Barbara Lima received a news story on WhatsApp last Saturday about Carlos Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician and son of Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. The story of his punching and breaking a window had already gone viral on Twitter. Lima, who works as an NGO consultant in Brasília, told Rest of World she believed it — for a few days at least — because it was deemed to be likely, given Carlos’ history of promoting gun ownership, and his generally violent speech. 

Later, it turned out to be fake news, much like the hundreds of other stories shared on social media platforms in Brazil during the ongoing election campaign. “I think it’s very easy to believe in fake news because it always reinforces something that we already think, or at least consider possible,” Lima told Rest of World. 

The speed at which fake news spreads on social media platforms, especially on WhatsApp, has become such a matter of concern for Brazil’s electoral authorities that the country’s Supreme Court recently acted upon it. On October 20, it passed a resolution giving the country’s electoral court (TSE) power to order the removal of electoral-related news that has been proven to be fake from social media platforms within a two-hour window. 

Some experts specializing in civil and digital rights told Rest of World the move was necessary to tackle the torrent of disinformation taking over the presidential race. They claim the issue hasn’t been addressed by social media platforms quickly enough. According to a report by human rights organization Global Witness, YouTube and Facebook have been unsuccessful at identifying and banning ads that spread fake news on their platforms. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, declined to comment when approached by Rest of World regarding what it had done, or will do, to prevent the spread of disinformation in the country. 

While the resolution has yet to be utilized, there is worry this authority, in the hands of one man, could endanger free speech in the country.

But Marco Antonio Carvalho Teixeira, a political scientist from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a private university and think tank based in Brazil, told Rest of World that the TSE resolution is an attempt to catch up on how fast fake news spreads. “The TSE is trying to anticipate the spread of fake news because the effect they have is big,” he said. 

It’s not the court’s first attempt at addressing fake news. Since the 1997 Electoral Law, the TSE allows campaigns to file for a “right to reply” in case of libelous, damaging, or knowingly untrue information being spread by political actors. If, for example, the TSE rules that a piece of content is libelous, the petitioning candidate has the right to reply in the same channel where it was published — TV, social media, radio — for the same amount of time the disinformation was running. 

But, this right to reply was not an efficient solution. “Fake news spread faster than the judicial decisions,” João Brant, director of the nonprofit research center Culture and Democracy Institute, told Rest of World. Aside from the right to reply, prior to the TSE’s October resolution, court orders to remove content from platforms within 24 hours — a long time for electoral periods, when disinformation can change a person’s vote. The TSE’s new resolution demands that flagged content be taken down within a two-hour window, risking fines and nationwide suspension if not.

Now, any court removal order on social media is carried out by listing URLs of fraudulent content rather than individual links for every piece of disinformation. “Needing new judicial processes for new URLs of content bringing falsehoods was becoming a game of whack-a-mole,” Brant said. 

“I’ve seen fake news about the national bank cutting welfare checks that don’t exist, or of the government cutting benefits,” Cassia Silva do Nascimento, a 51-year-old cleaner, told Rest of World. Once discovered to be fake, it doesn’t matter — the damage is done. “Fake news always reinforces something that we already think or at least consider possible,” said Lima, the NGO consultant.

Brant says the head of the TSE can only exercise the order of removing fake news immediately if the piece of content is identical to others that “have already been deemed falsehoods regarding electoral integrity,” and involves not what candidates say about each other, but about the electoral process and authorities.

Being the TSE’s head, de Moraes is in charge of executing the order when the court deems content to be fake. One single person having so much power is worrisome, particularly because the new resolution is meant to address fake news not only in this election but others to come.

“That amount of concentrated power will always be a long-term vulnerability to the viability of democracy,” Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Rest of World. 

But, overall, Brookie considers that the TSE “has been thoughtful, fair, and balanced” in how it’s dealing with the impact of disinformation on Brazilian elections. “In an ideal world, we would have time to judge each material in question and keep people accountable, but we don’t have that time,” Carvalho Teixeira told Rest of World. “Everything that is shared today will only get a judicial response after the elections, and at that point, the moment to dispel fake information is gone.”