Zap Zap, Who’s There? WhatsApp and the Spread of Fake News During the 2018 Elections in Brazil

Published on November 9th, 2018

A blog post by Visiting Graduate Student Gabriel Pereira & Research Assistant Iago Bojczuk

Introduction to Zap Zap*
*The affectionate way many Brazilians refer to WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is a self-defined “fast, simple, secure messaging and calling” app. Its meteoric growth in the decade since the January 2009 release has earned it one of the largest user bases in the world, with an impressive total of 1.5 billion monthly users.1 Its simplicity is, indeed, one of its core selling points, especially in countries in the Global South where Internet services are becoming increasingly present in people’s everyday lives and are shaping the simplest forms of interaction. The app considers every phone number as a user and automatically adds your phone’s contact list as your WhatsApp contacts. It enables users to message these contacts and also to create groups with them, which in Brazil has become a widespread cultural practice. As an easy-to-use app, forwarding messages to multiple groups can be done with the press of a few buttons. Since 2016, messages have end-to-end encryption, sparking controversies from different sectors spanning from governments to digital rights agencies and from users to law enforcement authorities. Although celebrated by some privacy advocates, the implementation of encryption was criticized by government agencies as a barrier to fighting crime. More recently, however, the discussion around WhatsApp and elections has captivated the attention of media conglomerates, governments, organizations, and researchers from around the globe.

Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, becoming one of the company’s largest investments to date. Not unlike Facebook, WhatsApp has received intense criticism in the past few years for the way it has been used to spread false information, hoaxes, hate speech, and other so-called “fake news.” Just to name a few: in 2017, it was linked to the spreading of fake news in highly-connected Kenya2; in 2018, it has been associated with mob killings in India due to hoaxes regarding ‘child lifters’3, and to rumors associating yellow fever vaccines with fatal reactions and chemicals in Brazil.4 Most poignantly, Facebook has admitted “it did not do enough to prevent the incitement of violence and hate speech in Myanmar”5, where tens of thousands of people from the Rohingya minority group have been “killed, raped and assaulted, villages were razed to the ground and more than 700,000 Rohingya fled over the border to Bangladesh.”6

Regardless of the company’s intended goals, the role of WhatsApp in the spread of false information has inspired organizations to demand changes in the app’s sharing functionalities, implementation of fact-checking, and other macro- and micro-level changes.7 But how can we critically analyze WhatsApp’s role as a media platform if its very definition as a ‘platform’ is contested? Some media scholars argue that, due to its nature as a decentralized, encrypted, and person-to-person/group-to-group messaging app, WhatsApp cannot be considered a platform like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. In particular, Internet researcher Tarleton Gillespie, in his recent book-sized review of content-moderation in the platform era, excludes WhatsApp from consideration because its interaction is “overwhelmingly between known contacts, [so] they sidestep many of the problems that plague platforms that offer public visibility and contact with strangers.”8 Perhaps also of importance to Gillespie’s exclusion of WhatsApp is the app’s end-to-end encryption, which makes it impossible for it to be effectively moderated (one of the 4 core aspects of platforms according to him).

Nonetheless, we argue that WhatsApp does operate as a media platform where communication happens and where information is constructed, shared, and discussed. In addition, in countries like India, Brazil, and Myanmar, WhatsApp does surely offer public visibility and connection among strangers through its group messaging feature. Its lack of content-moderation in the same vein as what has been deployed on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram has not meant it does not need to (or, to some extent, already does it). In this blog post we analyze what this means in light of Brazil’s recent election (2018), where WhatsApp served as the main source of information for a large share of the population but, at the same time, was also connected to the spread of fake news and other forms of electoral crimes.

WhatsApp and Brazilians: like Havaianas**, ‘todo mundo usa’ (everybody wears them)
**Havaianas is a well-known  Brazilian brand of flip-flop sandals created by Scotsman Robert Fraser in 1962. It is often regarded as an iconic accessory for whoever visits Brazil, and a “must have” for everyone in the country.

For a clear understanding of the relevance of WhatsApp in Brazil, one must be attentive to the infrastructural and cultural dimensions that enabled its success in a short period of time.  In fact, prior to the elections in Brazil, the impact of WhatsApp in the country went unnoticed by most media scholars. Unlike cell phone carriers in countries such as the U.S., most people in Brazil had limited accessibility to texting given that the SMS cost was too expensive for a large part of the population (usually users of prepaid phone services). This shifted when WhatsApp entered the Brazilian market in 2009 – about three years before Facebook became the most popular SNS (social networking service) in the country. Users found the service attractive not only for its texting component, but also for its affordances in allowing users to merge and circulate multimedia content (pictures, videos, audio, etc) that before were confined to desktop computers connected to broadband Internet. In many ways, WhatsApp represents a shift in Brazil’s media landscape as companies expand Wi-Fi networks and the cheap mobile Internet, allowing seamless connection and usability to users all over the country – from major metropolitan areas such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to more isolated communities in the countryside.

One of the interesting aspects of Brazil’s social media use is that even though the levels of socioeconomic inequality divide prevail, the Internet exposure rate is significant with 76 percent of users accessing the Internet every day and spending an average of five hours online on weekdays.9 Just to provide a lens for comparison: in 2015, about 60 percent of the Brazilian population had access to the Internet. Conversely, in 2006, that percentage was under 30 percent.10 In comparison to the neighboring countries in Latin America, Internet penetration in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay is higher than the one observed in Brazil. However, according to recent data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UN specialized agency for ICTs, the penetration of high-speed Internet in Brazil shows a different pattern from the one observed in other countries. For instance, the fixed broadband subscription counts for only about 13 percent of the population, whereas in the U.S. broadband subscription is about 32 percent.11

This characteristic is observed partially due to the high price of broadband cost in Brazil. It is, in fact, mobile phones that drive the rapid growth of high-speed internet service. As a matter of fact, 41 percent of Brazilians use the 3G technology, and there is a strong tendency that the 4G connection will continue improving.12 Such configuration reflects Brazil’s rapid ICT development and uptake of the latest technologies such as the mobile phone, which makes Brazil the fifth-largest market for smartphones in the world13 and where mobile will make up 56 percent of total internet access revenue by 2018.14 Here, it needs to also be noted that many of these mobile internet plans come with a free use quota of WhatsApp and Facebook data, making it cheaper and more efficient to use the app.15 The combination of the aforementioned factors with the cultural openness to try new technologies helps explain the success of WhatsApp in becoming a crucial part of everyday life.

Coming from Brazil, where WhatsApp functions as an essential part of the daily culture, we were struck by the app’s limited role in European and American life. We often note that our American colleagues think of the platform as a messaging app only (akin to Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Slack). However, as discussed in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article,

in Brazil WhatsApp has become something much bigger than a chat app: a one-stop solution for everyone, from small businesses to government agencies, to manage everything, from transactions to relationships. It has changed how users expect to interact with companies and brands online, and it is forcing firms to use messaging to fulfill customer expectations.16

In effect, there is a general feeling that WhatsApp has become somewhat ‘mandatory’ for everyone in Brazil.17 Not only is it part of people’s daily interaction with family, colleagues, classmates, and friends, but also with formalized services and hierarchically institutionalized interactions with doctors, professors, taxi-drivers, and businesses (from pizza delivery to customer service). This relates to what John Perry Barlow, a former Fellow Emeritus at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote “Brazil is an enormous inside joke, and the Internet is a mass conversation. Brazil was the Internet before the Internet existed.”18

In addition, there is one particular example that helps illustrate the cultural relevance of the app’s importance in everyday life in Brazil. When WhatsApp was turned off by a court order in Brazil (2015 and 2016)19 for a few hours, users made use of funny memes and videos to describe feelings of disconnection, desperation, and hysteria as it felt like they had no means for communicating. Brazil was silent for a few hours, one could say.

When WhatsApp was blocked due to a court order, memes were circulated on other SNS. Above, a desperate man and the writing “Is this real? 48 hours without WhatsApp”

Although used in a joking way, these media texts point to the pervasiveness and relative importance of WhatsApp as an essential communication medium and a connector for Brazilian society. It regulates what can be shared and how communication occurs in all sectors of society both online and, to a large extent, offline spaces. That being said, how can media companies (although they insist to be called tech companies)20 better ponder about the cultural and infrastructural spheres in creating technology that is not harmful? We turn now to the Brazilian elections as a case to explore this further.

WhatsApp’s influence in Brazil’s 2018 Presidential Elections

Given the previously described infrastructural and cultural role of WhatsApp in Brazilian society, one could easily infer about its influence in dictating the public discourse during Brazil’s 2018 Presidential Elections. For reference, 44 percent of voters in Brazil use WhatsApp to read political and electoral information, according to Datafolha.21 To give a brief historical context to understand the impact of WhatsApp in the political process: from 1964 (when a military coup d’état with the US’s support took power) to 1985 the country was not a democracy. The authoritarian regime has been proven to not only have tortured, exiled and killed political opponents and minorities, but also hidden corruption and government inefficiency. The 2018 elections were just the country’s eighth Presidential election after the re-democratization, and the first one to be heavily influenced by the flows of social media connections instead of the traditional ruling of TV quotas for candidates.

Fact-checking organizations such as Aos Fatos have found more than more than 700 false or misleading posts being shared on the app, most of which are fake statements by candidates, or rumors about voting, legislation, protests and opinion polls. One of the most absurd examples of the memetic construction of these messages, and its level of absurdity and sensationalism, is the story that Fernando Haddad, the opposing leftist candidate, would have handed “baby bottles with penis-shaped tops at schools to combat homophobia”, which were heavily circulated through doctored images and texts on WhatsApp.22

This Facebook post was also widely circulated on WhatsApp. It illustrates the fake news that baby bottles with penis-shaped tops were calculated at schools to combat homophobia by Fernando Haddad’s party. The caption reads: “Look at what the PT [Workers Party] is distributing at Child Care Centers. Oh, my God.” While the bottle exists and is sold at sex shops, it was never distributed at any educational facility by the government. The Ministry of Education had to release a note to confirm it was fake news.
The flow of such false information happened from small groups of content-creators (producers), to regional and local activists (bolsominions), and to the everyday public (family groups, classroom groups, neighborhood – the list goes on). In the end, family groups were shown to be a crucial vector for the spread of misinformation.23 However, to complicate it even further, it has been suggested that these flows were supported by companies, that “spent millions of dollars to blast targeted messages on WhatsApp”24, a practice that is illegal under Brazil’s electoral law.

Pro-Bolsonaro groups and fake news sharing dynamics  

Similar to what happened during the Trump elections in 2016, Jair Bolsonaro attracted the attention of the electorate and influenced the agenda setting and salience of news in traditional media primarily via his digital channels. But is there a possible way to build constructive insights based on the impact of WhatsApp in Brazilian democratic processes and beyond? Based on the above discussions of WhatsApp and its enormous cultural and infrastructural relevance as a channel for communication, new research is currently undergoing to help explain the spread of fake news on the platform.

The research group Tecnologias da Comunicação e Política (Communication Technologies and Politics)25 at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) has some preliminary insights. With the goal to observe behavior patterns in how people organize themselves in the process of spreading content for political engagement, the researchers monitored WhatsApp groups between May and October 2018 when the first round of elections took place. Their research findings are yet to be published, but the preliminary results have already attracted various Brazilian newspapers and have been widely circulated.  

To a large extent, it may sound obvious that hoaxes have been part of political discourses long before modern democracies took shape, but the ways that emerging media technologies are changing these processes deserve more attention. After a six-month monitoring period of groups from different political spectrums, researchers found that pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups have a broader outreach in disseminating fake news. According to Alessandra Aldé, there is some sort of ‘order’ for such cybernetic chaos, and she argues that “such flows of information are not random and there is a specific technique to make that fake information goes viral.”26 This seems to relate directly to the recent article by MIT Media Lab and Sloan School of Management researchers that pointed to how fake news not only appear to be more novel, but also inspire emotions such as “fear, disgust, and surprise.”27

The visualization below shows the spread of a specific fake news across WhatsApp groups over a period of six hours. It is possible to see that within that short period, the number of people the fake news reached increased 29x times. Aside from the alarming numbers, it is important to mention that this was not exclusive to Bolsonaro’s supporters, as other candidates’ electorate groups also were reported to share fake news with their networks. In a broader sense, what sets Bolsonaro’s supporters apart from others’ is the strategic ways the groups articulated politically even before the elections became everyday news.

This graph represents the spread of a false news article that spoke of annulation of votes cast to Bolsonaro in the first round of the election. Grey circles indicate those that have not had contact with the false information. As it progresses through time (first row), the number of shares (second row) increases, and so does the number of affected people (third row).

Drawn from such confusing scenario, one of the most important conclusions of this preliminary phase suggests that WhatsApp practice in relation to the elections needs to be understood as a network of organized groups that are interconnected by common participants that systematically bridge information or pieces of informationbe it fake or notfrom one group to another. The numbers are astonishing: the research showed that out of the 90 groups studied, 90.11 percent of the users are connected directly or indirectly in a network of people. Using  IRaMuTeQ and Gephi software, researchers created an infographic to display the complex networks and the flow of information, illustrating how news are germinated and fertilized across different WhatsApp groups.

Green represents the right-wing, pro-militarists and supporters of elected president Jair Bolsonaro. The red lines show Fernando Haddad supporters. The pink lines show groups devoted to politics in general or non-partisan discussions. And the blue lines show the flow of information among groups devoted to other candidates.

Conclusion and Next Steps

The discourse concerning the relationship between digital technologies and democracy is an exciting yet worrying one. In merely a decade alone, between the 2008 U.S. elections to the rise of social movements such as #MeToo, we have seen a significant transformation in communication technologies that enable us to create, consume, and circulate media content. Not only the technologies themselves evolved in creative ways, but they also provide novel ways for how humans communicate, create culture, and engage politically. While much has been discussed about the impact of these technologies in enabling individuals to civically organize and act upon societal problems, they may also engender future issues that we do not even have solutions for or that we are not even aware of that can become a potential threat to democracies.

In their op-ed for the New York Times, Brazilian researchers Tardáguila, Benevenuto and Ortellado asked for WhatsApp to act upon the spread of fake news in Brazil by taking three simple measures: restricting the forward functionality (number of times that a message could be forwarded, the broadcast functionality (the number of contacts to whom a user could broadcast a message), and the size of new groups.28 The company responded that there was not enough time to implement these measures, not even temporarily. Others have also tried: fact-checking organizations have asked “to create built-in fact-checking tools in order to tackle fake news,”29 but were told that WhatsApp’s “best-in-class spam detection technology” would suffice.

This, we argue, is a deliberate choice and indicates the many ways that these technological artifacts are imbued with politics—though they argue they are not. As Gillespie explains, social networks stemmed from “the freedom the web promised, to host and extend all that participation, expression, and social connection,”30 thus invoking the myth of “open, neutral, egalitarian, and progressive support for activity,”31 which has been conceptualized through the banner of ‘freedom of speech’. We argue that invoking ‘freedom of speech’ is not enough, and distracts from how these platforms, in fact, regulate flows of communication. The companies behind these multi-billion dollar platforms should be held accountable and responsible for their creations, or as the sticker we found in a toilet stall at MIT poses: “Those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm”.

Out of all places to find a powerful quote, we found this at a toilet stall at MIT Stratton Student Center

1Constine, Josh. “WhatsApp Hits 1.5 Billion Monthly Users. $19B? Not so Bad.” TechCrunch. January 31, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018.

2Dahir, Abdi Latif. “WhatsApp and Facebook Are Driving Kenya’s Fake News Cycle.” Quartz Africa. July 24, 2017. Accessed November 07, 2018.

3Goel, Vindu, Suhasini Raj, and Priyadarshini Ravichandran. “How WhatsApp Leads Mobs to Murder in India.” The New York Times. July 18, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018.

4Molteni, Megan. “When WhatsApp’s Fake News Problem Threatens Public Health.” Wired. March 11, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018.  

5Wagner, Kurt. “WhatsApp Will Drastically Limit Forwarding across the Globe to Stop the Spread of Fake News, following Violence in India and Myanmar.” Recode. July 20, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018.

6Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “Facebook Admits Failings over Incitement to Violence in Myanmar.” The Guardian. November 06, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. .   

7Funke, Daniel. “WhatsApp on Its Misinformation Problem: ‘Fact-checking Is Going to Be Essential’.” Poynter. July 09, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018.

8Gillespie, Tarleton. Custodians of the Internet Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, p.21.

9Pesquisa Brasileira de Mídia 2015: Hábitos de Consumo de Mídia Pela População Brasileira. Publication. Secretaria de Comunicação Social, Presidência da República. Brasília: Secom, 2014. 47-64.

10Measuring the Information Society Report 2017. Accessed November 07, 2018.   

11Ibid., passim.

12“Fixed broadband subscriptions (per 100 people).” Fixed broadband subscriptions (per 100 people) |Data. 2015. Accessed November 05, 2018.

13La Nueva Revolucion Digital. Publication. Unidad de Innovación y Nuevas Tecnologías de la División de Desarrollo Productivo y Empresarial, Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe. Santiago: United Nations, 2016.

14Fenez, Marcel, and Estela Vieira. Brazil: Leading the Digital Media Revolution in Latin America.  Report. PriceWaterhouseCoopers . 2014. Accessed November 4, 2018.

15Although a net neutrality law has been passed in Brazil (Marco Civil da Internet) in 2014, ISPs have been able to get away with it.

16Saboia, Fernanda. “The Rise of WhatsApp in Brazil Is About More than Just Messaging.” Harvard Business Review. April 15, 2016. Accessed November 07, 2018.

17Kirby, Jen. “Corruption, Fake News, and WhatsApp: How Bolsonaro Won Brazil.” Vox. October 29, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018.

18Ruvolo, Julie. “Why Brazil Is Actually Winning The Internet.” BuzzFeed. June 29, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2018.

19“WhatsApp Bloqueado: Relembre Todos Os Casos De Suspensão Do App.” Tecnologia E Games. July 19, 2016. Accessed November 07, 2018.

20Napoli, Philip, and Robyn Caplan. “Why Media Companies Insist Theyre Not Media Companies, Why They’re Wrong, and Why It Matters.” First Monday 22, no. 5 (2017). doi:10.5210/fm.v22i5.7051.

21“Datafolha – Instituto De Pesquisas.” 24% Dos Eleitores Usam Whatsapp Para Compartilhar Conteúdo Eleitoral – 27/10/2018 – Opinião Pública – Datafolha. Accessed November 07, 2018.

22Alessi, Gil. “A Tragicomédia Das Mentiras Que Moldam as Eleições No WhatsApp.” EL PAÍS. October 05, 2018. Accessed November 08, 2018.

23Gragnani, Juliana. “Pesquisa Inédita Identifica Grupos De Família Como Principal Vetor De Notícias Falsas No WhatsApp – BBC News Brasil.” BBC News. April 20, 2018. Accessed November 08, 2018.

24Nalon, Tai. “Did WhatsApp Help Bolsonaro Win the Brazilian Presidency?” The Washington Post. November 01, 2018. Accessed November 08, 2018.

25While the official publication is yet to be announced, we are here based on the preliminary research findings that have been reported on Publica, which can be found at

26“Grupos Pró-Bolsonaro No WhatsApp Orquestram Fake News E Ataques Pessoais Na Internet, Diz Pesquisa.” Agência Pública. October 22, 2018. Accessed November 08, 2018.   

27Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science359, no. 6380 (2018): 1146-151. doi:10.1126/science.aap9559.

28TardÁguila, Cristina, Fabrício Benevenuto, and Pablo Ortellado. “Fake News Is Poisoning Brazilian Politics. WhatsApp Can Stop It.” The New York Times. October 17, 2018. Accessed November 08, 2018.

29Nalon, Tai. “Did WhatsApp Help Bolsonaro Win the Brazilian Presidency?” The Washington Post. November 01, 2018. Accessed November 08, 2018.

30Gillespie, Tarleton. Custodians of the Internet Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, p.5.

31Gillespie, Tarleton. “The Politics of ‘Platforms’.” New Media & Society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347-64. doi:10.1177/1461444809342738, p.6.