Fake news has been a persistent part of the American experience on Facebook since before the 2016 presidential election. But a new study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows the U.S. isn’t alone in struggling with this social media phenomenon.
Reuters and research firm Kantar Media polled roughly 2,000 Facebook users in 37 different countries—respondents ranged from 20 to 45 years of age. On average, 54 percent of people in each country were concerned about fake news online.
But the percentages in each country varied wildly. Only 37 percent of people in Germany worried about false news, while 64 percent of Americans did (thanks largely to President Donald Trump).
The country with the biggest fake news problem, however, is Brazil. Eighty-five percent of Brazilians said viral falsehoods were an issue in the region.
So why is Brazil so susceptible to fake news? Well, just like in the U.S. two years ago, it’s an election issue.
Brazilian voters are heading to the polls on October 7, and in the lead-up to the election, fake news about presidential candidates has flourished on social media. One false story claimed a candidate had used campaign funds to pay for his private jet, while another said left-wing activists were beating up elderly conservatives.
“The political environment is hugely polarized right now, and that has spilled out onto social media,” Reuters Institute visiting fellow and former BBC executive Nic Newman told Observer. “Political groups are using social media to get their messages across, and this is often seen as fake news by those who take a different view.”
But sometimes the motives aren’t that sinister. Some survey respondents said reading the news had become a passive process for them, to the point where they click on whatever Facebook puts in front of them—whether it’s real or fake.
“I’m being fed the news, I’m not pursuing it myself,” one person said. “Sometimes I don’t have the time to go in and look for information, so it’s convenient that it feeds me news.”
Another engine for the spread of false information is WhatsApp, Facebook’s encrypted messaging service. More than 120 million Brazilians use WhatsApp and 48 percent of them use it for news.
Since WhatsApp is a text-based service, Brazilian users told Reuters they often screenshot only the headline of a news story and send it to their groups.
“Everybody shares their opinion and anyone who disagrees can joke about it,” one respondent said. “It’s a lighter mood to debate news with friends on WhatsApp than on Facebook.”
“I don’t feel like getting into arguments with people,” another person said.
Reuters noted that WhatsApp provides privacy, safety and a more tailored audience to users. But if those audiences are only looking at a headline, they can still be easily deceived. So a Brazilian fact checking group called Comprova (or “prove it”) has set up a WhatsApp tip line to report misleading headlines, stories and memes.
And so far, it seems to be working. Many survey respondents say they’re more wary about sharing news from their home country until it’s verified.
“Brazilian journalism is the most horrific thing there is,” one respondent concluded. “The Brazilian presses are the worst in the world.”
That’s a distinction even President Trump can’t match.