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To fight lies, Brazil gives one man power over online speech


Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice in Brazil who leads the nation’s electoral court, will now have broad power to order tech companies to remove content.

By Jack Nicas


Brazilian authorities, grappling with a torrent of online misinformation ahead of the country’s presidential election, granted the nation’s elections chief unilateral power to order tech companies to remove many online posts and videos — one of the most aggressive actions taken by any country to combat false information.


Under rules passed Thursday, the elections chief can order the immediate removal of content that he believes has violated previous takedown orders. Social networks must comply with those demands within two hours or face the potential suspension of their services in Brazil.


The move culminates an increasingly assertive strategy by election officials in Brazil to crack down on divisive, misleading and false attacks that have flooded the country’s presidential race in recent days, including claims that candidates are Satanists, cannibals and pedophiles.


But by allowing a single person to decide what can be said online in the run-up to the high-stakes election, which will be held Oct. 30, Brazil has become a test case in a swelling global debate over how far to go in fighting false and misleading reports.


The decision drew outcry from supporters of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, as well as concern from many internet-law and civil-rights experts, who said it represented a potentially dangerous, authoritarian expansion of power that could be abused to censor legitimate viewpoints and swing the presidential contest.


The elections chief, Alexandre de Moraes, is also a justice on Brazil’s Supreme Court, which has placed him at the center of a separate fight over the court’s increasing authority.


As a court justice, he has ordered investigations into Bolsonaro and jailed some of the president’s supporters for what Moraes said were attacks on the nation’s democratic institutions.


He has been perhaps the nation’s most effective check on Bolsonaro, who for years has assailed the press, the courts and the nation’s elections systems. But in the process, Moraes has raised concerns that his efforts to protect the country’s democracy have instead eroded it.


“It’s a very complicated balancing act,” said Philip Friedrich, an elections and technology analyst at Freedom House, an American group that promotes the expansion of democracy. “Trying to protect the integrity of Brazil’s democratic institutions and people’s right to free expression, while also keeping people safe online.”


Carlos Affonso Souza, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, said Thursday’s ruling “could go too far, depending on how” Moraes wields his power.


Still, the move was cheered by many in Brazil who see it as a necessary tool to fight an avalanche of false claims from Bolsonaro’s supporters that has only accelerated in recent days.


The new rules were passed unanimously by seven federal judges who make up Brazil’s electoral court. When he proposed the rules at a court session Thursday, Moraes said complaints about misinformation had increased nearly 17-fold compared with past elections.


“There has been a proliferation of not only false news, but of the aggressiveness of this news, this hate speech, which we all know leads to nothing but an erosion of democracy,” he said. “This is precisely why we need a faster way.”


Another judge, Carmen Lucia, said during the hearing that she was worried about the implications of the electoral court’s recent moves to battle misinformation. “The return of censorship cannot be allowed under any argument in Brazil,” she said.


In an interview with a podcast Thursday, Bolsonaro said election officials were sending Brazil toward a “dictatorial state” and that “after the elections, depending on who wins, we’re going to put an end to this.”


Last year, Bolsonaro asked Brazil’s Senate to impeach Moraes but was rejected.


Bolsonaro faces off Oct. 30 against leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a vote that is widely regarded as Brazil’s most important in decades and a key test of one of the world’s biggest democracies.


Under the new internet rules, the elections chief’s expanded powers are effective during election campaigns. The powers will lapse after the presidential vote but will take effect again in future campaigns.


The rules allow Moraes to order social networks to immediately take down content that he determines has violated previous decisions by the broader electoral court.


The electoral court has already banned posts that have called Bolsonaro a pedophile, a claim that accelerated in recent days after video emerged of the president saying “there was a spark” between him and two teenage girls. The court has also ordered the takedown of content that says da Silva is corrupt. Da Silva, who is commonly known as Lula, served time in prison on corruption charges, which were later nullified.


Camps on both sides have spread lies, but the volume of misleading information on the right has far outweighed that on the left, said Tai Nalon, director of Aos Fatos, a Brazilian fact-checking organization that has closely tracked false campaign claims.


Bolsonaro’s supporters have spread the lie that da Silva plans to close churches if elected, prompting the former president to release a public letter insisting that he would not. On Friday, many on the right began posting images falsely claiming they were being directly censored by election officials.


Bolsonaro has also attacked Brazil’s electronic voting machines as rife with fraud, despite a lack of evidence, and his supporters have spread baseless conspiracy theories that claim the left is planning to steal the election.


Da Silva led Bolsonaro by 5 percentage points after the first round of voting, but in recent days, polls suggested that the gap is narrowing.


Google and Meta, which owns WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment. Da Silva’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.


Under the new rules, if a tech company repeatedly refuses to comply with Moraes’ orders, he can “suspend access to the services” of the platform in Brazil for up to 24 hours.


Earlier this year, Moraes said he planned to block Telegram, the messaging service with millions of users in Brazil, after the company did not follow his orders to remove the account of a prominent supporter of Bolsonaro accused of spreading disinformation. (Moraes was acting then in his capacity as a Supreme Court justice.) Moraes reversed that ban several days later after Telegram agreed to changes.


Affonso Souza, the law professor, said that given the two-hour deadline to comply with Moraes’ orders — and just one hour on the eve of the election — Moraes could conceivably try to block a platform in the final days of the campaign. “That would definitely add fuel to the fire for Bolsonaro’s supporters,” he said.

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