In May, the Brazilian Supreme Court demanded that Facebook block 12 accounts sponsored by supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, after these accounts were connected to fake news and hate speech back in the 2018 Brazilian election. Facebook followed the mandate, closing the accounts within the country. However, the Court has now fined Facebook over $300,000, insisting that the social media giant did not comply with the order, as the accounts are still managing to post content from IP addresses outside of Brazil. Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who initially dictated the ban, now says Facebook could face additional penalties: around $19,000 for every day that the accounts are still operating.
A spokesperson for Facebook was quoted by U.S. News as calling this measure “extreme”, imposing on “freedom of expression outside of Brazil’s jurisdiction.” The company has made it clear that they fully intend to appeal these fines, but have meanwhile agreed to globally mute the accounts in question, as the spokesperson said they could “see no other alternative.”
According to Al Jazeera, the president himself has now filed to reverse this decision and have the targeted accounts reinstated. This is no surprise, as the indicted accounts were linked back to high-ranking office members and Bolsonaro’s own two sons. The fake news investigation is a major disagreement between the president and the Supreme Court, as he feels that his allies are under attack.
It is times like this when you have to take a step back and be amazed by the power our society has given to a social media platform, now eroding our politics and influencing millions. Judge De Moraes claimed he was going after Facebook because the anti-democratic propaganda these accounts were known for was still being published for their communities to see after his directive had been made. In Judge De Moraes’ defence, the operators of the accounts knew what they were doing by posting this kind of content to bad-mouth people and make politics personal, and they put their accounts on the line for it.
Still, it is also fair for Facebook to try and protect the rights that people undeniably have in relation to their posts, and we cannot expect the company to supervise every account of every politician. They do their part in monitoring for improper activity, as BBC news reports that just last month Facebook suspended dozens of accounts that appeared to be “fictitious personas posing as reporters and masquerading as news outlets.” If the Brazilian investigation into these hate-speech accusations is still ongoing, judge De Moraes acted in haste, and possibly unconstitutionally, to silence these users without waiting for a conviction.
What would be more honorable in this situation is for President Bolsonaro to be the one held responsible for his advocates’ approaches. These supporters, meant to be representing him and campaigning for him, are lashing out and using their platforms in derogatory ways. Sadly, instead of making his opponents look weak, it only makes his team appear to be in need of a babysitter.
The bigger issue at hand here goes above this inquiry by the Supreme Court and lies in the fact that the president is so disjointed with his government that they are publicly going head to head with each other. His displeasure with the court has been growing as, even before this current event, Reuters recorded him in June accusing the court of “committing abuses” towards the people and assuring that he would not “stay quiet while rights are being violated.” A president and a Supreme Court are meant to be two halves of a same mind, in any country, and that is clearly not the case here.
By allowing this battle to carry on between the two offices, the president runs the risk of further dividing his people into their political camps and, even worse, coming off as vulnerable to outside threats. The president and the Supreme Court need to sit down face-to-face and respectfully settle the differences between them, no matter how big they may be. This is their only hope in avoiding future unnecessary conflicts between them and in leading their country more harmoniously.
As COVID-19 is still far from over – the South American state remains the second most infected country with nearly 100,00 related deaths – clashes like this one over social media accounts is a pitiful thing to be focusing on.