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This article was originally published on the website of APC member organisation Intervozes.

In the week in which we celebrate the Amazon Day, on September 5th, the absence of the theme in national speeches and debates is striking, be it in recent statements by the presidential candidates or even in the press coverage on relevant themes concerning one of the planet’s largest natural reserves.

This lack of visibility ends up creating a perfect breeding ground for disinformation in the Legal Amazon region. The mismatched information regarding the death of the indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and the journalist Dom Phillips, the resumption of the case of the lost kingdom of Ratanabá, and the silence about the death of the last isolated indigenous person of the Tanaru Indigenous Territory, known as “the Indian of the hole”, who was found dead on August 23, are some examples.

A large number of Brazilians believe that the protection of the Amazon should be considered a critical issue in these elections. According to a survey carried out by the Instituto PoderData, upon request of the Instituto Clima e Sociedade (ICS), six out of ten Brazilians who have participated in the Amazon and Elections 2022 research stated that a presidential candidate would increase the chances of receiving their vote if he or she presented a specific plan for the protection of the region. But this is not what we see. In the debate broadcasted last Sunday of August, by Bandeirantes TV network, the word Amazon was not even mentioned. It was neither stimulated by the questions asked by the journalists nor spontaneously mentioned as an important topic in the government plan by the candidates.

What has been circulating in some media and social networks, such as Facebook and messaging groups, whether in Amazon territories or other regions of the country, are still echoes of a speech made by President Jair Bolsonaro at the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) in 2020, when he stated that Brazil is the victim of “one of the most brutal disinformation campaigns about the Amazon and the Pantanal”, that it has a zero-tolerance policy towards environmental crimes, and also blamed civil society organizations for the dissemination of untruths, since several NGOs had denounced the advance of deforestation in the country.

Web portal spreads disinformation in favor of Bolsonaro

In July this year, the news website Portal Novo Norte, from the state of Tocantins, published the news article “Mamata das ONGs e compra irregular de terras na Amazônia serão alvo de CPI” [NGO rackets and irregular land purchases in the Amazon will be the target of a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission]. The article praises the speech by Senator Plinio Valério (PSDB-AM) about the creation of a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on NGOs and deforestation, which would have the purpose of investigating alleged frauds found in the allocation of resources from the Amazon Fund and the suspicion of illegal purchases of Brazilian land by foreign companies interested in the Amazon biome, through NGOs that act under the excuse of preservation.

It is worth mentioning that this Senator has declared many times his favorable position towards the Bill 191/2020, which authorizes mining, farming and cattle raising, oil and gas extraction, and electricity generation on indigenous territories in the Legal Amazon.

The matter here is not to affirm or deny that NGOs are deforesting or selling land, since, in order to be able to verify this, it would be necessary to investigate each NGO’s case. That article does not present fake news in its general analysis, and this is the point: it does not need to be fake news to disinform. Inventing, distorting, or denying facts and events are also disinformation strategies, just like the news desert or the infodemic.

Many of these discursive practices aim to rewrite history and change the past in order to redirect the future. Others are at the service of economic, religious, or purely political and electoral interests.

The Portal Novo Norte has been the object of a research carried out by Intervozes and the WG on Fighting Disinformation in the Legal Amazon, which has been surveying pages and profiles that spread disinformative content in the region. The site was created in 2019 and has an average of 1.2 million hits per month, according to SimilarWeb data. It works as an aggregator of miscellaneous news and distributes its content mainly through WhatsApp and Telegram, although it is also active on Facebook and Instagram.

Four months after its creation, Novo Norte had already reached an audience of over six digits. There is evidence of a message sharing network, since the size of its audience on social media platforms does not match the number of website clicks. During the pandemic, the portal stood out for spreading content that supported the Federal Government’s initiatives and the use of alternative treatments to Covid-19, such as chloroquine, not recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In an article on narratives that prevailed in the social media in the 2018 elections, Pablo Ortellado and Márcio Moretto Ribeiro pointed out that hyperpartisanship is considered to be an effect of the polarization of the public sphere and “(…) that has transformed the political debate into an unreflective information war in which sharing low-quality news is a socially accepted practice”.

It is clear that the Novo Norte Portal has hyperpartisan characteristics as it shares mostly content from government agencies that favor a political trend. From the beginning of the electoral campaign in August, the Portal has spread increasingly pro-Bolsonaro contents.

The description of one of the WhatsApp groups connected to the Portal states that “This group is focused on news sharing. Only administrators can post in order to maintain the focus and avoid infiltrating leftists,” which already expresses its political spectrum. There is also a strong association with disinformation as the presence of manipulated or misleading content, overlaying fabricated content is noticeable.

A recent example was the debate with the presidential candidates that took place on TV Bandeirantes. A flood of news were spread in messaging groups and social networks. In one of the Portal’s WhatsApp groups, 23 news items were sent on that Monday (29th) – all of them pro-Bolsonaro. In the days before the debate, there were no more than ten news items shared.

Organizations join forces in a campaign for demonetization

One type of action that can curb the spread and reach of disinformative content is demonetization. Therefore, in the week of the Amazon Day, Intervozes and the Working Group on Fighting Combat Disinformation in the Legal Amazon notified Portal Novo Norte and the company Eduzz, which is responsible for collecting subscriptions to the site and launched the campaign #EduzzPareoFinancing. The notification, which is based on the subscription-enabling company’s own terms of use, warns that the Portal Novo Norte has been breaching the terms of use and spreading disinformation. In addition to demanding the suspension of the service, the action also claims the accountability of the company due to the support for the propagation of content that is harmful to democracy, especially in an election year, and to be responsible for its customer base.

The #AmazoniaLivreDeFakes [Fake-Free Amazon] initiative, which includes the #EduzzPareoFinanciamento [Eduzz Stop Funding] campaign, aims to make visible, hold accountable, and demonetize companies that provide funds to news sites that spread disinformation in the Legal Amazon. Through the articulations of the project, a Working Group (WG) was created by ten different organizations, eight of them from the Amazon.

The first stage of the research to identify pages and profiles that spread unreliable content has been carried out since March. All this information was gathered in a partial report launched at the Panamazonic Social Forum, in Belém, and will be available on the project’s website later this month.

In the first survey, seventy disinformative sites/blogs were identified, grouped into journalistic media, right-wing social movements, and public figure profiles. After this profiling, the journalistic groups with the largest audience/reach were monitored, their funding sources were investigated, and their terms of use were analyzed. Besides Portal Novo Norte, two other pages were found with great reach in the Amazon region and will be announced soon.

Raquel Santos and Viviane Tavares are members of Intervozes and are part of the Working Group on Fighting Disinformation in the Legal Amazon, a network of 10 organisations.