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SÃO PAULO – Although the electoral campaign officially started on Aug. 16, the attacks against the two leading presidential candidates in Brazil – current President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly referred to as Lula – has been growing on social media since last year.
Much of it is “fake news” related to religion, something that has been worrying the Brazilian bishops.
Over the past few weeks, for instance, thousands of people have been sharing on social media a text saying that da Silva tried to enact a decree in 2010 “banning Christianity from Brazil.”
Fact checkers like the Portuguese language service of Reuters Fact Check clarified that Lula’s decree included a provision about the need to develop “mechanisms to prevent the display of religious symbols in public buildings of the federal government.” The idea was criticized by the Catholic Church and ended up being cut from the final version of the decree, which was approved in 2010.
The lies appeared as part of a smear campaign against Lula – who has been consistently leading the polls one month ahead of the Oct. 2 election – attempting to associate him with the anti-Christian persecution led by left-wing regimes in other Latin American countries.
During his 2003-2010 administration, no measures were taken against Christian churches in Brazil. Lula is Catholic and has historical connections to the progressive wing of the Brazilian Church. The Liberation Theology movement was deeply involved in the creation of his Workers’ Party in 1980.
Nevertheless, lies accusing the former president of wishing to implant a “Nicaraguan-like regime in Brazil” have become been more and more common.
“All political groups may spread disinformation – even the press may do it, when it makes a mistake. But several studies have shown that the far-right intentionally disseminates fake news,” said Magali Cunha, a communications researcher who leads Coletivo Bereia, a factchecking group specializing in false stories about religion.
That is why lies against Lula have been much more common than the disinformation against Bolsonaro, Cunha said, recalling that “the 2018 campaign, when the current president was elected, was entirely based on fake news.”
“It is already clear that Bolsonaro’s supporters have no intention to present and discuss his political platform. Instead, they are prioritizing propagating fake news against the president’s opponents again,” she added.
She also claimed that due to the current president’s strategic use of lies, most fact checkers are immediately accused of being members of the opposition.
“Being labeled as an enemy of Bolsonaro is inescapable for fact checkers now. But groups like Bereia, factchecking agencies, and universities will not give up,” Cunha said.
Despite being Catholic, Bolsonaro gets much of his strongest support from Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches. The president is married to a Baptist, and often attends services with her. He is also supported by Evangelical-controlled news websites.
“Some of the most visited Evangelical portals have been spreading fake news – and such content also reaches Catholics, many times through social media,” Cunha said.
Coletivo Bereia was one of the groups that collaborated with the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) to train agents of the Communications Pastoral Ministry (Pascom) to identify the lies.
Earlier in August, 300 Pascom workers from all regions of the country took part in a course about the dissemination of disinformation during electoral campaigns, the basic procedures to identify fabrications, and the ways to spread such knowledge among their fellow parishioners.
“The formal training of pastoral agents against fake news, a terrible evil, is a sign that CNBB is willing to take ahead its struggle against disinformation,” Auxiliary Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães, CNBB’s Communications head, told Crux.
He said that the Brazilian Church has been dealing poorly with the spread of fake news among Catholics – at times concerning the church itself.
“The segments of the church that are reactionary, identify with authoritarian stances, and pretend to be an advocate of the conservative agenda – a segment that includes bishops and priests – are not aligned with the struggle against fake news because, I imagine, they need it to build a victorious activism,” he said.
Guimarães emphasized that there have been no cases of “bishops who have taken drastic, profound, and adequate measures” against priests or laypeople due to the dissemination of fake news.
“We hear of a certain stupor and also fear of acting. Many prefer to be silent. There is a great incongruity between the Brazilian episcopate’s rhetoric against fake news and its concrete actions against church members who perpetrate such crime,” Guimarães said.
The CNBB itself has been a constant target of fake news campaigns over the past few years. On its Facebook page, it is common to see comments from conservative Catholics accusing the conference of being communist and of supporting Lula.
The highly polarized political context in Brazil is a central issue, said Vinicius Borges Gomes, a Communications professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais.
Gomes taught in Pascom’s course.
“Fake news reaches the people’s emotions and most intense opinions. That is precisely where religiosity is, given that it involves emotion and dogma. So, religion is fertile soil for fake news,” he told Crux.
Gomes, himself a former Pascom agent, said that social media has been aggravating the problem because it tends to allow people to exist in bubbles with people who only share their views.
“Fake news is seen as true by people who want it to be true,” he said.
But at times people disseminate lies even though they know they are lies, he added. “Even Catholics do that kind of thing,” he said.
In the opinion of Guimarães, Catholics should be aware of the great damage caused by disinformation.
“Fake news is an expression of the worst of mankind,” the bishop said.