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Internet a new battleground in Brazilian presidential poll

Supporters of Brazil’s presidential run-off candidates are plugging into the Internet as never before, using online posts to highlight the campaigns — and to spread or deny rumors swaying voters.

The web has become a battleground where those backing front-runner Dilma Rousseff, the ruling party candidate, and those behind former Sao Paulo governor Jose Serra, are locked in a war of words, photos and videos.

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The two candidates seeking to succeed outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Sunday’s run-off are being buffeted by the electronic war, sometimes losing total control as information — true or false — goes viral.

Pollyana Ferrari, a digital journalism professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, said Rousseff and Serra are not “Web 2.0 candidates” using the Internet to interact directly with voters but more “Web 1.0 types” who are keen to try new techniques.

Thus their campaigns had to react not only to a daily email onslaught from “trolls” seeking to spark controversy with misleading texts or faked videos, but also a public that was taking up campaign themes to create their own participative dialogue.

“They (the candidates) weren’t prepared,” for the activity unleashed through the Internet, said Ferrari.

“Brazilians are crazy about social networking…. They love to show off, talk, display photos,” she said.

In fact, social network sites and tools such as Facebook, Google’s Orkut, Twitter and blogs are the preferred online destinations for 86 percent of Brazil’s 70 million Internet users, according to the Ibope trends analysis firm.

From those sites are born online phenomena, like “Dilma boy” — a music video set to a Lady Gaga tune in which a teenager sings lines supporting Rousseff like “Sorry Serra, but you’re gonna lose” and “She’s our new Evita Peron.” The video has 300,000 hits on YouTube and counting.

Initially, the candidates’ campaigns tried to create a web presence by contracting advertising experts to build online promotional sites.

But with the contest becoming more bitter the closer Sunday’s run-off has come, the jostling has spilled over into no-holds-barred digital jabs.

“There has been an increase in all sorts of insults, and arguments have taken over the Internet,” Ferrari said.

The professor said such a development was predictable, and those in charge of the campaigns should have expected Brazilians to get involved via their home computers and smartphones.

They should have also been prepared for issues generated on the Internet to spread to the mainstream media and public debate, as they have.

“An item based on a Twitter post was on the nightly news” and ended up being seen my millions of people who did not have Internet access, she said.

One such issue was abortion.

A chain of emails rehashing a pro-abortion interview Rousseff gave years ago appeared just before the first round of the election on October 3.

Many Catholic and evangelical voters fiercely attached to Brazil’s ban on abortions defected from Rousseff at the last minute, robbing her of the outright victory surveys had forecast she would grab.

Rousseff herself was forced to respond, appearing several days later in very pious form at a Catholic event in Sao Paulo. She also went on television saying she saw no reason to change the law against abortions.

“When those in charge of the campaigns don’t intervene, rumors take hold very quickly. You just can’t control them,” Ferrari said. – AFP

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