Natália Leal, fake news hunter: profession on the rise in Brazil | International

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Natália Leal, director of Agencia Lupa, in her office and home in Rio de Janeiro.Leonardo Carrato

The baby bottles with penis-shaped teats that the Workers' Party (PT) was going to deliver to daycare centers in the event of victory were the protagonists of some of the fake news most notorious of the 2018 electoral campaign, which were decisive in scaring many voters and bringing Jair Bolsonaro to power. Four years later, fake news is once again spreading like wildfire through Brazilian cell phones, although rather than dwelling on the dangers of a supposed "gay dictatorship" or the return of communism, the fashionable trend now is the attack on the electronic voting, as explained in an interview at her home in Rio de Janeiro Natália Leal, executive director of the Lupa Agency.

Leal directs a team of 30 journalists scattered throughout Brazil dedicated to cross-checking information, going to the source, looking for data, correcting or refuting political statements, and warning about hoaxes that are growing like snowballs on the Internet. These days, this and other fact-checking agencies are fuming. With candidates making dozens of statements a day, the work is piling up. Televised debates, for example, are accompanied in real time by these fact checkers.

Much of the Leal team's effort goes into denying that a Venezuelan company is going to count the votes, that Brazil is the only country where the vote is not printed, or that the electronic ballot boxes (which Brazil has been using without problems for more than 25 years and now Bolsonaro questions) cannot be audited. 85% of Brazilians believe that fake news can influence the electoral result, according to a recent IPEC survey. “It is the path followed by the extreme right to undo things that are pillars of democracy. This work of destroying institutional consensus has been consolidated in the last four years”, laments the journalist.

In this time there have been timid advances in the fight against disinformation. The Supreme Court launched an investigation to find out how the machinery for spreading lies installed around Bolsonaro, the famous "cabinet of hate", is financed, and a few months ago the Electoral Justice signed agreements with the main platforms (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc.). WhatsApp, Twitter, etc) so that the same mistakes from years ago are not repeated during this campaign. Even so, Leal believes that the platforms do "very little" with respect to the size of the responsibility they have, and regrets that well-intentioned statements with few specifics abound. It still costs them to remove fraudulent content, and above all to do it quickly.

YouTube, Facebook or Twitter have removed some videos in which Bolsonaro uttered lies, such as when he attacked the polls in a meeting with ambassadors or when he linked covid-19 vaccines to the risk of contracting HIV. This is not always the case, most of the time the president's lies come out for free. According to a count by another verification agency, Aos Fatos, since he came to government, Bolsonaro has made 6,298 lies or false statements, many of them constantly repeated.

“This is the big challenge, because it's not just about what your uncle writes on WhatsApp. It is the institutionalized lie, ”says Leal, who especially remembers the difficulties that she and her team had when it came to contrasting information during the pandemic. Official sources could not be used so automatically, because the official sources were, for example, a Ministry of Health that at times, and following Bolsonaro's orders, said that chloroquine was effective against covid-19, something without any scientific basis.

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In the post-truth era, lies are not exclusive to Bolsonarism. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, to argue that his government did a lot for transparency and the fight against corruption, usually boasts about the creation of the Financial Activities Control Council (COAF), which is actually the property of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. A prominent lulista on the rise, deputy André Janones, with millions of followers on social networks, is also quite prone to distorting reality in his favor, and even defended the use of the adversary's methods to win elections. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," he said when asking for false information to be disclosed as much as possible, attributing to Bolsonaro cuts in the salary rights of nurses.

Although no one is free from fake news, there is no possible equidistance. Misinformation, the power of social networks and the discredit of the press are in the DNA of Bolsonarism, and in Leal's opinion it has a lot to do with historical and cultural issues that are deeply rooted in Brazilian society: "In Brazil, the dynamic of disinformation has to do with privilege and power, with the maintenance of status quo. The extreme right that we see today in Brazil in power grew out of a feeling of loss of privileges that was created in a middle elite”, he says, pointing out that false narratives are created within the framework of that strategy in order not to lose privileges.

Accustomed to receiving attacks and threats, like many Brazilian journalists in recent years, Leal regrets having to spend time planning how to get her reporters out of the country quickly in the event of more serious danger. He assumes that the work of fact checkers is a drop in the ocean, because the majority of the population that consumes and spreads false news does not stop to read his work or that of the traditional press, but despite this constant frustration, he assures that now at least there is awareness that there is a problem, and highlights the importance of educating the look of the youngest so that they are alert. "The way is education, and it is not for this generation," she warns. The eye will have to be more and more attentive. In this campaign, for example, videos made with technology have triumphed. deep fakewhich use artificial intelligence to put into the mouths of the most famous television news presenters that Bolsonaro is leading the voting intention polls, something that has not happened to date.

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