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.
“Join 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 develop into probably the most permissive disseminator of problematic content material — together with disinformation — in a social media ecosystem dealing with mounting stress to fight faux information and polarization.
Whereas WhatsApp stays by far the dominant messaging platform in Brazil, Telegram is making inroads quick. By August, it had been put in in 53 p.c of all smartphones in Brazil, up from 15 p.c two years earlier, based on a report.
Based in 2013, Telegram has develop into a instrument coveted by activists, dissidents and politicians — many in repressive nations like Iran and Cuba — to speak privately.
However Brazilian authorities officers and consultants fear the app might develop into 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 concerning the integrity of Brazil’s voting system, elevating the potential of 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 all know that systemic disinformation is produced by buildings which can be very nicely organized and financed,” stated Aline Osório, a secretary common at Brazil’s electoral court docket who heads its program towards misinformation.
Ms. Osório stated the court docket had established constructive working relationships with executives from different social media corporations which have develop into automobiles for misinformation campaigns. However its efforts to achieve Telegram, which relies in Dubai, have been unsuccessful.
“Telegram has no representatives in Brazil, and this has made it tough to determine a partnership in the identical approach we’ve finished with different platforms,” she stated.
Telegram didn’t reply to a request for an interview. Press queries are submitted by means of a bot on the platform.
Consultants say political content material and conversations have migrated considerably to Telegram lately in Brazil and other countries, 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 position it performed in misinformation campaigns throughout current elections.
Along with group chats, Telegram hosts channels, a one-way mass-communication instrument utilized by firms, artists and politicians to distribute messages, movies and audio recordsdata. Mr. Bolsonaro’s channel surpassed a million followers in current weeks, placing him among the many world’s most adopted politicians on the platform.
Whereas rival apps have adopted stricter and extra clearly outlined insurance policies on abuse and disinformation, Telegram’s pointers are obscure, 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 Courtroom investigation into disinformation campaigns that included threats towards justices.
However Telegram stays a portal to their followers. That has enabled Mr. dos Santos to raise funds for his authorized protection and name the justice who bought him banned from different websites a “psychopath.”
“The community is clearly benefiting from the removing of customers from different platforms,” Fabrício Benevenuto, a pc science professor on the Federal College of Minas Gerais, stated of Telegram. “Politicians have observed it makes no effort to take away accounts, so it’s changing into an interesting community for extra radical teams.”
Farzaneh Badiei, an web governance professional who printed a paper on Telegram at Yale Law School this yr, stated that Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, had been unwilling to meaningfully grapple with the issue of disinformation that goes viral.
“Their strategy could be very disorganized and really opaque,” she stated. “We don’t see a systemic strategy to fixing these issues.”
Mr. Durov left Russia in 2014 after battling authorities efforts to censor content material on the social networking web site he based, VKontakte. He has said he designed Telegram as an extremely non-public technique of speaking based mostly on the persecution he says he endured in his native nation.
Twitter, Fb, WhatsApp and YouTube performed essential 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.
However 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 corporations put him on discover by taking down a handful of movies and tweets that they deemed harmful.
Mr. Bolsonaro and his followers have railed towards these removals as types of censorship. In September, he argued that disinformation was now a everlasting characteristic of politics and dismissed it as a trivial concern.
“Pretend information is a part of our life,” he said. “Who has by no means advised a bit mislead their girlfriend?”
Telegram has drawn essential scrutiny in Brazil for greater than its disruptive position in politics. Investigations by information organizations discovered that it was internet hosting unlawful arms networks and enabling the distribution of child pornography.
Brazilian lawmakers are debating laws that might require platforms like Telegram to have authorized illustration in Brazil or threat being banned. Nonetheless, customers have simply circumvented such bans in international locations like Iran and Russia by utilizing software program that lets them disguise their location.
Diogo Rais, a professor at Mackenzie College in São Paulo and a co-founder of the Digital Freedom Institute, known as blocking apps a “drastic measure” that might be ineffective.
“We have to cope with digital challenges realizing that our legal guidelines are from 2009 and restricted to our bodily territory,” he stated. “The digital world has no such restrict. It is a international problem.”