A Letter to WhatsApp about Brazilian 2018 Elections

Dear WhatsApp representatives,

We call your attention to the widespread abuse of the WhatsApp platform for dissemination of false content related to the 2018 presidential election in Brazil.

According to the results of an academic research, corroborated by a poll conducted recently by one of the major newspapers in Brazil, WhatsApp and other social media have been used massively for political campaigning, but supporters of one candidate in particular, Jair Bolsonaro, are enlisted as the top distributors of fake news. A Brazilian research group evaluated WhatsApp group messages and determined that 56% of the images that were circulated were either false, taken out of context, or without any factual support.

It is hard to dispute the argument that the Internet is, in principle, a very important medium of democratic societies: the more information we made available to our citizens, the better they can choose their candidates. What is happening currently in Brazil, however, does not relate at all to the positive effects of networked information dissemination, but, rather, the very opposite. What is the most alarming fact is the wide dissemination of discourses of hate and despise for human rights. Examples include the celebration of torture, violence, and military intervention which circulate freely through WhatsApp groups, reaching millions of the least informed in Brazil, and finding in them active propagating agents.

In addition to private channels of misinformation which are very popular in the country, marketing firms are also known to provide services to support candidates using the platform through the distribution of campaign materials, which is an illegal practice in Brazil when performed with "bots" with foreign numbers and without official and public registry by a political party. One of the major newspapers in Brazil has recently reported that political marketing firms, one of them a representative of Cambridge Analytica, has been providing services for Jair Bolsonaro. There is evidence that illegal funding is coming from big companies, but the sources could not yet be determined.

This message is not meant as a political call: this is not a call for deciding which political party to support in the upcoming Brazilian elections. This is a call from an independent group of technologists who are not affiliated with any political party whatsoever. This is a call for urgent intervention of platform operators to help us identify and block major misinformation distribution hubs but also, of first and foremost urgency, to prevent, as much as possible, the dissemination of imagery and discourse that incites violence and hatred on the Internet. To support our call, we cite here the document "Legal and Accepted Use" which WhatsApp users must agree not to use or assist others in using the services for disseminating content that is

    (b) obscene, defamatory, threating, intimidating, harassing, hateful,
    racially or ethnically offensive, or instigate and encourage conduct that
    would be illegal or otherwise inappropriate, including promoting violent
    crimes;" and "(c) involve publishing falsehoods, misrepresentations, or
    misleading statements
    

We count on your help to make the Internet a better place for everyone, while preventing the abuse of the WhatsApp platform for political manipulation which goes currently as far as to determine the results of political elections. Please count on us to continue on with our efforts to educate the Brazilian population about the risks of misinformation as well as to organize a taskforce to identify major sources of fake news and hate speech among WhatsApp users. In our taskforce thus far we have identified several users and "bots" which are currently being used to spread misinformation during the Brazilian elections, whereas many of them are operated from foreign phone numbers. This is a small subset of all sources of hate speech we identified, but we are sure that WhatsApp can employ automated and sofisticated analytics to identify the whole network of perpetrators from this small seed we provide below. We gathered only information that was circulating freely through WhatsApp users and groups.

We request your support to take immediate action:

Please join us and reinforce your commitment with a plural and democratic society by sending Brazilian WhatsApp users a message that our Internet is not the place for political manipulation and hate.

Sincerely,
Brazilian Technologists for Plurality and Democracy

List of service abusers: