. Cumbersome content removal processes – such in Bolsonaro’s proposal – incentivize under-removal. Combined with narrow permissions on what content may be removed that intentionally overlook unlawful and harmful content, social media platforms would become toxic environments where misinformation, harassment, hate speech, or incitement of violence could run rampant.
While Brazil’s congress and judiciary took a strong, joint stance to repeal the original measure, Bolsonaro may inspire other authoritarian governments to adopt similar strategies to reign in social media. Copycat regulation is not uncommon as shown by distorted versions of the German disinformation law NetzDG being adopted – and transformed into censorship tools – in Venezuela and Honduras.
Authoritarian governments taking cues from Bolsonaro in countries with weaker systems of checks and balances may well succeed in preventing social media from removing misinformation and incendiary speech online.
Systematic disinformation claims
Bolsonaro also rolled out his plans just one day before his supporters were invited to mobilize at the doorsteps of Brazil’s Supreme Court in Brasilia and across other cities in an event which rather eerily resembled the calls to rally before the infamous US Capitol events on January 6.
Analysts described this as a ‘show of force’ against Brazil’s highest court which is currently investigating Bolsonaro’s inner circles for allegedly running systematic disinformation campaigns from within government.
In a striking resemblance to Trump’s own pre-election rhetoric in the US, this populist leader is now trying to raise suspicions that the 2022 elections in Brazil will be rigged despite failing to provide any evidence to back such claims.
And a strong American presence at the recent conservative conference held in Brasilia which was likened to the US Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) indicates Bolsonaro may be receiving close guidance from Trump allies and former staffers.
Content moderation undoubtedly demands government oversight and regulation, and populist leaders find it tempting to tamper with it to score political gains and control speech, especially as online space becomes ever more central to the political debate.
Given that social media content moderation is going to play a growing central role in protecting – or undermining – the values of open and democratic societies, it demands that regulation emanates from debate and consensus.
Only with this level of plurality can a proper balance be struck which upholds freedom of expression while providing the proper avenues to tackle disinformation, electoral manipulation, and online harms.
Carolina Caeiro, Richard and Susan Hayden Academy Fellow, US and the Americas Programme.