RIO DE JANEIRO — Shortly after President Donald J. Trump was banned from Twitter early this yr, Brazil’s like-minded chief made a plea to his hundreds of thousands of followers on the positioning.
“Sign up for my official channel on Telegram,” President Jair Bolsonaro requested.
Since then, Telegram, an encrypted messaging and social media platform run by an elusive Russian exile, has racked up tens of hundreds of thousands of recent customers in Brazil.
Its rising reputation in Brazil and elsewhere is being fueled by conservative politicians and commentators for whom it has turn out to be probably the most permissive disseminator of problematic content material — together with disinformation — in a social media ecosystem going through mounting stress to fight faux information and polarization.
While WhatsApp stays by far the dominant messaging platform in Brazil, Telegram is making inroads quick. By August, it had been put in in 53 % of all smartphones in Brazil, up from 15 % two years earlier, in response to a report.
Founded in 2013, Telegram has turn out to be a instrument coveted by activists, dissidents and politicians — many in repressive nations like Iran and Cuba — to speak privately.
But Brazilian authorities officers and consultants fear the app might turn out to be a strong vector for lies and vitriol earlier than subsequent yr’s presidential elections — a tense political second within the nation.
Mr. Bolsonaro, his re-election prospects endangered by his diminishing reputation, has adopted the Trump playbook and begun sowing doubts in regards to the integrity of Brazil’s voting system, elevating the potential for a disputed consequence. His unfounded declare that digital voting machines will probably be rigged has unnerved the opposition and the nation’s prime judges, who say the abundance of disinformation in Brazilian politics is doing lasting harm to its democracy.
“We know that systemic disinformation is produced by structures that are very well organized and financed,” mentioned Aline Osório, a secretary normal at Brazil’s electoral court docket who heads its program in opposition to misinformation.
Ms. Osório mentioned the court docket had established constructive working relationships with executives from different social media firms which have turn out to be automobiles for misinformation campaigns. But its efforts to achieve Telegram, which is predicated in Dubai, have been unsuccessful.
“Telegram has no representatives in Brazil, and this has made it difficult to establish a partnership in the same way we’ve done with other platforms,” she mentioned.
Telegram didn’t reply to a request for an interview. Press queries are submitted by way of a bot on the platform.
Experts say political content material and conversations have migrated considerably to Telegram lately in Brazil and different nations, largely due to the app’s capability to mass-reproduce content material.
Group chats can embrace as much as 200,000 customers, exponentially greater than WhatsApp’s restrict of 256. WhatsApp curbed customers’ capability to ahead messages after coming underneath criticism in Brazil and elsewhere for the function it performed in misinformation campaigns throughout current elections.
In addition to group chats, Telegram hosts channels, a one-way mass-communication instrument utilized by companies, artists and politicians to distribute messages, movies and audio information. Mr. Bolsonaro’s channel surpassed a million followers in current weeks, placing him among the many world’s most adopted politicians on the platform.
While rival apps have adopted stricter and extra clearly outlined insurance policies on abuse and disinformation, Telegram’s pointers are imprecise, and the service takes a hands-off strategy to content material in particular person and group chats.
That makes it a protected area for incendiary figures, together with politicians, who’ve been banned from different platforms. In Brazil, the Twitter and Instagram accounts of a lawmaker, Daniel Silveira, and a conservative journalist, Allan dos Santos, had been suspended as a part of a Supreme Court investigation into disinformation campaigns that included threats in opposition to justices.
But Telegram stays a portal to their followers. That has enabled Mr. dos Santos to boost funds for his authorized protection and name the justice who acquired him banned from different websites a “psychopath.”
“The network is clearly benefiting from the removal of users from other platforms,” Fabrício Benevenuto, a pc science professor on the Federal University of Minas Gerais, mentioned of Telegram. “Politicians have noticed it makes no effort to remove accounts, so it is becoming an appealing network for more radical groups.”
Farzaneh Badiei, an web governance knowledgeable who printed a paper on Telegram at Yale Law School this yr, mentioned that Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, had been unwilling to meaningfully grapple with the issue of disinformation that goes viral.
“Their approach is very disorganized and very opaque,” she mentioned. “We don’t see a systemic approach to solving these problems.”
Mr. Durov left Russia in 2014 after battling authorities efforts to censor content material on the social networking website he based, VKontakte. He has mentioned he designed Telegram as an extremely personal technique of speaking based mostly on the persecution he says he endured in his native nation.
Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube performed important roles in Mr. Bolsonaro’s gorgeous victory in 2018, and the far-right chief has continued to rely closely on social media to energise his base, assault opponents and make false claims that go largely unchallenged.
But in current months, the platforms that enabled Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise have reined him in over his false or deceptive claims about measures to comprise the coronavirus. Social media firms put him on discover by taking down a handful of movies and tweets that they deemed harmful.
Mr. Bolsonaro and his followers have railed in opposition to these removals as types of censorship. In September, he argued that disinformation was now a everlasting function of politics and dismissed it as a trivial difficulty.
“Fake news is part of our life,” he mentioned. “Who has never told a little lie to their girlfriend?”
Telegram has drawn important scrutiny in Brazil for greater than its disruptive function in politics. Investigations by information organizations discovered that it was internet hosting unlawful arms networks and enabling the distribution of kid pornography.
Brazilian lawmakers are debating laws that will require platforms like Telegram to have authorized illustration in Brazil or danger being banned. However, customers have simply circumvented such bans in nations like Iran and Russia through the use of software program that lets them disguise their location.
Diogo Rais, a professor at Mackenzie University in São Paulo and a co-founder of the Digital Freedom Institute, known as blocking apps a “drastic measure” that will be ineffective.
“We need to deal with digital challenges realizing that our laws are from 2009 and limited to our physical territory,” he mentioned. “The digital world has no such limit. This is a global challenge.”