As Brazil copes with floods, officials face another scourge: Disinformation

Experts say online campaigns have targeted the floods in Rio Grande do Sul with fake news aimed at discrediting President Lula.

Florianopolis, Brazil – The floodwaters in southern Brazil lapped near rooftops, turning roads into rivers and engulfing entire towns. More than 2.3 million people have felt the effects of the rising waters. A total of 161 people have been confirmed dead, with more bodies expected to be found.

Officials have called the torrential rains and flooding in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul “the worst climate disaster” the area has ever seen.

But they have said the tragedy is being amplified by another phenomenon: disinformation, intentionally designed to mislead.

Some articles, videos and posts claimed that the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had blocked shipments of aid and medicine to the region. Others said Lula deliberately slowed the arrival of supplies so he could present them in person.

Still more asserted that government rescue workers were pulling out of southern Brazil, leaving residents to fend for themselves.

All three claims are false. But experts in media and political science told Al Jazeera that the disinformation has nonetheless continued to spread, often with real-world ramifications.

“I’m very concerned about it,” said Rogerio Christofoletti, a media professor who studies ethics and transparency at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, just north of Rio Grande do Sul.

“The volume of the fake news is very large, and it can foster a climate of mistrust.”

The sun shines over a flooded city landscape in Porto Alegre in Brazil.
Torrential rains flooded cities like Porto Alegre, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul [Courtesy of Billy Valdez/Coletivo Catarse]

Impeding recovery efforts

Some of the fake news, for instance, has cast doubt on government flood warnings, meant to give citizens vital information about life-threatening circumstances.

Christofoletti added that the disinformation may have even discouraged some volunteers and donations, as residents in Rio Grande do Sul continue to suffer.

Volunteers were crucial in the early rescue efforts. Concerned citizens arrived on boats and jet skis from nearby neighbourhoods and towns to pluck stranded residents from rooftops and shuttle them to safety.

But false messages warned that government officials were blocking volunteers from using their own boats in the rescue efforts.

Other pieces of disinformation have had consequences even in areas far from the floods. Supermarket shelves have been emptied of rice, as rumours fly online.

Fake social media posts warned that, since Rio Grande do Sul produces 70 percent of Brazil’s rice, the country was running out of the staple food.

But rice producers in the region have dismissed such concerns as overblown, telling local media that more than 84 percent of the season’s harvest had already been collected by the time the rains fell.

Nevertheless, the federal government responded to concerns by announcing that it would import one million tonnes of rice. It also suspended tariffs on rice imports on Tuesday.

Volunteers and evacuees ride in a small inflatable motor boat, as they approach more helpers addressing the floodwaters in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Volunteers guide a boat with evacuees in Porto Alegre, Brazil, amid widespread flooding on May 16 [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

Targeting the government

The researchers who spoke to Al Jazeera explained that much of the disinformation shares a common theme: undermining the government.

False information often arises after a disaster, as people scramble to react to developing — and sometimes perilous — circumstances.

And yet, not all misinformation is purposefully misleading. Still, research released last week by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul found that the bulk of the false information had been spread by “far-right influencers, websites and politicians”.

That puts it in a separate category: disinformation, or the intentional spread of inaccurate materials.

The researchers in the study concluded that bad actors “have used the commotion to self-promote and spread disinformation, with the aim of attacking and discrediting the government”.

“They want to divert people’s attention,” said Christofoletti. “It’s a perfect moment for these opportunists who want to attack the state, attack other political groups, and take advantage of the situation.”

One of the leading targets for the disinformation is Lula, a prominent left-wing leader in Latin America who is currently serving his third term as president.

“What we’re really talking about is a coordinated, industrial-strength disinformation campaign designed to delegitimise the government and its actions to provide relief to flood victims,” said Brian Mier, an editor at BrasilWire who is covering the recovery in Rio Grande do Sul.

“And in many cases, it’s actually sabotaging some of the relief efforts.”

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva looks out of a helicopter window onto floodwaters below.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva surveys the floodwaters above Porto Alegre, Brazil, on May 5 [Ricardo Stuckert/Brazilian Presidency, Reuters handout]

Lula in the crosshairs

Lula has visited Rio Grande do Sul three times since the beginning of the floods on April 29.

Within the first week of the torrential rains, his government reported sending 14,500 federal workers to help with relief efforts, including military and medical professionals.

Lula’s administration has also pledged $10bn to help address the damage. Another billion is set to come from a development bank founded by BRICS, an international trade alliance of which Brazil is a founding member.

“We are gonna build a new home for everyone who lost one,” Lula announced at a shelter in flood-stricken Sao Leopoldo last week.

But posts have downplayed the scale of the government’s rescue efforts or played up tensions with local residents.

Some of the false information that circulated, for instance, alleged that Brazil sent too few helicopters to Rio Grande do Sul and refused assistance from neighbouring Uruguay.

Paulo Pimenta, the minister leading reconstruction efforts in Rio Grande do Sul, also said that a video circulating online appeared to show him being attacked at a disaster shelter.

In an article for the news outlet Brasil247, Pimenta said the spread of such false information has taken time and resources away from other needs.

“Hours of my day are spent debunking some new story invented to delegitimise the actions of the roughly 20,000 public servants, both civilian and military, who have already rescued over 60,000 people and 6,000 animals,” Pimenta wrote.

He warned that, while Lula’s government would not censor the posts, any “lies” that “hinder the work of rescue, restoration and reconstruction” could face punishment.

A military ship sits in southern Brazil's muddy floodwaters, with smaller vessels coming to and from it.
A Brazilian navy ship delivers donations from Guaiba Lake in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on May 16 [Diego Vara/Reuters]

Roots of Brazil’s disinformation

Fake news, however, is not a new phenomenon.

“It has always existed in Brazil,” said Joao Feres Junior, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

“The only thing is that the internet has made it easier and faster, and at the same time, the extreme right has adopted it as their modus operandi for communicating.”

Many experts have pointed to the 2018 presidential election as a turning point, marking a steep climb in disinformation.

During the election, supporters of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro flooded popular social media platforms like WhatsApp with conspiracy theories, helping to lift the former military officer to victory.

Critics say Bolsonaro continued to foster disinformation during his presidency. They accuse him of establishing a “hate cabinet” within the government that used social media to smear political rivals and sow distrust in the election system.

In 2019, the Supreme Court launched an investigation into the disinformation campaign. The next year, federal police carried out raids on the homes and businesses of 17 Bolsonaro allies, suspected of disseminating fake news.

Among them were businessman Luciano Hang and far-right bloggers Allan dos Santos and Winston Lima. Eight Bolsonaro-allied congressional representatives were also summoned to give testimony.

In addition, congressional representative Daniel Silveira and far-right influencer Sara Winter were arrested for issuing online threats against the Supreme Court over the investigation.

As part of a plea bargain in 2023, Lieutenant Colonel Mauro Cid, a former Bolsonaro ally, testified that the ex-president’s son Carlos ran the “hate cabinet”.

A city park in Porto Alegre is submerged after flooding in April and May.
A city park in Porto Alegre, Brazil, is submerged as a result of recent rains [Courtesy of Billy Valdez/Coletivo Catarse]

Looking ahead to election season

Still, experts say that the volume of fake news surrounding this month’s flooding has not been seen since Bolsonaro’s 2018 election.

Political scientist Luciana Santana said the current disinformation campaign is “largely a result of the political polarization in the country”.

“It’s perverse, but it’s a strategy used by the opposition to delegitimise actions that in my view are positive and necessary for the protection of the population right now,” she told Al Jazeera

“Like it or not, this is harming the population and the process of reconstruction in the state.”

But Santana said it is not just the scale of the flooding and the public response that has drawn the attention of far-right internet trolls. It is also the prospect of denting political rivals at the polls.

This October, Brazil is set to hold municipal elections. Then, in 2026, the country will return to the ballot box to vote for seats in Congress and the presidency.

Mier, the BrasilWire editor, believes the disinformation peddlers hope to draw votes away from Lula and his allies in the upcoming races, by misrepresenting his administration’s efforts to address the flooding.

“The far right is really worried because the federal government is coming in with a lot of money and a lot of military troops,” he said of the flooding. “They’re getting worried about how this will affect the elections. And so they’re trying to come with these counter-narratives.”

Local journalist Gustavo Turck lives just blocks away from where the floodwaters overtook the city of Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul.

He told Al Jazeera the disinformation is highly “organised”, targetting a vulnerable population with “precise methodology” and dividing residents along partisan lines.

“It’s like a soccer rivalry. And a lot of people are being influenced by these lies,” Turck said.

“This is the political struggle that we are seeing. And unfortunately, it’s on the backs of the people, the population and the city that has been destroyed.”

Source: Al Jazeera