US tax dollars funding text message censorship in Brazil
08/15/2022 // News Editors // Views

Brazil’s upcoming October Presidential election is a high-stakes test for just how far the censorship industry can push its powers to manage online speech.

(Article republished from

In Brazil, private texts to family and friends are fast becoming as targeted by “counter disinformation” techniques as public-facing posts on social media. This escalation of fact-checker interventions and sharing limits on texts has been introduced through new speech constraints on popular encrypted chat apps, WhatsApp and Telegram. These developments are being funded by millions in US tax dollars earmarked for foreign aid.

Before delving into the specifics, let us begin with a history of how the stage was set. WhatsApp and Telegram have been in the censorship industry’s crosshairs since late 2018, when free speech on texting apps was blamed for allowing then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro to become president of Brazil. This statement is hardly an exaggeration; to show how brazenly such sentiments were expressed at the time, below is a headline round-up from 2018-2019, citing the BBC, the Council on Foreign RelationsThe GuardianFast CompanyHuffPostReutersThe New York TimesQuartz, and the world’s largest fact-checker network, Poynter:

The seeds for 2022’s budding system of text message censorship were planted in the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s electoral victory. In June 2019, an " data-origwidth="800" data-origheight="450">#ElectionWatch panel of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research (DFR) Lab’s disinformation global summit in London specifically targeted Brazilian populist voter sentiment expressed over text messages. In May 2018, Facebook designated the Atlantic Council an official partner in “countering disinformation” worldwide.


To illustrate what “disinformation” means to the #ElectionWatch panel, we will first show a scene from " data-origwidth="800" data-origheight="450">a preceding panel at that same event. Below, you will see two “disinformation” experts, Ben Nimmo (now team leader of Global Threat Intelligence at Facebook) and Andy Carvin, train a roomful of vetted international journalists on how to spot “disinformation” in tweets by then-President Donald Trump and in ads promoting Brexit. Senior journalists were encouraged to hold up placards reading “Bullsh*t” as Trump tweets and Brexit slogans played across the screen:

If this is a difficult video for American audiences to stomach, here’s another shocker: you paid for it. The Atlantic Council receives US taxpayer funding from the State Department, USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Defense Department, the US Marines, the US Air Force, the US Navy, and numerous other federal agencies detailed below. That means the same electorate who democratically elected Donald Trump as President in 2016 also paid a NATO think tank to train journalists to muzzle Trump’s social media reach ahead of the 2020 election cycle:

After the censorship training session highlighted above, a subsequent panel from that June 2019 Atlantic Council summit discussed how to coordinate digital speech bans in response to what were considered two undesirable electoral outcomes in 2018: the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the consolidation of voter support for Narendra Modi in India.

Speaking in this first clip below is Fergus Bell. Bell’s “disinformation” pedigree is that he created an a global media network to coordinate social media censorship in target countries all over the world through an alliance of privileged fact-checkers and vetted mainstream media journalists. Note how in the clip below, immediately after introducing the list of countries in which he has done “disinformation” election work, Bell pivots immediately to flagging “the danger of family WhatsApp groups” in India, because people in India tend to trust their own family members over credentialed fact-checkers:

The panel then went on to say that the Brazilian norm of trusting local family and friends over distant or discredited institutions created “a big problem” for fact-checkers in policing disinformation. Telegram and WhatsApp, therefore, presented a “danger to democracy” by allowing citizens to speak freely with one another, circumventing official guidance and trafficking in narratives disfavored by designated institutions:

Fergus Bell, the moderator of the censorship coordination discussion, then polled the room of prominent fact-checkers and vetted mainstream media journalists, and noted their common acknowledgement that direct messaging apps and local familial trust norms posed problems for all of them:

Note how, as early as the summer of 2019, the Atlantic Council’s US-taxpayer funded censorship coordinators had been targeting private text messaging apps precisely because of Brazilian and Indian cultural norms of strong trust in family, which supposedly undermined faith in institutions. Family trust was stamped by digital speech police as a threat to democracy.

Beyond their implicit quest to break the bonds of local trust, censorship insiders’ partisan bias in their Brazil operations have been even more explicit. The below May 2021 clip is from yet another US-taxpayer funded " data-origwidth="800" data-origheight="450">disinformation event, in which US taxpayer-supported Brazilian professor Marco Ruediger gave a presentation calling for a ban on the “international movement to exchange ideas” between pro-Bolsonaro groups in Brazil and pro-Trump groups in the US:

As noted above, both this event and its speaker, Prof. Ruediger, are US taxpayer-supported. The host of the disinfo event is the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (“International IDEA”), which is funded by USAID and the National Democratic Institute (“NDI”), both of which derive their funding from annual government allocations made by the US Congress:

The featured speaker in the video above, Prof. Ruediger, is a founding advisory board member of the Design 4 Democracy Coalition (“D4D”), which is also taxpayer-funded by the NDI and its sister group, the International Republican Institute (“IRI”). The NDI and IRI are notable in that they form the two explicitly partisan branches — representing the Democrat and Republican parties respectively — of the National Endowment for Democracy (“NED”).

The NED has accrued considerable notoriety over the years, since its founding in 1983, as a semi-covert facilitator of US-backed coups of foreign governments. A 1991 Washington Post article about the NED entitled “The New World Of Spyless Coups” described NED as a publicly deniable, privatized branch of the CIA. NED co-founder Allen Weinstein told the Post: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

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