SÃO PAULO – A bill intended to raise big tech’s responsibility to avoid the dissemination of disinformation has sparked a heated debate in Brazil – and divided Catholics as well, in the country with the largest Catholic population in the world.

Introduced in 2020, the so-called “Fake News bill” is endorsed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s allies in Congress, and has been fiercely repudiated by supporters of the conservative former President Jair Bolsonaro.

The bill requires that large digital platforms must “prevent and mitigate illegal practices in the sphere of its services.”

Current legislation does not consider technology companies such as social media platforms liable for spreading disinformation published by users. The new project establishes that internet companies which fail to restrain the dissemination of criminal content will be fined and sued for their actions.

The opposition, especially members of congress connected to Bolsonaro, claim that the bill would impose censorship in Brazil. They argue that Lula’s Workers’ Party, a left-wing organization, wants to increase its control over society and implement a dictatorship in the South American nation.

For Lula’s supporters, passing the bill in Congress is an important measure. During Bolsonaro’s tenure, social media were flooded with misleading content on several themes – from the alleged risks of COVID-19 vaccines, to the supposed voting machines’ lack of reliability.

Such postings have been keeping Bolsonaro’s constituency mobilized and active on internet forums.

Many consider that the thousands of pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators who invaded government buildings in Brasilia on January 8 and tried to stage a coup were, to a great extent, moved by such internet-based disinformation.

Earlier this month, a set of Catholic movements released a public letter to show their support for the “Fake News” bill. The letter was signed by Signis Brazil (the Catholic Association for Communication), the Bishops’ Conference’s Communications Pastoral Ministry (known as PASCOM in Portuguese), the Brazilian Commission of Justice and Peace, and other Catholic groups.

The document recalled that other countries have passed legislation to publicly regulate on-line platforms, something “that is fundamental for the full exercise of democracy and the struggle against crime, hate speech, and disinformation.”

The Brazilian bill is inspired by the European Digital Services Act, approved at the end of 2022.

“Securing transparency in the processes and mechanisms to hold accountable [the spreaders of] malicious content is not censorship, like the bill’s opponents have been saying,” the letter read, adding that an independent entity must be created in order to monitor the “fulfilment of the rules, initiate administrative proceedings, and impose sanctions.”

The document also emphasized that “the bill does not put religious freedom in danger.” A number of congressmen have been declaring on social media that it is part of the government’s plan to censor religious publications on the internet.

“That is a greatly necessary proposal. The internet does not have a regulating entity, and has become a lawless space. People do what they want, and nobody is held accountable,” Alessandro Gomes, who heads Signis Brazil, told Crux.

The discussion of the bill has once again revived the political polarization seen in Brazil during the presidential campaign last year, which ended up with Bolsonaro being narrowly defeated by Lula. Many of the former president’s backers see the proposal as revenge against him and a way of criminalizing their activism.

“He really acted as a liar on many occasions, like when he published fake news that said that ivermectin and chloroquine were effective against COVID-19. But that is not about him, there are common people spreading lies on social media every day,” Gomes said.

Fake news also brought division to the Church, affirmed Marcus Tullius, PASCOM’s general coordinator.

“In the religious world, disinformation is especially harmful. Rifts are contrary to the logic of the Gospel. But they have been affecting all segments of the Church,” he told Crux.

Fake news and hate speech have been continuously disseminated by the clergy and lay people, Tullius claimed.

“If a pastoral leader or a minister sends fake news to a community member, the person – who trusts him for religious reasons – will not verify it before sharing its content. That is dangerous,” he said.

While most Church groups have endorsed the bill, traditionalist Catholics have been publicizing their criticism over the past few weeks and hope the law will not be approved.

Initially expected to be voted at the beginning of May, the bill was taken out of the Chamber of Deputies’ schedule because its proponents realized they would not have enough votes to pass it.

In the opinion of Frederico Viotti, a spokesperson for the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute – a traditionalist Catholic organization which originated in the Tradition, Family, and Property movement – the bill may result in the classification of Catholic moral teachings as “fake news.”

“In the name of struggling against disinformation, many opinions – especially conservative ones – have been labeled as ‘fake news’,” Viotti told Crux.

He argued that the notions of disinformation and hate speech are too broad in Brazil now and can even include the ideas of Catholic people who are against things that they consider to be sins, like homosexuality and abortion.

“Of course, nobody is in favor of disinformation. But a bill like that should not work as an instrument of censorship,” Viotti added.

The “Fake News” bill is currently being amended, and some of its measures – including a provision concerning payment by big tech companies for content protected by copyrights – may be included in separate proposals. In the next weeks, there might be another attempt of getting the bill approved.

“Those who defend fake news do not defend the Gospel of Christ. Spreading lies is something that is contrary to our mission on Earth,” Gomes said.