Facebook's WhatsApp Flooded With Fake News in Brazil Election

Presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party flashes thumbs up to supporters after voting at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro Brazil Sunday Oct. 7 2018

Presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party flashes thumbs up to supporters after voting at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro Brazil Sunday Oct. 7 2018

Social networking service WhatsApp has become a political battleground in Brazil's most polarized election in decades, raising concerns that it is distorting debate beyond the public eye.

The candidate's son, Carlos Bolsonaro, accused "Folha" and Mr Haddad's Workers Party (PT) of "telling half-truths or decontextualised lies" in a post on Twitter.

One of Brazil's top newspapers on Thursday claimed Brazilian entrepreneurs were bankrolling a multimillion-dollar campaign created to boost Jair Bolsonaro by inundating WhatsApp users with messages undermining his leftist rival Fernando Haddad.

Later on Friday, Brazil's top electoral court TSE approved opening a probe into the case.

The app is owned by Facebook, which is under scrutiny after revelations of organized abuse of social media in 2016 to sway public opinion in the United States presidential election and the Brexit referendum in Britain.

WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption allows groups of hundreds of users to exchange texts, photos and video beyond the purview of electoral authorities, independent fact checkers or even the platform itself.

"We have cutting-edge technology to detect spam that identifies accounts with abnormal behaviour so that they can't be used to spread spam or misinformation", a WhatsApp spokesperson wrote in an email. WhatsApp has already said it was taking measures to stop companies using its service to send out bulk messages.

"There is no limit to the persecution!" However, the investigation is unlikely to derail Bolsonaro's campaign with just a week to go before the vote and an 18 percentage-point lead over Haddad in recent opinion polls. The latest survey, taken before the initial report was published, showed Bolsonaro enjoying 59 percent of the vote, compared to Haddad on 41 percent. Several political parties, including Haddad's Workers' Party, are jointly requesting that Bolsonaro be declared ineligible for 8 years for abuse of economic power and misuse of digital communication.

WhatsApp confirmed that it had blocked Flavio Bolsonaro for "spam behavior" and reasons unconnected to the Folha report.

The WhatsApp allegations have energized Haddad, who said his party has witnesses saying Bolsonaro asked business leaders for cash to pay for the bulk messaging, which he described as soliciting undeclared campaign contributions.

It also noted that it banned an account related to former Brazil president Dilma Rousseff, a member of the Workers' Party.

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