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President Jair Bolsonaro and his sons, senator Flávio Bolsonaro (Patriota-RJ), federal deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL-SP) and Rio de Janeiro councilor Carlos Bolsonaro (Republicans) command a “hidden and complex organization” that spreads fake news for Brazil. This is one of the main conclusions of the final report of the CPI on the Pandemic, presented this Wednesday, which accuses the Bolsonaro family of aggravating the covid-19 pandemic through a disinformation campaign.
The senators point out that, over the past 18 months, the president has made statements that minimized the health emergency, went against the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) and promoted treatments without scientific evidence, in addition to repudiating vaccines. One of the most damaging cases, as stated in the report, was its defense of the research and conduct of Prevent Senior, accused of making up deaths by covid-19, distributing early treatment kits and conducting research without patient consent. Jair Bolsonaro is the “leader and spokesperson” of the fake news country, concludes the report.
The document, signed by senator Renan Calheiros (MDB-AL), rapporteur of the CPI, explains that the disinformation campaign carried out by the top of the federal government intended not only to spread lies about sanitary measures that must be adopted, but also to “extract economic benefit or political”. This organization would be formed by five subgroups, the first of which would be the command nucleus, formed by Bolsonaro and his sons, who strategically direct and guide the actions, followed by the formulator nucleus, which works directly at the Palácio do Planalto and is popularly known as the hate office, captained by Carlos Bolsonaro, with the support of advisors Filipe Martins and Tercio Arnaud.
Then comes the political nucleus, which supports the organization’s decisions and is made up of parliamentarians, politicians, public and religious authorities, including federal deputies Ricardo Barros, Osmar Terra, Carlos Jordy, Carla Zambelli, Bia Kicis , Carlos Wizard, former minister Ernesto Araújo, Roberto Goidanich (former president of FUNAG), former deputy Roberto Jefferson and minister Onyx Lorenzoni. According to the report, these people encouraged the non-compliance with the sanitary norms imposed to contain the pandemic and adopted behaviors to incite to crime. An example are the 27 publications made by Carla Zambelli on social networks, totaling 312,000 interactions, in which she defends the use of drugs without efficacy against the disease, such as hydroxychloroquine. All of them had the indictment requested by the CPI rapporteur.
There is also the production and dissemination center of fake news, in which there are influencers such as the pocket blogger Allan dos Santos, the organized media vehicles, such as Free Tuesday and Brazil Parallel, and anonymous profiles — not infrequently, robots run by members of the hate office, points the document. Finally, there is the funding nucleus, which economically sustains the organization, generating the impetus for fake news, and is represented by businessmen Otávio Fakhoury, who is a member of the Força Brasil Institute, and Luciano Hang, both investigated by the CPI.
The main lies that the organization disclosed about the global health crisis concern the origin of the coronavirus, encouraging attacks on China and its population, with “clearly xenophobic content”, as the document highlights, as well as criticism of social isolation and the use of masks , with false arguments about its effectiveness in controlling the pandemic. There is also a campaign to promote so-called early treatment, based on flawed studies of the effectiveness of drugs used to treat covid-19.
An example of this is a post by former federal deputy Roberto Jefferson, who, before his Twitter account was taken offline, published that vaccines against this disease could change people’s DNA: “Globalists prepare a vaccine to change our DNA , which was given to us by God”, he said in the message that had 34,000 shares. The spread of this type of lie has led to indigenous people, among the most vulnerable in the pandemic, refusing to receive immunization agents.
In another example that appears in the CPI report, federal deputy Osmar Terra defends on Twitter the herd immunity of the Brazilian population and publishes false information about the lethality of the coronavirus. “Food immunity must end the outbreak before the vaccine has an impact. Due to the average lethality, worldwide, of this virus (0.27%), we can estimate the number of infected/immunized in each place. It’s a simple rule of three: for every 27 who unfortunately die, 10,000 contaminate and become immunized (sic)”, he wrote on March 24 of this year, when Brazil totaled more than 300,000 deaths by covid-19.
To disseminate the denial narrative led by President Bolsonaro, the report states that the organization used a profusion of channels, pages and profiles on social networks and platforms such as YouTube, to “direct public opinion, not only in relation to measures to combat pandemic, but also in relation to other aspects, in order to strengthen its base of political support and obtain financial gains”, says the report. An example of this modus operandi investigated by the CPI is the channel Free Tuesday and its owner, Allan dos Santos, who even published the following on Twitter: “Omitting the use of chloroquine is the same as leaving Jews in doubt between shower and gas chamber”. This statement received nearly 12,000 likes and more than 2,000 shares and disregarded that the drug can have harmful effects on the body if used incorrectly. The statement was echoed on the channel and on other blogger profiles, in a process that the Federal Police calls “double support”: by reflecting misinformation, channels receive increasing remuneration for the views generated and, at the same time, the narrative false becomes stronger as it is repeated and shared by other users and influencers.
The CPI also identified that “not only public communication agencies failed in their mission to combat rumors and misinformation, but they actively participated in the process of creation and distribution” of fake news. On Facebook, for example, disinformation campaigns were initiated with posts made by fake accounts and then digital influencers were hired to disseminate this information, many of them paid by agencies hired by the Special Secretariat for Communication (Secom), in expenses that added up to more than four million reais. “Secom did not carry out any campaign to promote the preventive measures then available at the time, namely: the encouragement of the use of masks and respect for social distance”, the report reads. The document highlights the seriousness of these facts by reminding that around 120,000 lives could have been saved in Brazil —according to the most conservative estimate of epidemiologists heard by the CPI— if health measures recommended by international authorities such as the WHO had been adopted and disseminated.
Crimes and punishment
In addition to the disinformation campaign during the pandemic, the CPI’s final report states that the same organization that disseminates fake news in the country it has been acting with “systematic aggressions against members of the Supreme Federal Court (STF) and repeated offenses to the fairness of the electoral process conducted by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE)” —such as the defense of the printed vote and the discredit of electronic voting machines —, with the “clear intention of generating discredit in the country’s institutions and causing its political destabilization”. Senator Renan Calheiros, rapporteur of the commission, used in the final report information obtained in the investigation of fake news conducted by the STF and also by the CPI of the fake news, whose activities are stopped, something that generated complaints from the government senators. Bolsonaro’s defenders allege a lack of evidence on the defendants and claim that many of them, such as Carla Zambelli or Bia Kicis, were not even summoned to testify to the commission, thus not being able to defend themselves.
The document insists that there was “criminal conduct” by public agents, highlighting the responsibility of Jair Bolsonaro, who, on more than one occasion, stated that the vaccine against covid-19 would cause “death, disability, anomaly”. On November 26, 2020, for example, the president said that he would not take the immunizing agent and urged people not to receive the vaccine either, as they would be “doing themselves harm”. “These publications are evidence of the practice of the criminal offense of incitement to the crime of non-compliance with health regulations. In practice, by encouraging the population to gather, not to be vaccinated, to disobey the rules of mask use and lockdown, influential people and political agents contributed to the worsening of the pandemic”, says the report.
The senators who make up the commission identified, however, “the absence of a criminal classification to satisfactorily punish people who disclose false information” and highlight the need for “improvement” in Brazilian legislation to punish the production or dissemination of fake news under the Criminal Law. CPI members also advocate the improvement of user identification and social networking profiles on the Internet to hold offenders accountable, in addition to social networks and digital platforms themselves. “As the algorithms used by these companies do not take into account the uninformative content of the posts, they end up encouraging abuse through their platforms. Thus, it is essential to tighten the rules for publishing content and monetizing its owners, preventing such artifices from being used to attack public health or any other purpose against the public interest”, reads the report. After all, the covid-19 pandemic proved to be a disastrous example of how fake news also kill.
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