Catholic Church works to fight ‘fake news’ in Brazil’s election campaign

SÃO PAULO – Although the electoral campaign officially began on August 16, the attacks against the two main candidates for the presidency of Brazil – current President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula – continue have multiplied on social networks since last year.

Much of this content is “fake news” related to religion, which worries the Brazilian bishops.


In recent weeks, for example, thousands of people have shared on social media a text saying that da Silva had tried to enact a decree in 2010 “banning Christianity from Brazil”.

Fact checkers like the Portuguese language service of Fact check by Reuters clarified that Lula’s decree included a provision on the need to develop “mechanisms to prevent the display of religious symbols in public buildings of the federal government”. The idea was criticized by the Catholic Church and ended up being removed from the final version of the decree, which was approved in 2010.

The fake news emerged as part of a smear campaign against Lula – who still topped polls a month before the Oct. 2 election – attempting to link him to anti-Christian persecution by regimes of left in other Latin American countries. .

During his administration between 2003 and 2010, no action was taken by his administration against Christian churches in Brazil. Lula is Catholic and has historical ties to the progressive wing of the Brazilian Church. The liberation theology movement was deeply involved in the creation of its Workers’ Party in 1980.

Nonetheless, fake news accusing the former president of wanting to implant a “Nicaraguan-style regime in Brazil” has become increasingly common.

“All political groups can spread misinformation – even the press can, when it makes a mistake. But several studies have shown that the far right is intentionally spreading fake news,” said Magali Cunha, a communications researcher who runs Coletivo Bereia, a fact-checking group specializing in fake news about religion.

This is why lies against Lula have been much more common than misinformation against Bolsonaro, Cunha said, recalling that “the 2018 campaign, when the current president was elected, was entirely based on fake news.”

“It is already clear that Bolsonaro supporters have no intention of presenting and discussing his political platform. Instead, they prioritize spreading fake news against opponents of the president,” she added.

She also claimed that due to the current president’s strategic use of fake news, most fact-checkers are immediately accused of being members of the opposition.

“Being labeled as an enemy of Bolsonaro is now unavoidable for fact-checkers. But groups like Bereia, fact-checking agencies and universities won’t give up,” Cunha said.

Although he is Catholic, Bolsonaro gets much of his strongest support from the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches. The president is married to a Baptist and often attends services with her. It is also backed by news sites controlled by evangelicals.

“Some of the most visited evangelical portals have been spreading fake news – and this content is also reaching Catholics, many times through social media,” Cunha said.

Coletivo Bereia was one of the groups that collaborated with the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) to train agents from the Ministry of Pastoral Communications (Pascom) to identify fake news.

Earlier in August, 300 Pascom workers from across the country took part in a course on spreading disinformation during election campaigns, basic procedures for identifying fabrications and ways to spread this knowledge among fellow parishioners. .

“The formal training of pastoral agents against fake news, a terrible evil, is a sign that the CNBB is ready to continue its fight against disinformation,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães, CNBB communication manager. . Node.

He said the Brazilian Church has mishandled the spread of fake news among Catholics – sometimes concerning the Church itself.

“Segments of the Church that are reactionary, identify with authoritarian positions and claim to be an advocate of the conservative agenda – a segment that includes bishops and priests – are not aligned in the fight against fake news because, I imagine, they need it to build successful activism,” he said.

Guimarães pointed out that there have been no cases “of bishops who have taken drastic, profound and adequate measures” against priests or lay people because of the spreading of false news.

“We hear about a certain stupor and also a fear of acting. Many prefer to be silent. There is a great incongruity between the Brazilian Episcopate’s rhetoric against fake news and its concrete actions against church members who commit such crimes,” Guimarães said.

The CNBB itself has been the constant target of false information campaigns in recent years. On its Facebook page, it is common to see comments from conservative Catholics accusing the conference of being communist and supporting Lula.

The highly polarized political context in Brazil is a central issue in this problem, said Vinicius Borges Gomes, professor of communication at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais.

Gomes taught in the Pascom course.

“Fake news reaches people’s most intense emotions and opinions. This is precisely where religiosity is, since it involves emotion and dogma. So religion is a breeding ground for fake news,” he said. Node.

Gomes, himself a former Pascom agent, said social media compounds the problem because it tends to allow people to exist in bubbles with people who only share their views.

“Fake news is seen as true by people who want it to be true,” he said.

But sometimes people spread lies even though they know they are lies, he added. “Even Catholics do this stuff,” he said.

According to Guimarães, Catholics must be aware of the great damage caused by misinformation.

“Fake news is an expression of the worst in humanity,” the bishop said.

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