The Rise of the Censorship Industrial Complex in Brazil

Spread the word

 by David Agape

With research assistance from Leandro Souza and Rachel Diaz

The global influence of the Censorship Industrial Complex (CIC) is becoming more apparent, with Brazil emerging as a notable example. Contrary to the perception that Brazil plays a minor role in this context, the country stands out for its advanced stage of repression and censorship. This is despite international human rights institutions not classifying Brazil as an autocracy. In recent years, journalists and political activists, predominantly from the right, have been forced into exile due to what they describe as judicial persecution. Various organizations, like the Atlantic Council, have significantly contributed to the decline of freedom of expression in Brazil, as denounced by Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger and others.

 

In Brazil, the CIC’s operations are uniquely adapted to the country’s context, though they reflect global patterns. It operates through a network that includes government agencies, particularly the judiciary, NGOs funded by international entities, academic institutions and big techs. Brazil’s role is pivotal in the CIC’s global framework, and the situation within the country is expected to deteriorate further. In 2020, the Brazilian Congress introduced the controversial “Fake News Bill“, intended to regulate social networks. Presented as a measure to uphold democracy and counter misinformation, critics argue that the bill threatens freedom of speech by granting the government excessive control over determining the veracity of information. The bill’s passage stalled last year due to insufficient legislative support, but it remains a priority for allies of the current president, Lula da Silva, in 2024.

 

The demand for such regulatory legislation has been primarily advocated in the context of political polarization and an increase in violent incidents in schools, which supporters of the bill attribute to the influence of the Brazilian far-right. This narrative gained momentum following two incidents in December 2023: the alleged hacker attack against the X profile of First Lady Janja and the suicide of a 22-year-old woman, a victim of sustained online harassment and misinformation, fueled by certain gossip websites.

 

Notably, some of the bill’s proponents are tied to the same advertising agency representing the gossip pages implicated in the suicide incident. This connection underscores a network of influencers who have been instrumental in shaping public discourse, including their significant involvement in Lula’s 2022 presidential campaign. Lula himself has frequently acknowledged the critical role of these influencers in his electoral success, framing their efforts on social media as “voluntary” and emphasizing their continued importance in countering what he calls a “web of lies”.

 

Key Organizations in Brazil’s Censorship Industrial Complex

 

1.    Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) of the Atlantic Council

 

Role in Brazil:

 

DFRLab produced a pivotal report, using data from Meta, that pinpointed “inauthentic and coordinated” activities on Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to President Jair Bolsonaro’s inner circle, including his sons Flávio and Eduardo. The report detailed the use of memes to undermine the president’s former allies and the spread of disinformation.

 

Impact on Brazilian Censorship:

 

This report was the inception of a so-called “Hate Cabinet” within the government, allegedly targeting Bolsonaro’s detractors on social media. This concept became a focal point during Bolsonaro’s tenure and was notably discussed in the Fake News Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry.

 

Furthermore, the DFRLab’s findings were instrumental in a Brazilian Supreme Federal Court (STF) investigation into the dissemination of fake news by Bolsonaro’s supporters. This inquiry, led by Justice Alexandre de Moraes of the (STF), remains under wraps and has faced an accusation at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for potential human rights abuses.

 

Brazilian Connections:

 

The Hate Cabinet theory was partly attributed to a power struggle within Bolsonaro’s government between military factions and conservatives over Apex, a government entity focused on promoting Brazilian exports and foreign investments. Following the publication of DFRLab’s report on July 9, 2020, Apex terminated its contract with the Atlantic Council.

 

DFRLab also collaborated with Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE), providing employee training in 2020, sponsored by the Vero Institute, established by YouTuber Felipe Neto. This training emphasized identifying and combating disinformation, using Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) methods for network analysis. Additionally, the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) hosted online conferences in 2022 with TSE participation, delving into technological decision-making.

 

2.    Information Futures Lab (IFL)

 

Role in Brazil:

 

The Information Futures Lab (IFL) of Brown University, previously known as First Draft, under the guidance of founder Claire Wardle, played a critical role in establishing Comprova, a consortium of 24 brazilian news organizations dedicated to fact-checking. Initially supported by the Open Society, Google News Initiative, and Meta Journalism Project, Comprova also received backing from the U.S. Embassy in Brazil.

 

Influence on Censorship:

 

Wardle’s concept of “informational disorder” was utilized by the TSE to justify censoring Brasil Paralelo, a conservative film producer, during the release of a documentary addressing corruption cases related to the government of ex-President Lula. The then-Justice Ricardo Lewandowski — now the main candidate to be Lula’s Minister of Justice -– argued that although the content did not contain falsehoods, the ongoing legal processes led to potential confusion to the voters. According to Brazilian legal experts, this concept is not recognized in Brazilian law. In the 2022 elections, the TSE actively censored various conservative figures on social media, many of whom remain silenced by judicial orders.

 

The Comprova project is a partner of the TSE in the Permanent Program to Combat Disinformation. In its theoretical framework, the program used reports produced by the Stanford Internet Observatory, the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center, the United States Agency for International Development, the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), the DFR Lab & Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and the Aspen Institute.

 

Wardle was a researcher at the Shorenstein Center, where First Draft was located in 2017 before being installed at Brown University. In April 2022, Shorenstein hosted the event: Democracy, populism and social media: questions and answers with STF Justice, Luís Roberto Barroso.

 

Brazilian Connections:

 

Wardle participated in several events and initiatives in Brazil, including lectures and seminars, such as the International Seminar on Disinformation and Elections held by the TSE, in 2021, and the 14th International Congress of Investigative Journalism promoted by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), an organization founder of Comprova.

 

3.    Meedan

 

Role in Brazil:

 

In the latest presidential election, Meedan partnered with Brazilian fact-checking agencies for the “Confirma 2022” project. This initiative aimed to counter disinformation in WhatsApp by enabling the TSE to disseminate fact-checks via a bot. Meedan’s Check software was a cornerstone of this effort.

 

Influence on Censorship:

 

The Brazilian Federal Courts, TSE and STF, stand out as the main agents of censorship in Brazil. For many, the actions of these courts, in large-scale censorship of Bolsonaro supporters during the election period, played a crucial role in Lula’s election.

 

Brazilian Connections:

 

Besides TSE, Meedan have relationships in Brazil with the checking agencies Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos, Projeto Comprova, Estadão Verifica, Universo Online (UOL) and Fato ou Fake.

 

4.    Poynter Institute:

 

Role in Brazil:

 

Poynter certified Brazilian fact-checking agencies like Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos, UOL Confere and Estadão through the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN). These agencies have faced criticism for alleged inaccuracies and biases, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic by classifying as false controversial issues such as the origin of the coronavirus and the effectiveness of masks.

 

Influence on Censorship:

 

Their activities have led to increased censorship and content control on Brazilian social media. Meta and Google, among others, have used these agencies’ fact-checks to moderate content, often stifling debates on unresolved scientific matters. During elections, these fact-checks became the basis for TSE’s directives to internet providers to remove specific content. The IFCN refused to punish fact-checking agencies that violated its fundamental principles like nonpartisanship, fairness and correction policy, as reported by the newspaper Gazeta do Povo.

 

Brazilian Connections:

 

In Brazil, journalists who are supportive of President Lula’s administration, along with fact-checking agencies accredited by renowned institutions, are often viewed favorably by the public. The endorsement from the Poynter Institute lends these agencies an added layer of credibility, enhancing the public’s perception that they are dedicated to uncovering the truth, upholding democratic values, and practicing responsible journalism. This credibility is further bolstered by the recognition and support from notable political figures. As a result, these agencies are gaining increasing influence on social media platforms, playing a pivotal role in shaping narratives that challenge the viewpoints of political adversaries.

 

 

5.    Other Notable Organizations:

 

Beyond these entities, there are organizations with ties to Brazil that aren’t immediately apparent. One such group is theCyber Threat Intelligence League (CTIL), established by Ohad Zaidenberg, an ex-Mossad agent. CTIL, known for its censorship and influence tactics, became involved in various official initiatives, including collaborations with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

 

A noteworthy fact is Zaidenberg’s current role as the Head of Intelligence at AB InBev, a global behemoth in the beverage industry and one of the world’s largest breweries. AB InBev’s notable brands include Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois. Its investors feature 3G Capital, a private equity firm co-founded by Brazil’s wealthiest individual, Jorge Paulo Lemann – considered “the Brazilian George Soros”, with an estimated net worth of $15.4 billion –, has drawn attention, especially given Lemann’s support for progressive NGOs and advocacy for the controversial Fake News Bill in Brazil.

 

The gradual restoration of censorship in Brazilian society over the last decade

 

Historical roots of censorship in Brazil

 

Brazil’s history began under the shadow of censorship, a policy imposed from its earliest days as a Portuguese colony. Unlike in other European colonies across the Americas, such as Mexico, the production and distribution of any printed materials in Brazil were strictly prohibited in Brazil. This strategy was designed to control the flow of information and limit the impact of foreign ideas. Despite Brazil’s independence in 1822, the trend of censorship remained prevalent.

 

The nation’s history features cycles of brief democratic openings followed by repressive regimes, notably under the dictator Getúlio Vargas (1937-1945) and the Military Regime (1964-1985), which saw intense censorship affecting journalists, artists, and intellectuals. Although the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, enacted during redemocratization, outlawed explicit censorship and protected freedom of speech, the country is witnessing a revival of censorship, now manifesting in the fight against “fake news” and social media regulation.

 

The institutions’ role in the process

 

Brazil ranks as the third-highest nation globally in terms of social media engagement. This high level of digital interaction amplifies the impact of social media censorship in the country. In a manner reminiscent of the Arab Spring, the proliferation of social media and widespread access to broadband internet were pivotal in Brazil’s June Journeys of 2013. Millions took to the streets to express their discontent with the government of President Dilma Rousseff, the successor of Lula, who led the country into a deep financial crisis. The protests ultimately led to President Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 and the subsequent imprisonment of Lula in 2018 on charges of passive corruption and money laundering.

 

The public’s dissatisfaction with traditional politics created a vacuum in representation. This gap was filled by figures from the conservative and liberal right-wing factions. Among them, Jair Bolsonaro, a Congressman and reserve army captain, rose to prominence with his vehement opposition to the escalating crime rates, which reached war levels under Rousseff’s government. Bolsonaro’s impassioned rhetoric against criminality resonated strongly with a large segment of the Brazilian populace.

 

1.     Media

 

In a political climate reminiscent of the narratives surrounding Russian Collusion and Cambridge Analytica in the United States, which were pivotal in the discourse about President Trump’s election, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro faced a similar controversy. In the critical days leading up to the second round of the presidential election, Bolsonaro’s allies were accused of orchestrating a massive spread of fake news via WhatsApp. This report, which aired just ten days before the voting, sent shockwaves through the Brazilian political landscape. However, the journalist behind the story, Patrícia Campos Mello, from the traditional newspaper Folha de São Paulo, didn’t provide concrete evidence to back her claims. Despite the lack of substantiation, these allegations dogged Bolsonaro throughout his presidency and led to the formation of a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to investigate the matter. Intriguingly, the inquiry later revealed that it was Bolsonaro’s adversaries who had engaged in such tactics.

 

Following a derogatory and sexist remark made by Bolsonaro about Mello, the press rallied in defense of the journalist, catapulting her to international acclaim as a symbol of resistance against censorship. Mello was honored with numerous awards for her controversial reporting and became a prominent figure at global forums, including two conferences hosted by the Atlantic Council in September 2022 and December 2023, where she was a featured speaker. In Brazil, Mello has emerged as a vocal proponent for the regulation of social networks.

 

The Bolsonaro administration, which went through the tumultuous period of the Covid-19 pandemic, witnessed an escalation of censorship in Brazil. During this time, several public figures and organizations, under the guise of addressing public health concerns, endorsed authoritarian measures. Among them was science communicator Átila Iamarino, who, in an article for Folha de São Paulo newspaper, advocated for what he termed “necessary authoritarianism” to suppress anti-vaxx voices in the country. Known for his initial alarmist predictions about the pandemic that did not materialize, Iamarino was later involved in TSE’s campaign against misinformation during elections.

 

Another significant development during this period was the release of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from prison. Lula had been incarcerated since April 7, 2018, after receiving a nine-year and six-month sentence for corruption and money laundering as part of Operation Car Wash, Brazil’s largest corruption investigation. However, he served only one year and seven months. The release was precipitated by a leak of hacked messages from Operation Car Wash prosecutors, published by The Intercept. The reports suggested potential bias and collusion by then-judge Sérgio Moro in securing Lula’s conviction.

 

The hackers responsible for the Telegram breach were quickly identified, but the STF prohibited any investigation against Glenn Greenwald, the founder and then-director of The Intercept in Brazil. Following his release, Lula resumed his presidency, vowing to seek revenge against those who played a role in his imprisonment, including elements of the press, which he and his party pejoratively label as “PIG” (Partido da Imprensa Golpista or Coup-Plotting Press Party). Preceding the elections, Lula declared his intention to regulate social networks, a statement that has sparked widespread debate about freedom of speech and governmental control of media in Brazil.

 

2.     The judicial system

 

In Brazil, a significant public demand is the implementation of printed voting receipts. The Brazilian electoral system, unlike many others globally, employs first-generation electronic voting machines (EVMs), which lack the capability for individual vote recounts. Notably, this method without a paper trail has been discontinued in several nations, including Germany and the Netherlands. As of 2021, Brazil, Bhutan, and Bangladesh were the primary countries fully utilizing this system.

 

Despite its widespread use, the reliability of electronic voting has been a subject of debate among Brazilian experts and politicians from various political alignments. In a notable shift, many who previously criticized the system’s vulnerabilities have recently altered their stance under unexplained circumstances.

 

3.     The electoral system

 

Unlike the United States, where the electoral system is managed by the Judiciary, in Brazil, the electoral process is administered by an independent bureaucratic structure – the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), led by Justice Alexandre de Moraes from STF. The TSE is responsible for conducting, supervising, and coordinating elections based on congressional legislation or internal decisions. The incorporation of printed voting receipts, proposed as an additional feature to electronic voting akin to a “receipt,” was notably advocated by Jair Bolsonaro during his tenure as a congressman.

 

However, the proposal for a printed vote receipt has faced consistent opposition from the STF. In 2012, Justice Cármen Lúcia argued that its implementation would lead to a substantial increase in public spending, while also raising concerns about the potential compromise to voting secrecy. This stance was reaffirmed in 2020 when the STF unanimously deemed printed voting unconstitutional. The TSE supported this decision, stating the lack of evidence that vote printing would enhance electoral integrity.

 

Amidst these debates, in 2022 the Brazilian Armed Forces have reported vulnerabilities in the electronic voting system, highlighting limited access to the source code and software libraries, which could hinder the full understanding and execution of the system’s programming. This concern, coupled with the broader public demand for electoral transparency, has fueled ongoing discussions and demonstrations across Brazil, reflecting a deep-seated desire for reform in the electoral process.

 

 

2022: The Year Censorship Returned to Brazil

 

In response to widespread criticism from various sectors of Brazilian society regarding the 2022 electoral process, TSE turned to censorship, highlighted by a notable declaration from  STF Justice Cármen Lúcia, then-member of the TSE. In a court hearing, broadcasted by YouTube, she controversially assumed the role of a censorship authority within the nation.

 

Lúcia voiced her reservations but ultimately supported the measure, underscoring its temporary nature, intended only until the day following the election’s second round. This measure aimed at safeguarding the electoral process and voter rights. She emphasized that any overreach into censorship should prompt a review to align with Brazil’s Constitution and principles of free expression. Yet, over a year later, this restrictive measure continues, being used by the STF to justify other censorship decisions.

 

Dozens of social media profiles faced judicial ban, including Monark’s, a popular podcaster akin to Joe Rogan. Facing a significant fine and frozen bank accounts, Monark was compelled to leave Brazil. In early 2023, Justice Alexandre de Moraes enforced the removal of all Monark’s internet content, including his early YouTube gaming videos, in a sweeping attempt to erase his online footprint. Notably, Monark is not an advocate of President Bolsonaro.

 

The censorship extended to media outlets like Grupo Jovem Pan, particularly targeting journalists Ana Paula Henkel, Rodrigo Constantino and Guilherme Fiuza. In a controversial move during the 2022 elections, TSE prohibited Jovem Pan from broadcasting any content regarding President Lula’s conviction, accusing the media group of propagating “false narratives”. This incident led to the departure of the journalists from the outlet.

 

However, censorship continued to manifest in various other forms. By the end of 2022, Constantino faced a Twitter ban and YouTube channel demonetization, actions ordered by Brazilian authorities. In January 2023, the STF ordered the removal of social media profiles belonging to Fiuza and Constantino. This action mirrors the 2019 removal of Facebook and Twitter accounts belonging to right-wing journalists Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, after Meta labeled their content as “dangerous”. In late 2023, Rumble declared its decision to cease operations in Brazil following requests from the Brazilian judiciary to censor users and content creators. “I will not be bullied by foreign government demands to censor Rumble creators,” wrote Chris Pavlovski, the creator of Rumble, on X.

 

This pattern of social media profile losses, suspended monetizations, and judicially ordered account freezes has affected numerous individuals. Alongside Monark, notable cases include journalist Allan dos Santos, exiled in the United Statesafter receiving an arrest warrant, and journalists Paulo Figueiredo and Rodrigo Constantino, who faced similar social media suspensions, passport cancellations and financial restrictions under the order of Moraes. Recently, former judge Ludmila Grilo, forced into retirement by a judiciary oversight body dominated by the left, disclosed her exile in the United States. These individuals have sought recourse through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, alleging human rights violations by STF members, with Grilo expected to file her complaint shortly.

 

In addition to suppressing opposition voices, members of the judiciary have used their political influence to target and harm adversaries. A notable incident in July 2023 involved Moraes and his son in a confrontation at Rome International Airport, leading to assault accusations against a Brazilian business couple. Justice Rosa Weber of the STF ordered a police raid on the accused’s residence. However, when forwarding the video monitoring images to Brazilian authorities, the Italian Police stated that the record showed only an argument, not recognizing the existence of the assault crime as accused by the Justice’s son. Justice Dias Toffoli insisted on the existence of a “hostile crime,” restricting lawyers’ access to the image copies. In response, on October 30, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the decision, alleging undue privileges to Moraes and unjustified restrictions on access to the incident record imposed by Toffoli.

 

The Brazilian Pastiche of the U.S. Capitol Invasion

 

Following Lula’s electoral victory, thousands of Brazilians flooded the streets, voicing their concerns over suspected electoral fraud. A significant number of protesters set up camps outside military installations, beseeching the Armed Forces to intervene and “rescue the country.” Despite these calls, the military remained inactive. The situation escalated on January 8, 2023, when hundreds of people stormed the Praça dos Três Poderes, the headquarters of Brazil’s government.

 

This event bore a striking resemblance to the U.S. Capitol invasion on January 6, 2016. Notably, “infiltrated” inciting agents were recorded partaking in vandalism. Reports suggested that authorities might have enabled the vandals’ entry, compounded by insufficient security forces assigned to protect these pivotal buildings. In the midst of this chaos, a Reuters photographer captured the unfolding vandalism, later approached by an individual scrutinizing the images captured on the camera. Furthermore, there were instances of missing security camera footage and overlooked intelligence reports warning of potential vandalism.

 

The aftermath saw the detention of thousands of protesters, including individuals who were neither involved in the vandalism nor present at the scene. Independent human rights organizations have concluded that the arrests and subsequent legal proceedings violated several human rights norms. Cases of concern included the arrest of a non-involved homeless person and the death of a man in custody who was repeatedly denied medical treatment by Justice Moraes.

Who is Funding Censorship in Brazil?

 

The Brazilian parliament is on the verge of voting on a bill to”’regulate” social networks in the country. The Bill (PL) 2630, known as the “Fake News Bill” by its supporters and the “Censorship Bill” by its opponents aims to tackle misinformation online. However, the bill poses serious threats to freedom of expression by granting the government extensive powers to decide what brazilians can view and share online.

 

A key supporter of this bill is Sleeping Giants Brazil (SGBR), a left-wing activist group known for pressuring advertisers to boycott media outlets that platform right-wing voices. SGBR was even favorably mentioned in a legislative proposal attached to the Fake News Bill. Established in 2020 as a self-described “non-partisan consumer movement”, SGBR is widely recognized for its progressive bias, conspicuously abstaining from actions against left-wing entities. In X, the Brazilian journalist Eli Vieira pointed out that the counterpart to Sleeping Giants Brasil in the U.S. is not the original Sleeping Giants, which holds little significance there. Instead, it is Media Matters, an organization that receives donations from individuals affiliated with the Democratic Party.

 

Legal challenges in multiple Brazilian state courts aim to unveil the identities behind SGBR.

After a court ruling demanded the group’s disclosure for targeting a conservative newspaper in December 2020, university students Leonardo de Carvalho Leal and Mayara Stelle, both aged 22 at the time, claimed responsibility for SGBR’s Brazilian operations, ending seven months of anonymity. Nevertheless, critics view the duo merely as figureheads. Recent actions include the breaching of bank secrecy, potentially exposing SGBR’s true financiers and leaders, still shrouded in mystery due to superior court protections. Ironically, the freedom of speech is protected by the Brazilian Federal Constitution, but it requires non-anonymity.

 

Scrutiny of SGBR’s activities indicates involvement from various NGOs, providing either infrastructure or operational support. Among these is Nossas, whose platform SGBR utilized to coerce companies into withdrawing advertisements from ideologically misaligned media outlets. Nossas has been actively working beside Sleeping Giants to champion the Fake News Bill.

 

Nossas is financially backed by international entities such as Open Society, Ford Foundation, OAK Foundation, Skoll Foundation, Unicef, and Tinder. Previously, it also received funding from the Avon Institute, Malala Fund, supported by Apple and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Luminate, owned by Pierre Omidyar, eBay founder and owner of The Intercept. Additionally, Nossas is funded by Instituto Clima e Sociedade (ICS), a Brazilian “umbrella” NGO that reallocates funds from Open Society, Oak Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Quadrature Climate Foundation, and Ikea Foundation.

 

Another organization supporting Sleeping Giants is Rede Liberdade, which has provided free legal support to the group at the beginning of their operations. Rede Liberdade is linked to Instituto Sou da Paz, whose backers include Open Society, Ford Foundation, OAK Foundation, Terre des Hommes, Haddad Foundation and Lemann Foundation.

 

In 2022, Sleeping Giants received around 40,700 dollars grant from Instituto Serrapilheira for a study on scientific fraud within Covid-19 vaccination research. This study remains unpublished on either Sleeping Giants’ or Serrapilheira’s platforms and is unmentioned on Google or Google Scholar. However, Serrapilheira’s site indicates the study’s focus on platform regulatory processes, akin to the Fake News Bill. Founded by documentary filmmaker João Moreira Salles, heir to Itaú, the largest private bank in Brazil and the largest financial conglomerate in the Southern Hemisphere, Serrapilheira publicly endorsed Lula da Silva’s election campaign in 2022. In the last year, Forbes ranked Salles as the eighth richest individual in Brazil, with a fortune nearing 4.2 billion dollars.

 

Support for the bill is included in discussions involving events related to freedom of speech. Faced with the alleged hacking attack on Janja Lula, in December 2023, left-wing politicians and activists spoke of how much the bill was supposedly necessary to prevent other events of this type from happening, given that, in view of the legislation, those responsible for the “defamation campaign ” against the First Lady would be tracked down and punished for their “crimes”.

 

In an intriguing development, the influencer marketing hub Mynd, led by Fatima Pissarra and the singer Preta Gil, has emerged as a key proponent of Fake News Bill, especially active on social media. Mynd’s extensive network, comprising artists, influencers and gossip pages, benefits from substantial advertising revenue from global corporations like Disney, Amazon, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Ambev, and Petrobras. Given that its roster primarily consists of progressive influencers who actively supported Lula during the 2022 elections, there is speculation about the agency’s potential political affiliations, including services rendered to President Lula during his campaign.

 

Recently, Mynd has come under scrutiny for its role in a vilification campaign that tragically culminated in the suicide of a 22-year-old woman. This controversy stemmed from a story circulated by one of Mynd’s managed gossip pages, falsely alleging an affair between the woman and comedian and YouTuber Whindersson Nunes. Following the young woman’s death, influencers like Felipe Neto have attempted to leverage the situation to advocate for the necessity of regulatory measures in Brazil, sparking a broader debate about the responsibilities and ethics of digital influence and content dissemination.

Lawsuits

 

While Sleeping Giants portrays itself as a non-partisan movement against hate speech and fake news, all its targets are groups and personalities identified with the right, whether conservative or libertarian. Several victims have legally challenged the group, achieving notable victories. Recently, the São Paulo State Court of Justice ruled unanimously that SGBR’s campaign against Jovem Pan, a prominent Brazilian radio and broadcast network, was unlawful and must be halted immediately under penalty of fine.

 

In a related case, the São Paulo court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Sleeping Giants, citing the group’s lack of legitimate legal interest and operating under the pretense of consumer defense with ideological and political motives to disrupt corporate operations. This lawsuit against major tech companies, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, and Spotify, sought redress for alleged manipulation of searches and public opinion against the Fake News Bill. The big tech companies’ resistance to the bill arises because it mandates payment for journalistic content shared on social networks. A similar policy was adopted in Australia, and in 2022 Meta and Google were forced to pay $140 million to Australian news outlets, something that has led various media outlets in Brazil to support the project.

 

Despite opposing the Fake News Bill for personal reasons, big tech companies have emerged as major financiers of censorship in Brazil, funding fact-checking agencies which act as thought police dictating what is disinformation, particularly during the pandemic. These agencies have silenced and persecuted doctors and scientists, accusing them of spreading falsehoods. Some agencies have mistakenly rushed to judgment, as seen in the Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory case. Social networks, especially Meta, have formed alliances with fact-checking agencies and top courts like the TSE to censor online content deemed false.

 

SGBR also faced an investigation by the São Paulo Police for alleged defamation against Jovem Pan. The purpose of this investigation was to pinpoint the individuals directly responsible for SGBR’s operations and their financial backers, in order to evaluate possible legal consequences for their ongoing defamatory activities. Despite requests for bank secrecy breaches to uncover potential high-profile backers, SGBR appealed to Justice Alexandre de Moraes of the STF. Moraes, who leads an ongoing Fake News Inquiry criticized for his dual role as victim and judge, archived the police investigation against Sleeping Giants.

 

In August, Moraes participated in the “Combating Disinformation and Defending Democracy” Seminar held by the STF. Mayara Stelle, co-founder of Sleeping Giants, also spoke at the event. Throughout the 2022 electoral campaign, the TSE, led by Moraes, even heeded recommendations made by SGBR. Moraes has been openly supportive of the Fake News Bill, actively suppressing dissenting views. In May, he compelled Google, Meta, and Spotify to testify at the Brazilian Federal Police for promoting ads against the bill.

 

After the 2022 elections, where Lula da Silva regained the presidency from Jair Bolsonaro, Moraes met with the president-elect, urging the implementation of social networks regulation legislation. Throughout the election, Moraes used various methods to broadly censor Lula’s opponents, a tactic many believe was instrumental in Lula’s victory.

 

A controversial resolution passed by the court allowed the removal of internet content to combat “fake news” during the election’s second round. In a significant case, the court censored a documentary on Bolsonaro’s 2018 election stabbing, produced by Brasil Paralelo, without viewing it, fearing electoral impact. Justice Cármen Lúcia of the STF endorsed this as a temporary and extraordinary measure for election security. However, many censored individuals, including journalists, politics, religious leaders, doctors, and artists, remain silenced.

 

Lula’s creation of the “Prosecutor’s Office for the Defense of Democracy”’ aimed to counter misinformation about public policies. Dubbed Lula’s ‘Ministry of Truth,’ the office has pursued legal actions predominantly against right-wing figures, notably not addressing left-wing activists involved in anti-Semitic acts following attacks on Israel by the terrorist group Hamas.

Government Actions

 

During a meeting held in March 2023 with representatives of X (previously Twitter), Justice Minister Flávio Dino, now STF Justice appointed by Lula, pressured Big Tech firms to revise their terms of use to align with new government directives. This emphasis on X coincided with Elon Musk’s efforts to enhance free speech on the platform.

 

Dino, a vocal advocate for regulating social networks, starkly declared “This era of self-regulation, of lack of regulation, of freedom of expression as an absolute value, which is a fraud, a sham, has ended in Brazil. It’s over. Be absolutely clear about this. If you don’t provide responses that we consider appropriate and adjusted, we will take the measures that the law dictates”.

 

Amidst a surge in “active shooters” in Brazilian schools, the Lula administration commissioned studies to address the issue. However, these reports, predominantly crafted by left-leaning experts supportive of Lula, have been criticized for their political biases and inaccurate data. Critics argue that these reports exploit children’s deaths for political ends, with some even attributing the rise in violence to a “neo-Nazi far-right” and online hate speech. The reports advocate for urgent internet regulation, punishment for “hate speech,” civilian disarmament, and dismantling Bolsonaro’s civic-military schools.

From his election in 2018 until the end of his term in 2022, opponents of Bolsonaro tried to link him to Nazism in various ways. They even claimed that in 2020, the president drank a glass of plain milk during a live broadcast on social media, alleging that this act was a demonstration of his support for the “far-right Nazi ideology”. The attempts to associate Bolsonaro with Nazism are quite similar to the accusations made against former United States President Donald Trump, serving the same purpose: to accuse him of endorsing Nazism. In 2020, Facebook removed a post by Trump’s team under the claim that it featured a Nazi symbol — a red inverted triangle. However, this symbol has historically been used by antifas.

 

The NGO Campanha Nacional pelo Direito à Educação (National Campaign for the Right to Education), also referred just as Campanha, responsible for some reports, receives funding from organizations like Malala Fund, Terre des Hommes, Kellogg Foundation, and CESE. The last is an umbrella NGO that redistributes resources it receives from the Ford Foundation, Brot für die Welt and Wilde Ganzen Foundation. CESE also receives funds from the Ibirapitanga Institute, founded by filmmaker Walter Salles, brother of the founder of Serrapilheira and also heir to Itaú Bank. Ibirapitanga also finances the Campanha. CESE is also sponsored by the Instituto Clima e Sociedade, which distributes Soros’s and other institutions’ resources in Brazil.

 

A separate report, commissioned by Human Rights Minister Sílvio de Almeida, mirrors these findings, suggesting the creation of a regulatory body to combat online fake news and hate speech. It subtly links the increase in school attacks to “right-wing extremism,” gun culture, and a glorification of violence, indirectly referencing former President Bolsonaro, army captain and advocate of civilian armament.

 

Controversially, several members of the report’s team have engaged in hate speech in the past, including Manuela d’Ávila, the group’s coordinator chosen by Minister Almeida, known for her far-left political positions and for being fined by the TSE for irregular content boosting against Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 elections. Manuela also hosts the program “Expresso Com Manu” on the Opera Mundi website channel. This channel is directed by Breno Altman, a journalist who, despite being Jewish, has expressed support for Hezbollah. An interesting fact is the recent legal decision favoring an Israeli organization in Brazil, which sought the removal of Altman’s publications from X. Numerous left-leaning politicians and public figures, advocates for the Fake News Bill, have spoken out in support of Altman’s freedom of speech.

Another member of the workgroup is digital influencer and YouTuber Felipe Neto. Founder of Vero Institute — institution that sponsored events held by the TSE against disinformation and which included the participation of Graham Brookie, Senior Director of DFRLab —, Neto is known for his online aggression and misinformation, contrary to the values he espouses. His recent involvement in a digital attack against journalist Andreza Matais of O Estado de São Paulo outlet highlights this contradiction. The publication exposed the presence of a woman linked to criminal factions in the Ministry of Justice, overseen by Flávio Dino, and in the Ministry of Human Rights, under Silvio de Almeida. Neto, who actively supports the regulation of social networks, was appointed to the task force by President Lula, a candidate he endorsed in the recent elections.