As Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has been positively impacted by the unlawful submission of massive attack ads against the Workers’ Party (PT) to millions of people via WhatsApp, the far-right presidential candidate could be disqualified from the race or be removed from office if he runs and gets elected, even if his direct involvement in the activities is not proven true, a law expert said.
According to a report published by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo last Thursday, companies are paying for mass messaging services against left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad’s party and planning a huge messaging operation for the week leading to the runoff vote, which will be held on Oct. 28. The practice is illegal, as it constitutes campaign contributions from private institutions, which is outlawed by Brazil’s electoral law.
Daniel Falcão, a lawyer specializing in digital electoral law, said this actions can be considered unlawful campaign spending and the Brazilian authorities could investigate them as abuse of economic power. “Companies are bankrolling something that is illegal. Only candidates, parties, or electoral alliances can boost content, but in this case, these are third parties doing this, and they are not part of the campaign. Not only this, but the sheer amount of money reported could constitute abuse of economic power. This could result in the disqualification of [Bolsonaro’s] ticket, and, if he gets elected, he could be impeached,” the lawer explains.
To send hundreds of millions of messages, contracts are worth as high as R$12 million (more than US$3.2 million). One of the companies hiring these services is Havan, owned by Luciano Hang, who has reportedly been forcing his employees to vote for Jair Bolsonaro.
Falcão says the law can be interpreted to punish Bolsonaro, even if a direct link between him and the crime committed by the companies is not proven.
“There is a controversy over whether it is necessary to prove a link between the candidate’s ticket or advisers and this problem. There are those who argue it is, which means the candidate and his advisers have to provenly know about it. But there are precedents on both sides. There are others who argue that –no, there is no need to prove the link. The fact that it has impacted the elections and clearly benefited one of the candidate is enough to have that candidate punished for that. If there is a link, then it’s even easier to get a conviction,” Falcão explains.
The companies exposed by the newspaper are supporting the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro and using contact databases sold by digital strategy agencies as well as the presidential hopeful’s own database. The law, however, only allows candidates to use their own lists of contacts provided voluntarily by individuals.
The law expert points out the role of social media and messaging apps in Brazil’s elections this year. He says these platforms “have never been as optimized as today. That alone [makes this election] different. We have a candidate who is a shady congressman, a rank and file, and after four years massively campaigning on social media and messaging apps he managed to become the front-runner in the presidential election.”
An electoral law professor at the Brasília Institute of Public Law, Falcão argues that the consequences ensuing from the report by Folha de S. Paulo may not be immediate.
“There may be an impact on the people, as they may understand that it’s a serious enough offense to decide not to vote for the candidate who is benefiting from it,” the expert says, or the case could drag in court until next year, “with the possibility of having an elected president removed.”
While some of the agencies reported to be sending mass WhatsApp messages include Quickmobile, Yacows, Croc Services, and SMS Market, Bolsonaro’s financial disclosures only include the company AM4 Brasil Inteligência Digital, which was paid R$115,000 (nearly US$31,000) to provide digital media services.
According to Folha, the services are between R$0.08 and R$0.12 (US$0.02-0.03) per message sent to contact numbers from the candidate’s own list and R$0.30 to R$0.40 (US$0.08-0.11) per message when the list of contacts is provided by the agency. The agencies also offer segmentation by region and even income.
#Caixa2doBolsonaro (“Bolsonaro’s slush fund”) was the top 1 trending topic on Twitter yesterday, as users exposed the business owners’ criminal actions against the PT.
The president of the polling institute Datafolha, Mauro Paulino, indirectly mentioned the effective impact of these attack ads in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, saying opinion polls showed a boost in the final stretch. The states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais and the Federal District were clear examples, Paulino wrote. “Comparing the picture days before [the first round], as surveyed by [pollsters] Ibope and Datafolha, and the picture of the [actual] ballots, it’s clearly there.”
The Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, has been the primary target of fake news shared through WhatsApp in the 2018 elections. The presidential hopeful said he will file complaints against the accused companies, arguing the episode shows, once again, that Bolsonaro does not respect democracy.
“We are going to ask the electoral court and the Federal Police to immediately arrest these corrupt businesspeople in order to stop [them from sending] these WhatsApp messages. They have names of owners, names of companies, contracts, the amount of slush funds – which is an election offense. He [Bolsonaro] is dodging [the presidential] debates, but he cannot dodge justice,” Haddad said.
The Workers’ Party released a statement calling the Federal Police to investigate “Bolsonaro’s criminal activities.”
“It’s a consorted action to influence the electoral process that the electoral courts cannot overlook or leave unpunished. We are taking all legal measures so that he is held accountable for his crimes, including using slush funds, because the millions spent on the industry of lies are not included in his financial disclosures,” the statement reads.
The party also stated that the unlawful campaign cannot be tolerated in a democracy and that Brazilian authorities have a duty to make sure the election process is respected.
Edition: Pedro Ribeiro Nogueira