WhatsApp tells companies to stop spam amid Brazil elections

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President of the Superior Electoral Court Rosa Weber, talks with the President of the Workers' Party Gleisi Hoffmann, during a meeting with the leadership of the Workers' Party, at the Supreme Electoral Court headquarters, in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, Oct

President of the Superior Electoral Court Rosa Weber, talks with the President of the Workers' Party Gleisi Hoffmann, during a meeting with the leadership of the Workers' Party, at the Supreme Electoral Court headquarters, in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, Oct (Photo: Eraldo Peres)

SAO PAULO (AP) — The WhatsApp messaging service said Friday that it has sent "cease and desist" letters to stop companies from sending bulk messages related to Brazil's election, after a report that businessmen were bankrolling a campaign to spread fake news in support of leading far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

The company framed the move as part of its larger efforts to combat the spread of false information on its service, revealing that it had banned hundreds of thousands of accounts since August, when the election campaign officially got under way in Brazil.

It said it uses "spam detection technology that spots accounts that engage in abnormal behavior so they can't be used to spread spam or misinformation."

Among the accounts it has blocked are those belonging to the companies that received the "cease and desist" letters. The action came after a report in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper on Thursday that said a blast messaging campaign was planned for the week before the Oct. 28 runoff.

Bolsonaro's rival, Fernando Haddad, said that, if true, the scheme would amount to illegal campaign practices and asked Brazil's electoral court to investigate. Haddad, who became the candidate for the left-leaning Workers' Party after former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was banned because of a corruption conviction, alleged that hundreds of thousands of fake messages were already sent out in support of the far-right hopeful.

Bolsonaro has said any support he received from businessmen was voluntary and his Social and Liberal Party said all donations they have received were legal.

WhatsApp said in a statement that it was taking the allegation seriously. It declined to name the companies that it sent the letters to, but the Folha report identified marketing companies it said allegedly received money to do the blast messaging. None of the companies mentioned immediately responded to requests to confirm they had received the "cease and desist" letters. 

WhatsApp is immensely popular in Brazil, which is home to nearly one in 10 users worldwide, but it has come under scrutiny during this election as concerns grow about whether false or manipulated messages are influencing voters. While fake news is a concern on many social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, WhatsApp is more difficult to police because users exchange information directly and rumors there can gain added credibility since they're shared privately by friends.

Later, members of Haddad's Workers' Party met in Brasilia with the head of Brazil's electoral court. Chairwoman Gleisi Hoffmann said she feared there would not be a timely response to avert the false news wave before the runoff.

"I leave this meeting with a lot of concerns about the court's ability to face this new situation in the electoral process," Hoffmann told journalists. "Yesterday we filed a suit to request searches to gather evidence and so far the court had no decision. The court will treat this suit as if we were in normal times, so I am very worried."

Haddad also criticized Brazil's electoral court on Friday. "We have an analogue judiciary dealing with digital problems," he told journalists in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil's top electoral court had been expected to hold a press conference on false news and electoral crimes, but it was postponed until Sunday. No details were given about the change.

Also on Friday Brazil's Labor Democratic Party filed a request to the country's top electoral court to cancel the results of the first round of voting on Oct.7. The left-leaning party of third-place Ciro Gomes argues Bolsonaro's campaign received illegal funds and used false news to thrive.

Meanwhile, amid the back-and-forth about whether WhatsApp was being weaponized in the campaign, Flavio Bolsonaro, who is a senator-elect for Rio de Janeiro and the presidential candidate's son, tweeted that his own account had been banned but hours later said it had been unblocked. WhatsApp confirmed that the account was blocked about a week ago for spamming users and reinstated a few days later.

"The persecution knows no limits!" Flavio Bolsonaro tweeted Friday when he initially revealed his account had been blocked. Jair Bolsonaro's campaign has frequently alleged that the mainstream media and others are working against the front-runner's candidacy.

WhatsApp noted that an account for former President Dilma Rousseff, who is from the rival Workers' Party and ran for senator in this election and lost, was also blocked during her campaign.

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