A second plague is plaguing Brazil’s flooded south: disinformation

SAO PAULO (AP) — While the floods that have devastated Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state have not yet abated, another scourge has spread across the region: disinformation on social media that has hampered desperate efforts to get aid to hundreds of thousands in emergency has hindered.

Among the false reports that have sparked outrage: that official authorities are not carrying out rescue operations in Brazil’s southernmost state. That bureaucracy prevents donations of food, water and clothing. One persistent rumor claims that authorities are hiding hundreds of bodies, said Jairo Jorge, mayor of the hard-hit city of Canoas.

Jorge and other officials say hidden actors behind the messages are exploiting the crisis to undermine confidence in the government.

Ary Vanazzi, mayor of Sao Leopoldo, said many people ignored official warnings and instead heeded social media posts saying government warnings were “just politicians trying to alarm people.”

“That is why many have not left their homes during this emergency. Some may have died from it,” Vanazzi told The Associated Press. “Sometimes we spend more time defending ourselves against lies than helping our people.”

Floods over the past two weeks have killed at least 149 people, and more than 100 are still missing, state authorities said Wednesday. More than 600,000 people have been driven from their homes.

Brazil became a hotbed of disinformation ahead of the 2018 elections won by Jair Bolsonaro. During his presidency, opponents often had to fend off digital attacks. The Supreme Court has since launched one of the world’s most aggressive efforts to root out coordinated disinformation campaigns, led by one controversial judge in particular who is overseeing an investigation into the spread of false news. He has ordered social media platforms to delete dozens of accounts.

The military was spared online mudslinging during the presidency of Bolsonaro, a former captain who is a fierce opponent of his successor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But it has become a target for far-right hostility under Lula, with social media users attacking military leaders for taking orders from the left-wing president, said Alexandre Aragão, editor-in-chief of fact-checking agency Aos Fatos.

Several videos posted online insinuate that soldiers are not participating in rescue efforts. Others mock soldiers’ supposed lack of equipment, using images of a truck stuck in the water. The general who heads the army’s southern command told CNN Brasil that one rumor claimed he was responsible for non-existent deaths in a hospital.

The military says and local agencies deployed 31,000 soldiers, police and others to rescue more than 69,000 people and 10,000 animals and deliver tons of aid by plane and boat. Brazil’s federal government has announced it will spend nearly 51 billion reais ($10 billion) on recovery, provide credit to farmers and small businesses and suspend the state’s 11 billion reais annual debt service.

“These reports are disturbing because they do not reflect reality,” the command said in a statement to the AP. “Many active military personnel were also victims of these floods. Many soldiers lost their homes after the rain and remain on the front lines to help the population.”

Spurred by complaints from military personnel, Brazil’s government is calling on social media platforms to stop the spread of disinformation, Attorney General Jorge Messias said in an interview.

As of Tuesday evening, all had expressed their willingness to cooperate — except X, Messias’ office said. The platform’s owner, Elon Musk, recently railed against a Supreme Court judge’s decisions to restrict users’ accounts, accusing him of undermining freedom of expression and drawing praise from Bolsonaro and his allies. X did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Messias’ office has also filed a lawsuit against a social media influencer who alleged that a single businessman — and a staunch Bolsonaro supporter — sent more planes to support rescue efforts than the entire Brazilian air force. The government is demanding the right to comment on the Instagram profile of influencer Pablo Marçal, an outspoken critic of Lula with almost 10 million followers.

The swarm of disinformation in times of crisis amounts to a “tragedy within a tragedy,” Messias said. “When we stop everything in our power to respond to fake news, we divert public resources and energy from what really matters, which is serving the public.”

Nearly a third of people surveyed by pollster Quaest reported being exposed to false news about the floods, according to the poll conducted from May 2 to 6. The test was conducted in 120 cities nationwide and had a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points.

Disinformation creates a hostile environment for first responders. According to the mayors of Sao Leopoldo and Canoas, locals have accused state and municipal agents of acting too slowly and threatened to expose them online. They also shouted at firefighters over reports that they had failed to save people and pets. Some people posing as volunteers entered a warehouse of the state’s civil defense agency last week, filmed the aid donations there and posted a video online as alleged proof of the inability to distribute the aid, the agency said.

Last week, in another lie, authorities stopped trucks carrying donations, Aragão said. The reason for this was the story by broadcaster SBT about a truck that was stopped for inspection and which was later released despite being overloaded. Social media posts distorted that report, claiming aid cuts are a widespread phenomenon. The case was demonstrative, Aragão added.

“If a tragedy occurs on the scale of what happened in Rio Grande do Sul, there will of course be isolated cases of absurd things,” he said by phone from Sao Paulo. “Social media sells these real and isolated cases as if they represent official protocol.”

Janine Bargas has been working non-stop on the disaster as a professor at the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre in the state capital. Initially, her job included providing reliable information, such as telling people where they could find needed medications.

Disinformation became so intense that its job now also includes monitoring and unmasking it. That included recommendations for a bogus preventative treatment for a water-borne bacterial disease.

“The same anti-vaccine doctors who recommended chloroquine during COVID began promoting a prophylaxis for leptospirosis,” Bargas told the AP, adding that panic spread over the reports that outbreaks occurred at a shelter run by university staff. “People started fighting and asking for the medicines. And the dosage of this drug can be very toxic to the liver.”

Jorge, the mayor of Canoas, became the target of disinformation just hours after the flooding began. A post, shared millions of times on messaging apps, showed a fight that allegedly took place at a shelter in Canoas due to a decree that all donations go through City Hall. The brawl actually took place in the state of Ceara, on the other side of the vast country, and Jorge issued no such decision.

The falsehoods are “orchestrated, designed to make people stop believing in public agents,” he said. “Every time a natural disaster occurs, there is a wave of solidarity. But not this time; there has also been a wave of anger caused by misinformation.”


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