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Strike four: Facebook misses election misinformation in Brazil ads

Global Watchdog group claims Facebook fails to catch false Brazilian election ads, despite declaring it ‘priority’ county to tackle disinformation.

August 15, 2022
By Barbara Ortutay and Diane Jeantet
15 August 2022

Facebook failed to detect blatant election-related misinformation in ads ahead of Brazil’s 2022 election, a new report from Global Witness has found.

The group says it continues an “alarming” pattern of the platform not catching material that violates its policies.

The advertisements contained false information about the country’s upcoming election, such as promoting the wrong election date, incorrect voting methods and questioning integrity, including Brazil’s electronic voting system.

Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, and current president Jair Bolsonaro (AP Photos)

It is the fourth time that the London-based non-profit group Global Witness has tested Meta’s ability to catch blatant violations of its most popular social media platform’s rules – and the fourth such test Facebook has failed.

In three prior instances, Global Witness submitted advertisements containing violent hate speech to see if Facebook’s controls, either human reviewers or artificial intelligence, would catch them. They did not.

Jon Lloyd, senior advisor at Global Witness, said Facebook had identified Brazil as a “priority country … investing special resources specifically to tackle election-related disinformation.

“We wanted to really test out their systems with enough time for them to act. And with the US midterms around the corner, Meta simply has to get this right – and right now.”

Brazil’s national elections will be held on October 2, amid high tensions and disinformation threatening to discredit the electoral process.

Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the country and in a statement, Meta said it had “prepared extensively” for the Brazilian election.

“We’ve launched tools that promote reliable information and label election-related posts, established a direct channel for the Superior Electoral Court (Brazil’s electoral authority) to send us potentially-harmful content for review, and continue closely collaborating with Brazilian authorities and researchers,” the company said.

In its previous investigations, the group found that Facebook did not catch hate speech in ads regarding Myanmar, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Safeguards from US elections ‘not working’

In 2020, Facebook began requiring advertisers wanting to run ads about elections or politics to complete an authorization process and include “paid for by” disclaimers on them, similar to what it does in the US.

The increased safeguards follow the 2016 US presidential elections, when Russia used rubles to pay for political ads designed to stoke divisions and unrest among Americans.

Global Witness said it broke these rules when it submitted the test ads (which were approved for publication but never actually published). The group placed the ads from Nairobi and London, which should have raised red flags.

(Facebook’s) content moderation capabilities and integrity systems … are just not working

Jon Lloyd, Global Witness

It was also not required to put a “paid for by” disclaimer on the ads and did not use a Brazilian payment method – all safeguards Facebook says it had put in place to prevent misuse of its platform by malicious actors trying to intervene in elections around the world.

“What’s quite clear from the results of this investigation and others is that their content moderation capabilities and the integrity systems that they deploy in order to mitigate some of the risk during election periods, it’s just not working,” Lloyd said.

The group is using ads as a test, not regular posts, because Meta claims to hold advertisements to an “even stricter” standard than regular, unpaid posts, according to its help center page for paid advertisements.

Judging from the four investigations, Lloyd said that was not actually clear.

“We we are constantly having to take Facebook at their word. And without a verified independent third party audit, we just can’t hold Meta or any other tech company accountable for what they say they’re doing,” he said.

Global Witness submitted 10 ads to Meta that violated its policies around election-related advertising.

In another study carried out by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, researchers identified more than two dozen ads on Facebook and Instagram in July that promoted misleading information or attacked the country’s electronic voting machines.

The university’s internet and social media department, NetLab, which also participated in the Global Witness study, found that many of those had been financed by candidates running for a seat at a federal or state legislature.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro launches his re-election bid in July (Bruna Prado / AP Photo)

This will be Brazil’s first election since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, seeking re-election, came to power. Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked the integrity of the country’s electronic voting system.

Global Witness said disinformation featured “heavily” in the country’s 2018 election and this year’s election was “already marred by reports of widespread disinformation, spread from the very top”.

“Bolsonaro is already seeding doubt about the legitimacy of the election result, leading to fears of a United States-inspired January 6 ‘stop the steal’ style coup attempt,” the group said.

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