Six weeks after the Brazilian politician Manuela d’Ávila gave birth, a stranger approached and started hitting the sling cradling her child. “Did you buy this in Miami?,” the woman asked d’Ávila, who in a few short years would go on to lose the 2018 bid to be Brazil’s vice president. The question parroted disinformation, spread around Brazil, that d’Ávila had splurged on baby products abroad.
Taken alone, this lie may seem bizarre and innocuous. Yet last year, during the 2018 presidential election that swept far-right demagogue Jair Bolsonaro to power, falsehoods like this one built into a crescendo that distorted political conversations beyond any semblance of reality. Millions saw messages falsely claiming d’Ávila said Jesus was transgender, that her Worker’s Party (PT) running mate Fernando Haddad gave children bottles with penis-shaped teats to reduce homophobia, and that Haddad said children should be property of the state at age five. WhatsApp is the most popular messaging service in Brazil, with 120 million users, but these political lies did not ping through the country organically.