Facebook has removed 68 pages and 43 profiles associated with the Brazilian marketing group Raposo Fernandes Associados (RFA), which had reportedly been helping to organize a massive network of online support for far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
The company announced on Monday that the RFA pages on Facebook were used “to post massive amount of clickbait intended to direct people to websites that are entirely separate from Facebook and may appear legitimate, but are actually ad farms.” According to a Facebook statement, the “ad farms” in questions were using “sensational political content” to harvest clicks.
Earlier in October, the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de San Paulo reported that 28 Facebook pages and six sites had dramatically assisted Bolsonaro’s online engagement, allowing him to reach 12.6 million Facebook interactions in roughly a month. To put that into context, the Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar only accumulated 1.1 million interactions over the same time period.
According to Estado, the RFA pages had similar names as more established media outlets, which helped draw in more readers. The content of the pages, however, was a mix of pro-Bolsonaro talking points and fake news, like false reports about how ballot boxes were rigged during the first round of voting on October 7.
This isn’t the first time Bolsonaro has been caught up in fake news accusations. On October 10 his center-left rival, Fernando Haddad, accused Bolsonaro of being behind a rash of fake news stories targeted at his electoral campaign. “The lies come from [Bolsonaro]… He will continue to slander, insult,” Haddad said. “One had 3 million views when it was removed. We try to stop it but people watch them.”
But curiously, Facebook’s latest press release on Brazil doesn’t mention any suspicious behavior on the WhatsApp platform — mentioning briefly that the company hasn’t found similar misuse on either WhatsApp or Instagram.
Just three days ago, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sa Paolo reported that wealthy Bolsonaro supporters had paid millions to send WhatsApp users messages attacking Fernando Haddad. The Brazilian electoral court has ordered an investigation into the allegations.
More than 40 percent of Brazil’s population of 207 million are using WhatsApp. Because of its design, it is extremely difficult to track how much and how fast fake news spreads across the app. Researchers monitoring the first round of voting, however, found that fake news regularly become one of the most shared posts in public groups.
“What we do know is that people trust the information they see in a WhatsApp group and are more likely to read every message that comes into the platform, unlike Facebook where you skip many posts because of likes/dislikes,” Aimee Rinehart, a researcher who works with an international group called First Draft that seeks to counter digital misinformation, told Buzzfeed News.
A recent poll of the Brazilian election shows Bolsonaro with a clear lead in the run-up to the final round of voting this Sunday, leading Haddad by 57 percent to 43 percent.