Financial journalist and former Reuters Institute Journalist Fellow a
The 2018 presidential election and its aftermath have galvanised the Brazilian media. The high political polarisation surrounding the poll set the stage for multiple controversies involving not only the candidates but also the way media covered the elections.
Social media and messaging apps played a crucial part in the campaign of former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected president with 57.8m votes in a run-off election – despite having had just eight seconds TV advertising each day during the first round. WhatsApp became a powerful campaign tool, with roughly a million open groups being created to promote candidates standing in the elections.1
In an attempt to prevent fake news from spreading, the main Brazilian media outlets set up joint fact-checking projects during the campaign. The ‘Fato ou Fake’ team – comprising eight print, online, radio, and television outlets – fact-checked 759 quotes from politicians and several hundred rumours. Another 24 news brands joined ‘Projeto Comprova’, a coalition that received more than 67,000 messages through its WhatsApp account.
After three years of successive drops in circulation, the efforts of the newspaper industry to attract digital subscribers seemed to be paying off.2 Overall daily print and digital subscriptions of the top ten paid-for papers rose 2.9% year-on-year – a 33% rise in digital subscriptions for those which have electronic editions. The increase was fuelled by heavy discount campaigns and by the extensive adoption of paywalls.
Overall trust in news, however, dipped 11 percentage points to 48% in comparison with last year’s survey, directly affected by an atmosphere of political polarisation. The environment of political confrontation brought partisan media to mainstream attention, as a significant number of voters were divided between the left-wing and the far-right candidates.
The clash between candidates’ supporters escalated on social media, culminating in the publication by Folha de S. Paulo, one of the country’s leading newspapers, of a story accusing Brazilian businessmen of illegally financing a large-scale campaign to bombard WhatsApp users with hundreds of millions of messages attacking the left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad. The day after the story ran, WhatsApp announced that it had in the preceding weeks banned more than 100,000 accounts in an effort to contain misinformation and spam.
Brazilians remain some of the heaviest users of social media in the world and usage of all the top social and messaging brands has gone up significantly again over the last year. Growth was particularly strong among Instagram (+10), WhatsApp (+5), and YouTube (+8) users. Throughout the presidential campaign (and after it), Bolsonaro’s frequent tweets and Facebook Live appearances forced a change in traditional media coverage, as journalists had to keep a constant watch not only over the president’s social media accounts but also on those of his allies. Before taking office, the Brazilian president announced 14 of his 22 ministers through Twitter.
Though Bolsonaro had stated his commitment to freedom of the press in the weeks prior to the second round, his relationship with the media, both as candidate and president, has been fractious, at best. In an audio message leaked to the media in February 2018, he referred to the largest media conglomerate in the country, Grupo Globo, as an enemy. The following month, Bolsonaro shared in his Twitter account accusations that were proven to be false against a reporter from O Estado de S. Paulo, one of the main newspapers.3
Data from the first half of 2018 showed a concentration of advertising spending on free-to-air TV and online,4 which – combined with the slow recovery of the Brazilian economy – contributed to the closing of long-established print titles. The 114-year-old regional newspaper A Cidade, published in São Paulo state, also closed its print version. Founded in 1891, the daily Jornal do Brasil revived its print edition in 2018. But, after a little over a year, the company announced that its content would again only be available online.
*Data are from urban Brazil, rather than a fully nationally representative sample. This will tend to represent richer and more connected users.
Online and television remain the most important source of news in Brazil while print readership has almost halved since 2013. Meanwhile smartphones not only overtook computers as the primary means of accessing online news, they also established a wide lead.
Trust has fallen 11 percentage points in the last year after a difficult and polarising election. Brazilians have the highest level of concern about misinformation and disinformation in our survey and high use of social media facilitated the spread of inaccurate information during the election.
- Non-governmental organisation SaferNet Brasil. ↩
- Top 10 best-selling dailies, according to Instituto Verificador de Comunicação (IVC Brasil). ↩
- www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/bolsonaro-brazil-fake-news-journalist-media-attack ↩
- Conselho Executivo de Normas-Padrão (CENP). ↩