SÃO PAULO — If you only got your news from social media, you might be mistaken for thinking that Jair Bolsonaro is leading the polls for Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections, which will take place this Sunday. Such a view flies in the face of what most of the polling institutes registered with the Superior Electoral Court indicate.
An exclusive investigation by the Brazilian investigative journalism agency Agência Pública has revealed how the most interacted-with and shared posts in Brazil on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp share data and polls that suggest victory is certain for the incumbent Bolsonaro, as well as propagating conspiracy theories based on false allegations that research institutes carrying out polling have been bribed by Bolsonaro’s main rival, former president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, or by his party, the Workers’ Party.
Agência Pública’s reporters analyzed the most-shared posts containing the phrase “pesquisa eleitoral” [electoral polls] in the period between the official start of the campaigning period, on August 16, to September 6. The analysis revealed that the most interacted-with and shared posts on social media spread false information or predicted victory for Jair Bolsonaro.
Of the ten most-shared videos about the issue on Facebook, four of them were made by Gustavo Gayer, a pro-Bolsonaro influencer and congressional candidate for the same party as the president.Topping the list is a video in which Gayer tries to discredit Datafolha, an independent polling institute that is part of the the media conglomerate Grupo Folha, whose most recent poll for the presidential race shows Lula leading the way on 48% of voting intentions, with Bolsonaro lagging behind on 34%.
In the video, Gayer says that “not a single person with an ounce of intelligence believes in Datafolha” and challenges the decision by a judge that granted a request by the Workers’ Party to block the publication of a Datafolha poll on the contest for the state government of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, because of methodological inconsistencies. Gayer’s video was published on August 24 and has received more than 40,000 interactions, 28,000 likes, and 9,000 shares.
Facebook paid promotion of fake survey
Agência Pública’s investigation found that a majority of the 50 viral posts that were analyzed either sought to discredit traditional polling agencies (20%, 10 posts) or shared polls which predicted victory for Jair Bolsonaro or put him neck-to-neck with Lula (38%, 18 posts). 12 posts, generally made by journalistic outlets, were considered to be neutral in character, while five posts were made by left-wing politicians who shared polls predicting victory for Lula. Of the remaining posts, four engaged with a different issue and one spread disinformation about the safety of Brazil’s electronic voting system.
In the second-most shared post about the electoral polls, Gayer claims that the traditional polling agencies “are trying to always show Lula in the lead and Bolsonaro rejected [by the electorate],” because “they need the public money to flow freely as it did in the past”. The influencer goes on to recommend a poll in which his preferred candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, is forecast to win the elections.
The poll in question was carried out by Grupo 6 Sigma, and was also reported on in a post on the pro-Bolsonaro blog Jornal da Cidade Online under the headline: “The electoral poll that the mainstream media is desperately trying to hide”. The blog post contained a link to Gayer’s video, which is monetized on YouTube and has already received more than 363,000 views and 89,000 likes. The influencer cited the poll again on a Facebook post he made a week later. Grupo 6 Sigma’s analysis has been registered with the Supreme Electoral Court (BR-04937/2022).
Facebook has also allowed the paid promotion of a survey about the presidential race, something that is an electoral crime in Brazil since Brazilian law prohibits “the carrying out of surveys related to the electoral process, during the electoral campaigning period”. The survey, promoted by a congressional candidate, asks: “Aren’t you sick of these polls bankrolled by the trash Globo Network [sic], which always show the thief [Lula] in the lead?”. The post was promoted at least four times on Facebook and Instagram, costing approximately 400 reais ($75) in total, according to data from the Facebook Ad Library.
Bogus poll of Lula at 17%
“Bolsonaro is winning today in every state, because the people want him to continue!”, read the most-shared message on WhatsApp and Telegram, according to reports generated at the request of Agência Pública by the Eleições Sem Fake [Elections Without Fakes] project, carried out by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). The message asks people to forward the text to at least ten contacts. “Show that you want to see someone honest sitting in the president’s chair of a renewed Brazil by passing on to your friends!”. On WhatsApp the text was sent 124 times by 105 different users and appeared in 87 groups, while on Telegram it appeared 28 times across 12 groups. The poll that the message purports to cite, however, does not exist.
The second-most shared message on the two platforms claimed that a group within the Supreme Federal Court (STF) want to impeach Bolsonaro’s candidacy in the face of supposed pressure from “Lula, Zé Dirceu [the former national president of the Workers’ Party], and the PCC [First Command of the Capital, Brazil’s biggest organized crime group]” after they realized that Lula was set to lose the elections. “In an INTERNAL, NOT-FAKED poll, the Workers’ Party discovered that Lula HAS ONLY 17% of votes and that BOLSONARO WINS in the first round with 62% of votes”, the message claims, using all-caps for emphasis. The text was sent 115 times by 93 users across 94 WhatsApp groups, and was identified 16 times on Telegram across 11 groups. The claim is also based on another lie.
On Twitter, of the 20 most-retweeted posts during the period studied, six sought to discredit the polling agencies, representing 30% of the total sample size. Another eight posts shared polls that forecast a Bolsonaro victory, something at odds with the majority of polling analysis. One post even claimed that Bolsonaro would go into a second-round runoff against the third-placed candidate, Ciro Gomes. These 14 posts were retweeted more than 12,000 times, and received over 70,000 likes. The other six of the 20 most-retweeted posts were either neutral or talked about a different issue.
“The racket is over”
Contrary to the prevailing narrative pushed by Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters, former president Lula da Silva continues to lead the presidential race in almost all polls – something that has been confirmed by the newspaper Estadão’s poll aggregator, which takes into consideration data from 14 major analysis institutes.
“The racket is over. Now they’re going to have to rely on Globo [Brazil’s largest media conglomerate] to pay half a million for Datafolha’s shoddy polling”, reads the most retweeted post of the investigation. In the post, journalist Paulo Figueiredo Filho, from Jovem Pan News – an outlet known as being one of Bolsonaro’s most vociferous outriders – claims that the Datafolha polls are only predicting a Lula victory because the organization stopped receiving public funding during the Bolsonaro administration. The post appears in second place in the ranking of the most liked content on Twitter that was the subject of Agência Pública’s investigation, with more than 9,600 likes.
The prevailing discourse online has been useful to Bolsonaro and his allies off it. “Here we don’t have the lying Datafolha, here is our Datapovo [Datapeople]”, Jair Bolsonaro said from the top of a car equipped with a sound system during the commemorative act for the Bicentennial of the Independence of Brazil, on September 7 this year, in Brasília, using a play on words to suggest that the crowds he draws to his rallies say more about the reality of his popularity than polls ever could. On the same day, the presenter of the event claimed that there were a million people in attendance – whereas the website Poder360 estimated that the crowd numbered 115,000 people at most. Inflated or not, the number of participants at the event, which was turned into an electoral rally, was used by government supporters to suggest that Bolsonaro was on track to win the elections and that the polls pointing to a Lula victory were rigged.
For Felipe Borba, a political scientist and professor at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Unirio), polls help the voter to form a picture of the current state of the electoral process. “Voting is not just an individual decision, it’s a collective decision. If the voter realizes that in isolation he does not have the capacity to influence, he looks for alternatives according to what others are also doing,” Borba said.
Risk of influence
Consequently, Borba believes that the spreading of false information about polls and polling agencies is dangerous, since it can influence voters and lead them to take “wrong” decisions that run “contrary to their preferences”.
Borba explained that it is normal for a candidate to emphasize and publicize a poll in which they are leading, but added that “if you have a poll that diverges from all the others, it doesn’t mean that it is incorrect, but it does attract attention for not fitting within the larger [data] set”.
Samara Castro, a lawyer specialized in electoral law and the communications coordinator for the Brazilian Academy of Electoral and Political Law (Abradep), believes that Bolsonaro’s supporters are creating a narrative that the electoral polls are untrustworthy in order to disrupt the electoral process. After discrediting traditional analysis, they suggest other forms of analysis that predict victory for their preferred candidate.
“[Alternative polls and surveys] are part of a narrative and are a great help in discrediting the electoral system,” the lawyer assessed.
In response to Agência Pública’s report, YouTube said that it is “an open video platform where anyone can share content, which is subject to review in accordance with our community guidelines”. The network’s press office said in a call that Gustavo Gayer’s videos criticizing the polling agencies do not violate their guidelines.
The influencer Gustavo Geyer responded to the questions put to him by Agência Pública’s reporters with the following message: “I’m lying in bed eating popcorn while I watch the desperation of the press and ‘fact-checking agencies’ over the defeat of the nine-fingered thief [a reference to former president Lula]. That’s my position”.
WhatsApp said that it “is the messaging platform that most actively cooperates with the authorities in order to protect the integrity of the elections” and cited cooperation agreements with the Superior Electoral Court and regional electoral courts, featuring measures that enable voters to interact with the electoral authorities and have access to verified content related to the electoral process.
Facebook responded to Agência Pública’s questions and requested the data used in the report for internal analysis. Agência Pública shared all the information that was requested, however the social media platform decided not to offer comment. The case was the same with Twitter.