SÃO PAULO — Lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil has apparently intensified the circulation of fake news on the internet, or at least made it more visible, and much of it is directed against the Church, many times by people who claim to be Catholic.
One of the events that triggered a new wave of fake news against the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) was its decision to recommend the suspension of all public liturgies to help stop the spread of the virus.
Since March, most dioceses and parishes throughout Brazil suspended public Masses and told churchgoers to stay home. Traditionalist groups launched online campaigns to put pressure on the bishops to reverse their decision, echoing rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro’s refusal to impose social distancing measures as part of his campaign to minimize the threat posed by COVID-19, which he has called “a little flu.”
This has led to a flood of internet attack on the alleged leftist tendencies of the Brazilian Church: In fact, if you search CNBB in Portuguese, one of the first autocomplete suggestions offered by Google is “communist.”
Every Facebook post from CNBB will have several comments accusing the bishops’ conference of neglecting the spiritual life of Brazilians and preferring to engage in left-wing political activism.
The Brazilian episcopate is now taking the initial steps to adequately address the problem.
“We have two kinds of fake news against the Church. One of them is connected to religious fanaticism and ecclesial ultra-conservatism. The other one is ideological and expresses a rejection of everything that deals with fraternity, solidarity, and human rights,” Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães, president of CNBB’s Pastoral Episcopal Commission for Communication, told Crux.
The problem, according to him, is that two groups – ultra-traditionalists and anticommunists – have unite, retro-feeding one another and expanding their reach on social media.
Due to the quarantine, the Church has suddenly increased its presence on social media, with hundreds of priests and bishops celebrating online Masses, organizing virtual rosaries, and debating Catholic topics.
“The augmented exposure of the Church in this period generated a growth in the opposition to it. The internet made it possible for small oppositionist groups with radical views inside Catholicism to have their voices articulated and amplified,” said Moisés Sbardelotto, a professor specializing in Catholic communication at the Jesuit University of the Sinos Valley.
Hate speech and fraudulent content are used by those groups as part of a strategy and are produced by professionals, Sbardelotto told Crux.
“Such ideas many times reach ill-prepared churchgoers, who only have a basic community experience and didn’t have access to a strong Catholic formation,” he added.
In times of multiple sources of information and general confusion, many people cannot distinguish between qualified voices and opportunistic ones.
“The internet presents a wide range of so-called ‘leaders.’ Many people ask themselves why they should listen to their bishop, if a certain Catholic blogger has a more agreeable discourse to their ears,” Sbardelotto said.
The so-called Catholic digital influencers who speak against the Church hierarchy want to appear as more Catholic than any other Catholic, said Bishop Devair Fonseca, episcopal vicar for communications at the Archdiocese of São Paulo.
“They have a parallel magisterium. In our times, individual opinion has a primacy over collective and institutional direction,” he said.
Fonseca said the pandemic has been accelerating the bishops’ awareness of the need for a professional organization of the Church’s social media.
“The Church knew it was important to manage pages and channels on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, but I think that now most people recognize that more investment is needed,” he said.
In São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer has been doing online celebrations of the Mass with regularity during the crisis.
“He already had social media accounts, but now his presence has grown a lot. His livestreams always have lots of viewers and he’s excited about it. But the comments section includes positive and negative opinions, obviously,” Fonseca said.
The presence of the Communication Pastoral Commission (Pascom) has grown rapidly all over the country since the pandemic started.
“We already had a massive presence in communities, but many parishes formed new branches since the churches were closed,” Marcus Tullius, Pascom’s national coordinator, told Crux.
The new Pascom committees in communities and parishes are not only working to make livestream Masses on social media, but also to be closer to parishioners and improve their participation in the Church.
“In order to make human communication flourish, we need to enhance the pastoral formation of our agents. It’s at the community level that true communication happens,” said Tullius.
One of the central tactics of the Brazilian Church to deal with fake news is to increase its presence on social media and to occupy more space – virtual and real – in the public sphere.
According to Mol Guimarães, CNBB’s communication commission has just come up with a strategic plan which includes raising investment in content production, in social media interaction, and even in the creation of the Church’s own Catholic digital influencers.
“We want the Brazilian Church to have a contemporary approach to the internet,” Mol Guimarães said.
The idea is that greater participation of the Church in public debate may reduce the space for opportunistic CNBB detractors. “More people will have access to our ideas and will be less interested in the ideas of the ones who attack us,” Tullius said.
The National Pascom is also working to revive an initiative called White Smoke, so it can have a permanent factchecking section on its webpage.
Sbardelotto said it’s also necessary to improve the education of the Catholic faithful in Brazil.
“Many times, people don’t know basic stuff about the Catholic Church. That’s why they end up believing misinformation,” he said.
More serious cases of defamation recently led the Church and major Catholic figures to launch lawsuits.
This has been an important shift in the Church’s strategy over the past few years.
“We recently realized that some accusations went beyond all limits and that we had to act. So, we began to release clarifications on certain rumors and to take judicial action, when it involved a crime,” explained Mol Guimarães.
One of the most notable cases involved leftwing theologian Leonardo Boff, accused by the far-right YouTuber Bernardo Küster of embezzling $2.4 million in public funds. Boff sued Küster, who declared in court that he didn’t have any proof of the alleged corruption. Boff won his case against Küster, who will have to pay him damages and give Boff the right to respond to the accusation on his social media.
A vocal supporter of Bolsonaro, Küster had his laptop and cellphone confiscated by the federal police on May 27, as part of an ongoing inquiry on fake news against the Brazilian Supreme Court.
Businessmen, politicians, bloggers, and activists who support Bolsonaro are under investigation for having allegedly disseminated fake news and hate speech against members of the highest court in the country.
According to Mol Guimarães, the Church has recently won four defamation cases in court.
“This kind of measure can make those people reflect more before publishing false contents,” he said.
Sbardelotto agreed: “Crimes must be punished.”
“It’s pedagogic for people in democracies to see that defamation brings legal consequences,” he said.