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Bolsonaro campaign accused of fraud, spreading 'fake news' in Brazil election

Mauro Pimentel, AFP | Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro on October 7, 2018.

Brazilian presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of spreading fake news on social media and violating campaign finance laws a little more than a week before the country’s October 28 run-off election.

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On Thursday Bolsonaro was accused by his rival Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) of using a “criminal network” to pay for mass propaganda messaging on WhatsApp in violation of campaign finance laws.

"There has been a criminal network of businessmen which used illegal campaign financing to promote this candidacy and tamper with the election in the first round (on Oct. 7). And they want to do it again in the runoff," Haddad said. "We estimate that hundreds of thousands of messages, all fake, were sent to voters to suggest they vote for my rival."

The PT has since filed an official complaint with the election tribunal asking it to investigate.

Haddad’s accusations came after Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo published a report earlier in the day alleging that Bolsonaro had asked well-heeled supporters to bankroll the spread of fake news via third-party agencies. The article claimed that each spent up to 12 million reais ($3.26 million) on attack ads.

Bolsonaro dismissed the allegations, saying in a series of tweets that any business donations were entirely voluntary. “(The PT) isn't being hurt by fake news, but by the TRUTH,” he tweeted.

Gustavo Bebbiano, chairman of Bolsonaro's far-right Social Liberal Party, also denied receiving illegal contributions.

"Every donation made until this day, no matter if it is our party or our candidate's campaign, comes from resources donated to our platform, accordingly with legislation," Bebbiano said.

Haddad claimed, however, that his party has witnesses who can testify that Bolsonaro asked business leaders for cash at a dinner in Sao Paulo. A representative for WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, said the report was being taken seriously.

Bolsonaro – who is leading in opinion polls – has ridden a wave of public anger over years of corruption and rising violence in Brazil, accusing the PT, which was the ruling party for 13 of the last 15 years, of destroying the country and killing its economy.

The anti-establishment candidate, who represented Rio de Janeiro state as a federal congressman for nearly three decades, has won supporters thanks to a career untainted by corruption accusations.

Nonetheless, his top economic adviser is being investigated by federal prosecutors over accusations of fraud tied to the pension funds of state-run companies, underlining the scale of the rot in Brazil’s political landscape.

It was unclear what effect, if any, Thursday’s accusations would have on opinion polls. A Datafolha survey, taken before the campaign finance allegation was made public, showed Bolsonaro had 59 percent of voter support, compared to 41 percent for Haddad.

Campaign propaganda has flooded social media in Brazil ahead of the run-off vote. There are 120 million WhatsApp user accounts in Brazil, which has a population of 210 million, making it one of the country’s most popular communication tools.

The issue of fake news and abuse of social media has been a growing concern in elections across the world, and tech companies have come under growing pressure to limit misinformation.

Steps have been taken by a number of firms following evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and accusations that Facebook allowed user data to be harvested during the Brexit campaign in the UK.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)

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