A second scourge is affecting flooded southern Brazil: Disinformation

SAO PAULO (AP) – While floods that devastated Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state have not yet subsided, another scourge has spread across the region: disinformation on social media that has hampered desperate efforts to help get for hundreds of thousands who are in need.

Among fake posts that sparked outrage: That official agencies are not conducting rescues in Brazil’s southernmost state. That bureaucracy is holding up donations of food, water and clothing. One persistent rumor claims authorities are hiding hundreds of bodies, said Jairo Jorge, mayor of the hard-hit city of Canoas.

Jorge and other officials say that hidden activists behind the posts are taking advantage of the crisis to undermine the government’s confidence.

Ary Vanazzi, mayor of Sao Leopoldo, said many people ignored official warnings and instead looked at posts on social media saying government alerts were “just politicians trying to inform people .”

“Because of that, many did not leave their homes in this emergency. Some of them may have died because of it,” Vanazzi told the Associated Press. “Sometimes we spend more time defending against lies than working to help our community.”

At least 149 people have been killed by floods in the past two weeks, and more than 100 are still missing, state authorities said Wednesday. More than 600,000 people were forced from their homes.

Brazil came to the forefront for disinformation before the 2018 election won by Jair Bolsonaro. During his presidency, there were frequent conflicts over taking care of digital attacks. The Supreme Court has since launched one of the world’s most aggressive efforts to end coordinated disinformation campaigns, led by one particularly controversial justice overseeing an investigation into the spread of fake news. He ordered social media platforms to remove dozens of accounts.

The army was saved online during the presidency of Bolsonaro, a former captain who is a fierce opponent of his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But he has become a target of far-right hostility under Lula, with social media users attacking military leaders for taking orders from the leftist president, said Alexandre Aragão, executive editor of the fact-checking agency Aos Fatos.

Many videos posted online insinuate soldiers are not participating in rescue. Others make fun of soldiers’ supposed lack of equipment, using footage of a truck stuck in floodwaters. The general in charge of the army’s southern command told CNN Brasil that one rumor claimed he was responsible for deaths that did not exist inside a hospital.

The army says it and local agencies deployed 31,000 soldiers, police and others to rescue more than 69,000 people and 10,000 animals and deliver tons of aid by air and boat. Brazil’s federal government announced that it will spend nearly 51 billion reais ($10 billion) on recovery, provide credit to farmers and small companies and suspend the state’s 11 billion annual debt service.

“These reports are disturbing, because they do not reflect reality,” the order said in a statement to the AP. “Many active military were also victims of these floods. Many soldiers lost their homes after the rain and are still on the front line helping the population.”

Due to complaints from military brass, the Brazilian government is appealing to social media platforms to stop the spread of misinformation, Attorney General Jorge Messias said in an interview.

By late Tuesday, everyone had expressed a willingness to cooperate — except for X, according to Messias’ office. The owner of the platform, Elon Musk, came against the Supreme Court judge’s decisions to restrict user accounts, accusing him of making jokes and drawing praise from Bolsonaro and his allies. X did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Messias’ office also filed a lawsuit against a social media influencer who claimed that one businessman – and staunch supporter of Bolsonaro – sent more aircraft to aid rescue efforts than the entire Brazilian air force. The government is demanding the right to respond to the Instagram profile of the influencer, Pablo Marçal, an outspoken critic of Lula with almost 10 million followers.

The disinformation swarm at a time of crisis is a “tragedy within a tragedy,” Messias said. “When we stop everything to respond to fake news, we are diverting public resources and energy from things that really matter, that are serving the public.”

Almost one-third of people surveyed by pollster Quaest reported being exposed to fake news about the floods, according to the poll conducted from May 2-6. Conducted in 120 cities across the country, it had a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points.

The disinformation is creating a hostile environment for aid workers. Locals have accused state and municipal agents of acting too slowly and threatened to expose them online, and shouted at firefighters over reports they failed to rescue people and pets, according to the mayors of Sao Leopoldo and Canoas. Several people pretending to be volunteers broke into a warehouse of the state civil defense agency last week, filming aid donations inside and posting the video online as supposed evidence that they had failed to distribute the aid, according to the agency.

Last week, another lie claimed that authorities were stopping trucks with donations, Aragão said. He was later released by broadcaster SBT’s story about a truck stopped for inspection, albeit overloaded. Posts on social media distorted that report and claimed aid stops were a widespread phenomenon. The situation was illustrative, said Aragão.

“When there is a tragedy of the dimensions that happened in Rio Grande do Sul, of course there will be isolated cases of absurd things,” he said by phone from São Paulo. “Social media sells those real and isolated cases as if they were official protocol.”

Janine Bargas is working non-stop on the disaster as a professor at the Federal University of Health Sciences Porto Alegre in the state capital. Initially, her duties included providing reliable information, such as telling people where they could find needed medication.

The misrepresentation has become so severe that her job now includes monitoring it and debunking it. This included recommendations for false preventive treatment for waterborne bacterial disease.

“The same anti-vaccination doctors who were recommending chloroquine during COVID started promoting prophylaxis for leptospirosis,” Bargas told the AP, adding that panic over the reports erupted in a staff-managed shelter of the university. “People started fighting, asking for the medicine. And a dose of this medication can be very toxic to the liver.”

Jorge, the mayor of Canoas, became the target of disinformation just hours after the floods began. A post, shared millions of times on messaging apps, showed a brawl he said took place at a shelter in Canoas over a decree that all donations go through City Hall. The fight took place in the state of Ceara, on the other side of the mainland, and Jorge did not issue such a decree.

The lies are “connected, aimed at making people stop believing in public agents,” he said. “Whenever a natural disaster happens, there is a wave of solidarity. But not this time; there is also a wave of anger at disinformation.”


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is financially supported by multiple private foundations. AP is responsible for each and every subject. Find AP standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and covered areas of funding at AP.org.

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