Meet Brazil's "WhatsApp Aunts And Uncles" — How Fake News Spreads With Seniors
Older demographics are particularly vulnerable (and regularly targeted) on the WhatsApp messaging platform. We've seen it before and after the presidential election.
SAO PAULO — There's an interesting analysis by the educator and writer Rafael Parente, based on a piece by the international relations professor Oliver Stuenkel, who says: “Since Lula took the Brazilian presidency, several friends came to me to talk about family members over 70 who are terrified because they expect a Communist coup. The fact is that not all of them are Jair Bolsonaro supporters.”
And the educator gives examples: In one case, the father of a friend claims to have heard from the bank account manager that he should not keep money in his current account because there was some supposed great risk that the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would freeze the accounts.
The mother of another friend, a successful 72-year-old businesswoman who reads the newspaper and is by no means a radical, believes that everyone with a flat larger than 70 square meters will be forced to share it with other people."
Talking about these examples, a friend, law professor Gilmara Benevides has an explanation: “Elderly people are falling for fake news spread on WhatsApp."
It is true. For years, journalists have debated the effect of WhatsApp groups on people aged 55-70 years old.
Misinformation spread by seniors
There are the funny (but dangerous) caricatures of “WhatsApp uncle” and “WhatsApp aunt," who take in any information — unsourced, unverified — and don't even open the link, reading only the title (usually loud and bombastic) before passing it on to other people of the same age and socio-cultural status, through WhatsApp groups.
From then on, for this group, a lie becomes a truth.
For example, the damage caused to the campaign of Fernando Haddad by the fake news as “Mamadeira de piroca,” which alleged that the party he represented, the Workers' Party (PT), promoted the distribution of baby bottles with penis-shaped spouts in the country's pre-school facilities; or the “gay kits in schools,” alleging that he would give explicit gay content to six-year-old kids, somehow indoctrinating them to become gay.
Haddad was a serious teacher and excellent minister of education during the Lula and Dilma governments. This type of lie was decisive for Jair Bolsonaro's victory in 2018.
Presidential election after the fake news outbreak
But why and how in 2023, five years and a presidential election after the 2018 fake news outbreak, do so many people continue to believe obvious lies? It seems simplistic to think that they believe because it is what they want, and the news fits with their own worldview.
I've heard the lie of Lula taking properties for the owners to share with landless people since 1989.
I asked the above question to a psychologist friend and a journalist friend. The psychologist replied that millions of people around the world are experiencing a sort of detachment from reality, where the boundaries between truth and lies are slowly being deconstructed. The journalist responded in a more pragmatic way: that there are no effective efforts by the progressive, academic and leftist movements to combat and deny fake news at its source.
This subject interests me. I analyze with care and concern the difficulty and delay in movements – institutional, organized or organic – on the left in combating fake news. I've heard the lie of Lula taking properties for the owners to share with landless people since 1989, when it was a concern of a desperate neighbor who had to be calmed down daily by my parents.
Two Lula administrations later, no real estate has been taken, and the fake news are still alive and strong. Very worrying. Scary, even.
Conservative point of view
It is true that after reaching a certain age, even people with a progressive history in their youth tend to have a more conservative view of life and reality. It is a historical and worldwide phenomenon. But this conservatism does not necessarily need to be detached from reality; it is already a result of Bolsonarism, which gained the status of a sect, much more than a political movement, which in fact it never was.
In this case, in addition to combating fake news, it is a matter of thinking about how to make millions of Brazilian men and women return to reality and sanity, so that they do not believe that the vaccine will implant a Chinese virus in their bodies or that there is an ongoing gay dictatorship that wants to indoctrinate children.
This is the biggest challenge, as uncles and aunts currently share this type of content in WhatsApp groups. And even with Lula's victory and inauguration, make no mistake, they are coming back in full force and attacking again. It is up to us to find an antidote to this, before the 2026 Brazilian elections.