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A conspiracy theory that began as a throwaway joke in 2001 was amplified on YouTube and ended up being seriously quoted in a debate between Brazil’s presidential candidates on August 9.

YouTube played an important role in the spread of the ­­United Socialist Republics of Latin America (URSAL) conspiracy theory in Brazil. YouTube algorithms consistently expose viewers who watch URSAL-related content to recommendations for other conspiracy-prone topics, making the theory an entryway into further online disinformation and potential radicalization.

The acronym “URSAL” was coined as a throwaway comment in an article 17 years ago. It was subsequently taken up by far-right supporters who took it seriously and later resurfaced on YouTube, finally being denounced as a genuine Communist conspiracy by a candidate during the first presidential debate in Brazil.

The incident shows the audience impact on YouTube, and the danger its algorithms pose in steering viewers toward content promoting fictitious conspiracy theories.

Read the full analysis on Medium.
The first presidential debate ahead of Brazil’s October election took place on Thursday, August 10. An analysis of online engagement around the televised event concluded that automated profiles comprised only around 3 percent of total interactions and that statements classified as “fake” by fact-checking agency Lupa (a partner of FGV DAPP’s Digital Democracy Room) had little impact on broader conversations. Yet for the first time since the pre-campaign period began, one piece of unverifiable news appeared among the top ten trending articles on social media. The piece, published by the website República de Curitiba, claimed Twitter “removed” mentions of right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro from the platform during the debate.

Read the full analysis on Medium.

 
Ahead of Brazil’s presidential elections, a group of apparently young Brazilians is running a network of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts to trade engagement — likes, followers, and pages — for cash.

The network was involved in boosting partisan, election-related content in Mexico. With Brazil’s own election due on October 7, this network has the potential to reproduce its Mexican operations much closer to home.

Read the full analysis on Medium.

Brazil’s race for the next president is narrowing by the day. Of the fourteen candidates announced as of the beginning of August, five viable front-runners have emerged.


In this Spotlight, we ask: With Brazil’s presidential campaign set to officially kick off, what could an October win for one of the top contenders mean for political and economic reforms, foreign direct investment (FDI), and security?
During recent elections in Colombia, entities on all ends of the political spectrum spread misinformation and editorialized to suit varied agendas. The trend was on full display in the sharing patterns of four very partisan media outlets: Elnodo.co, elexpediente.co, oiganoticias.co and voces.com.co. The first three were right-wing biased, while the last was left-wing, specifically anti-Uribista: it had an agenda against the ideas and actions of former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez. 

The success of these partisan media outlets in the recent elections is a testament to the increasing polarization among Colombian audiences. Moreover, it also shows how these new online-only media startups are emerging and took a good chunk of the traditional media’s audience and advertising cake.

Read the full analysis on Medium.
The Colombian elections are over. On June 17, conservative Ivan Duque was elected president with 10,373,080 votes, which was 54 percent of the ballots. Duque was victorious over left-wing Gustavo Petro, who garnered 8,034,189 votes. The process was rife with concerns over the impact disinformation and misinformation on voter behavior and the overall election.

Read the full analysis on Medium.

Mexico is poised for a new era of prosperity if deep structural issues are adequately addressed.


In this Spotlight, we ask: What are four of the top issues President-elect López Obrador might prioritize in his first 100 days in office?
In the countdown to Mexico’s presidential election, a network of automated Twitter accounts has been pushing partisan messages which appear to have been paid for by local political groups.

The bots appear purely mercenary, promoting hashtags which attack all sides. They are linked to Carlos Merlo, self-described as Mexico’s “king of fake news,” whose largely outsourced operations @DFRLab previously exposed.

Their hashtag campaigns underscore the mercenary nature of the business of fake amplification in Mexico, and suggest that political groups from across the spectrum have taken to using such dark arts to gain an edge in the polls.

Read the full analysis on Medium.
On June 28, presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also known as AMLO, organized a festival to commemorate the closing of his electoral campaign, ahead of election day on July 1.

The festival was accompanied by a hashtag campaign under #AMLOFest, which quickly attracted pro-AMLO and anti-AMLO accounts, who used the hashtag to respectively promote and smear presidential candidate Lopez Obrador.

The hashtag started trending late on June 27 and quickly generated more than 234,000 mentions. According to a machine scan those mentions were generated by a total of 65,900 users. On average, each user generated 3.5 hashtag mentions, which is a high figure. In scans of organic traffic which @DFRLab conducted previously, a typical average rate of posting ranges from 1.1 to 2.2 posts per user. The traffic on #AMLOFest generated 30 percent more, suggesting artificial amplification.

Read the full analysis on Medium.
Ahead of Mexico’s presidential election on July 1, a network of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts has been promoting partisan political messages, most of them attacking front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The network uses Twitter bots which appear to have been hired from external providers, and Facebook likes from users in India, Brazil and Indonesia. These non-Mexican sources boost the messages by giving them deceptively high numbers of likes and retweets.

The network appears to be connected to Mexican entrepreneur Carlos Merlo, described in local and international media as a “fake news millionaire.” Merlo claims to control millions of automated social media bots, and dozens of “fake news” pages and websites.

Fake accounts and hyper-partisan attacks are troubling at any time, but especially in the immediate pre-election period. In this post, @DFRLab presents our initial findings and methodology. The network is likely far larger than the initial span covered in this survey; more research is needed to verify its full extent.

Read the full analysis on Medium.