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Since last year, countless YouTube videos have been uploaded promoting COVID-related scams, miraculous cures and conspiracies on channels linked to supporters of Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, some with millions of subscribers.
In April, hundreds of these videos began to disappear.
The videos, which have been deleted or made private, encourage misinformation about the “early treatment” of COVID-19, such as the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The US and Brazilian governments have encouraged the use of both drugs, although there is ample evidence that they are ineffective or even cause complications. Other videos promote misinformation and conspiracies about the pandemic in general.
The disappearance of the videos coincides with an ongoing investigation by the Brazilian Parliament into the government’s management of the pandemic. announced in early April. The investigation, called the CPI, or parliamentary commission of inquiry, has since interviewed several members and former members of the government and tried to close the huge disinformation campaign promoted by the Brazilian government over the past year. Many of those involved have close ties to President Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismissed the deadly virus as “little flu“.
Guilherme Felitti, a partner in Novelo’s data analysis firm, told Motherboard that “since April 14, when Supreme Court Judge Luis Roberto Barroso ordered to set the CPI, we had a total of 847 videos deleted from 51 channels ”.
The total number of missing videos can reach thousands, as the data is only up to May 17 and it is virtually impossible to control all pro-Bolsonaro channels on YouTube.
And by “deleted”, Felitti means that the videos may have been deleted by YouTubers or YouTube itself, private or uncatalogued. “We’ve been monitoring for over a year and we see that the number of videos deleted by YouTube is very low,” he said. “More than 95 percent are deleted, unlisted and made private by the YouTubers themselves. If we take only from April 14, YouTube removed 13 videos.”
The rest, then, have been suppressed or made private by supporters of President Bolsonaro.
As of May 8, Alexandre Garcia, CNN Brazil commentator with nearly 2 million subscribers, had deleted 73 videos and hid 476, almost 50% of the videos on his channel, according to Felitti’s analysis. Leda Nagle, another journalist with more than 1.2 million subscribers, deleted about 92 videos a one week. Sikêra Junior, a famous TV presenter with over 4.6 million followers, deleted 2 videos.
“We have examples of videos where they attacked the Supreme Court and were hidden and erased,” Felitti said. “And in our experience, attacking the Supreme Court or defending a coup is not something that triggers YouTube’s policies.”
Among the less popular right-wing influencers who deleted videos are Gustavo Gayer, who has 367,000 subscribers to his channel; Fernando Lisboa (Vlog do Lisboa), with 685,000 subscribers; and Denne Sousa, with 376,000 subscribers. According to Felitti’s research, they have deleted 186, 24 and 22 videos respectively since April.
“The fear of suffering a severe institutional sanction, with real consequences in real life, outside the Internet,” is what drives the mass eliminations, said Yasodara Córdoba, a fellow of the Ford Foundation at the Ash Center for Governance and Democratic Innovation. Large plate.
He adds that these users “are aware that they are acting outside the laws that already exist and rely on the weak response of our institutions.” He also says, there is a link between the inaction of the public authorities and several speeches by President Bolsonaro, for example, which say without any proof that Brazil’s ballot boxes (which are electronic) could be fraudulent, similar to what made Donald Trump in the US.
“When Trump supporters were incited to assault the Capitol, they never imagined that they would have to answer institutionally for their actions,” Cordoba explains, adding that “when the FBI began investigations, many began to delete videos, tweets and even messages of support sent to family members, for fear of sanctions “.
In Brazil, this is not the first time he has run for president they have suppressed mass videos. Last year, during a Supreme Court investigation into a administered by the government fake news network, thousands of videos were deleted from pro-Bolsonaro channels.
As always, it’s up to YouTube to moderate the content and remove videos that incite violence and spread harmful misinformation. But Felitti doesn’t think the company is doing enough. “There are still dozens of videos calling for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. There seems to be no effort by YouTube to remove this type of content,” he said.
“As part of our ongoing work to support the health and well-being of our users, we have expanded our COVID-19 medical disinformation policies in line with updates from local and global health authorities on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin to treat and / or prevent COVID -19 “.
April 16, YouTube changed its policies to allow the removal of content that advocates untested treatment methods for Covid-19. But, as Felitti and Córdoba pointed out, it is an insufficient measure in the midst of the large volume of misinformation circulating, especially when much of this content is being made. by supporters of the president—I Bolsonaro to himself.
A Google spokesman confirmed to the motherboard that it had removed “several videos” that violated the recent policy change, but would not go into details.
“As part of our ongoing work to support the health and well – being of our users, we have expanded our COVID-19 medical misinformation policies according to updates from local and global health authorities on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin in treating and / or preventing COVID-19, ”the spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement.
Even if YouTube wanted to repress right-wing misinformation in Brazil, doing so would not be easy. Faced with threats from parliamentary inquiry and recent changes in YouTube policy, the Bolsonaro government announced has enacted a decree to limit the moderation capabilities of social media in the country and ban them from deleting posts or suspending users of their platforms.
The Brazilian government has an interest in preventing technology companies from moderating content that supports their views and policies. Even before the installation of the CPI, the news agency Public Agency, found that the government Secretariat of Communication paid digital influencers thousands of Brazilian reals to defend government ideas contrary to science.
Therefore, says Córdoba, “we must increase the scope of the institutions to democratize them even more.” The Internet brings a collaborative character to institutions, so that “when we talk about public policies of the Internet, we must think that we do not consider only an institution and its members, but a network of which the institution is part “. “We need to think about how this institution will act within this network,” Córdoba said.