RIO DE JANEIRO – Shortly after President Donald J. Trump was banned from Twitter earlier this year, the like-minded Brazilian leader appealed to his millions of followers on the site.
“Sign up for my official channel on Telegram,” President Jair Bolsonaro asked.
Since then Telegram, an encrypted messaging and social media platform run by an elusive Russian exile, has racked up tens of millions of new users in Brazil.
Its growing popularity in Brazil and elsewhere is fueled by conservative politicians and commentators for whom it has become the most permissive broadcaster of problematic content – including disinformation – in a social media ecosystem facing increasing pressure to combat fake news and polarization.
While WhatsApp remains by far the dominant messaging platform in Brazil, Telegram is making rapid progress. As of August, it had been installed in 53% of all smartphones in Brazil, up from 15% two years earlier, according to a report.
Founded in 2013, Telegram has become a coveted tool by activists, dissidents and politicians – many in repressive countries like Iran and Cuba – for communicating in private.
But Brazilian government officials and experts fear the app will become a powerful vector of lies and vitriol ahead of next year’s presidential elections – a tense political moment in the country.
Mr Bolsonaro, whose re-election prospects are threatened by his waning popularity, has followed Trump’s playbook and has begun to cast doubt on the integrity of the Brazilian electoral system, raising the possibility of a contested outcome. His unfounded claim that electronic voting machines will be rigged has pissed off the opposition and the country’s top judges, who say the abundance of disinformation in Brazilian politics is causing lasting damage to its democracy.
“We know that systemic disinformation is produced by very well organized and funded structures,” said Aline Osório, general secretary of the Brazilian electoral tribunal which runs its program against disinformation.
Ms Osório said the court has established constructive working relationships with executives of other social media companies who have become vectors of disinformation campaigns. But his efforts to reach Dubai-based Telegram were unsuccessful.
“Telegram does not have a representative in Brazil, and this made it difficult to establish a partnership in the same way that we have done with other platforms,” she said.
Telegram did not respond to a request for an interview. Press queries are submitted via a bot on the platform.
Experts say content and political conversations have migrated to Telegram significantly in recent years in Brazil and other countries, largely due to the app’s ability to replicate content in mass.
Group chats can include up to 200,000 users, which is exponentially more than WhatsApp’s limit of 256. WhatsApp has limited users’ ability to forward messages after being criticized in Brazil and elsewhere for the role it played in disinformation campaigns in recent elections.
In addition to group chats, Telegram hosts Channels, a one-way mass communication tool used by businesses, artists and politicians to distribute messages, videos and audio files. Mr Bolsonaro’s channel has surpassed one million followers in recent weeks, making him one of the world’s most followed politicians on the platform.
While rival apps have adopted stricter, more clearly defined policies on abuse and disinformation, Telegram’s guidelines are vague and the service takes a hands-off approach to content in individual and group chats.
This makes it a safe space for inflammatory figures, including politicians, who have been banned from other platforms. In Brazil, the Twitter and Instagram accounts of lawmaker Daniel Silveira and conservative journalist Allan dos Santos have been suspended as part of a Supreme Court investigation into disinformation campaigns including threats against the judges.
But Telegram remains a portal for their subscribers. This enabled Mr. dos Santos to to collect funds for his legal defense and to call the justice which made him ban other sites of “psychopath”.
“The network clearly benefits from removing users from other platforms,” Fabrício Benevenuto, professor of computer science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said of Telegram. “Politicians have noticed that he makes no effort to delete the accounts, so he becomes an attractive network for more radical groups.”
Farzaneh Badiei, an expert in internet governance who published an article on Telegram at Yale Law School this year, said Telegram founder Pavel Durov had not wanted to significantly tackle the problem of disinformation going viral.
“Their approach is very disorganized and very opaque,” she said. “We don’t see a systems approach to solving these problems.
Mr. Durov left Russia in 2014 after fighting government efforts to censor content on the social networking site he founded, VKontakte. He said he designed Telegram as an ultra private medium based on the persecution he says he endured in his homeland.
Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube played a vital role in Mr Bolsonaro’s resounding victory in 2018, and the far-right leader continued to rely heavily on social media to energize his base, attack his opponents and make false claims which remain largely unchallenged.
But in recent months, the platforms that enabled Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise have held him back on his false or misleading claims about coronavirus containment measures. Social media companies warned him by removing a handful of videos and tweets they considered dangerous.
Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters denounced the cuts as forms of censorship. In September, he argued that disinformation was now a permanent feature of politics and dismissed it as a trivial matter.
“Fake news is part of our life” he said. “Who hasn’t told their girlfriend a little lie?” “
Telegram has drawn critical scrutiny in Brazil for more than its disruptive role in politics. Investigations by news organizations revealed that he harbored illegal weapons networks and allowing the dissemination of child pornography.
Brazilian lawmakers are debating legislation that would require platforms like Telegram to have legal representation in Brazil or risk being banned. However, users have easily bypassed these bans in countries like Iran and Russia by using software that allows them to conceal their location.
Diogo Rais, the a professor at Mackenzie University in São Paulo and co-founder of the Digital Freedom Institute, called blocking applications a “drastic measure” that would be ineffective.
“We have to face digital challenges knowing that our laws date back to 2009 and are limited to our physical territory,” he said. “The digital world has no such limit. It is a global challenge. “