RIO DE JANEIRO – Before dawn on Dec. 1, Leonardo de Carvalho Leal prepared to leave his family behind in the Brazilian city of Ponta Grossa, in Parana state. His mother overwhelmed him with goodbyes and gifted him a bracelet she said had brought her luck. He fiddled with it on his wrist the entire ride to the airport, unsure when he might see her again.
“Maybe I was blaming myself a bit, for leaving so many people vulnerable,” he said in a video interview with The Associated Press, with tears welling as he recalled his departure. “But what I did was right.”
Leal and girlfriend Mayara Stelle -- both 22-year-old law students -- this year created a Twitter account with the goal of calling out Brazilian websites for spreading “hate speech and Fake News,” and torpedoing those sites’ advertising revenue. They garnered 410,000 followers, more than the number of residents in their city.
They also mustered a legion of enemies. Vitriol poured in, directed toward their account, Sleeping Giants Brazil. Believing their identities are soon to be revealed after a ruling against Twitter, they expect they will be personally targeted, for lawsuits or worse.
Fear their families would be harassed because they had often accessed the account at their parents’ homes, they say, is why they left and made their identities known to The Associated Press and Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s biggest newspaper. The AP observed them accessing and using the Sleeping Giants Brazil account, and checked the names they provided against their government-issued identification cards.
“Those threats that say, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ or, ‘I’m offering 100,000 reais ($20,000) for the head of the profile’s owner,’ will now be directed at Mayara and Leo,” Stelle said from a city outside Sao Paulo. “This is a decision to protect our families and control exposure to show we’re common people, like anyone else who can have an idea. And that idea can be brilliant, can change things.”
This year, Brazil has been awash in misinformation about the pandemic, egged on by dubious claims from President Jair Bolsonaro. It marks the continuation of a digital battle in Latin America’s biggest country.
Pursuit of Sleeping Giants Brazil is part of a growing trend to instrumentalize the judiciary against those who train fire on conservative media outlets, interest groups and Bolsonaro’s administration, according to Taís Gasparian, a partner at law firm Rodrigues Barbosa, Mac Dowell de Figueiredo, Gasparian who has worked with media and free speech for decades.
Sleeping Giants Brazil followed the playbook of its US predecessor, which after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory alerted companies to the fact their ads were appearing on websites including Breitbart News, a platform that critics have repeatedly accused of running racist, xenophobic and sexist content. Companies’ ads were often automatically placed through Google, and they decamped en masse upon learning of risk to their brands.
The number of Sleeping Giants Brazil’s followers surpassed that of the US handle as it toppled one ad after another. A top target was Jornal da Cidade Online, a conservative website based in southern Brazil. The site’s content has repeatedly been debunked by fact-checking organizations, and a preliminary report shows “it is one of the big disseminators of false news in our country,” said lawmaker Lídice da Mata, the rapporteur of Congress’ ongoing investigation into misinformation.
Scores of advertisers in Brazil -- among them Dell, McDonald’s, Facebook and Domino’s Pizza — responded publicly to alerts from Sleeping Giants Brazil and likeminded Twitter users about their ads appearing on Jornal da Cidade, saying they would remove them because of the site’s content or already had. State-run Bank of Brazil did the same, prompting a rebuke from Bolsonaro’s son and his communications secretary, who said on Twitter that independent journalism is important.
Jornal da Cidade claimed reputational and financial damages and sued Twitter, demanding the platform turn over data associated with the Sleeping Giants Brazil account that could identify its users. Twitter last week provided the court with the account’s I.P. addresses, according to a person with knowledge of the case, who isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Twitter said in an emailed statement that it “vigorously fought this case through several different appeals” and will continue to defend free speech and privacy rights.
Jornal da Cidade’s editor José Tolentino declined an interview request, and referred the AP to his lawyers. Lawyer Simone Custódio declined an interview request, didn’t answer questions sent by email about the case, instead saying they will await the right time to comment publicly in observance of their client’s best interests.
“The cowardly attacks against Jornal da Cidade Online hide people, businesses and entities that certainly act in their desired attempt to install left-wing radicalism in Brazil or other even more sordid interests,” read an editorial published Dec. 4. The site has denied spreading misinformation and hasn’t incited any violence against Leal and Stelle.
Before becoming president, Bolsonaro was a fringe lawmaker claiming he would restore law and order to the beleaguered nation, put God and country above all else, loosen gun controls and banish left-wing politics. He has denigrated mainstream media, often calling them “fake news.”
When Leal and Stelle successfully petitioned Dell to remove its ads from Jornal da Cidade, Tolentino said Sleeping Giants’ followers were “all frustrated, spiteful, criminal and envious leftists,” and that his site receives more than one million visits daily.
Sleeping Giants Brazil targeted Jornal da Cidade early, Stelle said, because of coronavirus-related content. That included touting chloroquine to fight COVID-19, an anti-malarial drug that Bolsonaro trumpeted despite evidence it is ineffective against the disease. In April, Congress extended its probe to investigate misinformation about the pandemic.
Leal and Stelle aren’t sticking around to see if online threats are mere bluster from keyboard warriors. They’re moving to their new home -- the location of which they declined to disclose – to continue their work.
“Demonetization of fake news means dealing with the worst of the internet: racists, xenophobes, and so on," Leal said. “From the moment you take the money away from these people, they never forget.”
Follow Biller on Twitter: @DLBiller