Slush Funds Give No Receipts

The piece on WhatsApp use during the presidential campaign had the highest reader engagement so far this year

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

Ten days before the presidential elections, Folha's first page printed the headline: "Companies Pay For Anti-PT Messaging On Social Media." The article revealed that private companies like Havan, owned by Bolsonaro supporter Luciano Hang, were acting to tip the campaign's scales. 

The piece also became the article that, by itself, motivated the highest numbers of messages and comments to the ombudsman in 2018. Most of them criticized Folha for publishing such a severe accusation without offering no clear evidence.

In the readers' own words: "there is no material proof; no mentioned contracts or sources"; "there are no concrete facts, evidence or proof."

I received several demands to write about the article. I'm doing it now, a month after it was published, not only because of my commitment to readers but because last week, Folha was once more pressured into issuing a "correction."

The piece uses the regular expression "Folha has discovered," that our reporters use to show information obtained off the record, but corroborated by our team, to report that each message blasting contract was worth R$ 12 million (US$ 3.2 million).

It also classified the operation as illegal, because it was a corporate campaign donation and a user list purchase, both forbidden activities in the current election law. The article also named the digital agencies that offered the service, the price and how it worked.

The agencies denied the political messages blast, didn't comment or their owners weren't found. Hang denied any illegal backing and said he was going to sue Folha. Jair Bolsonaro said he had no control over the actions of businesspeople that supported him.

How did Folha obtain such information? Did it have access to contracts? Did the reporter see the messages? Whom did she talk to? Who asked to be taken off the record? How many sources did she have? What are the source’s relationships with the main news? All these questions were up in the air. 

I was able to get some answers after questioning Folha's management. "The piece was reported with the help of people that had direct access to negotiations to perform the messaging blast. We can't publish the document we have, because they would give away the identity of sources who demand they would be kept off the record," said managing editor Vinicius Mota.

Only in the day before the election, Folha published a piece produced with reporters from UOL with "new evidence of the messaging scheme."

In it, they show that data from a mass messaging service via WhatsApp show that the system left evidence that on Oct. 18th, all records of Bolsonaro's campaign message blasts were deleted, only hours after Folha published its piece.

The new story detailed the type and origin of the information provides documents and quotes a cybersecurity specialist who presented more info off the record. This piece and others following up on it reinforced Folha's initial reporting.

The reaction of big tech companies to questioning from the electoral courts reignited readers' comments. Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp said no accounts that belonged to the president-elect or his party bought any messaging services in the companies' platforms. However, they didn't say if other people or companies did it for them.

It won't be the first time that an investigative piece will show facts with no documents or quotes that prove them, desirable as these may be. Disguising illegal donations to politicians as actions practiced by private individuals is a feature of modern political campaigning. Naturally, such activities leave no paper trail. When the reporting is well done and consistent, it doesn't need receipts or invoices.

I consider the piece essential and necessary. It was difficult to report, and there is still much to explore and come to light. However, I think the newspaper failed in the way it presented the facts to the reader.

The writing could be more clear and transparent. It missed essential details to corroborate the evidence, which could be done without revealing sources. Such frailty caused readers to doubt it. This doubt is a wake-up call for Folha not to wane or consider this reporting to be done.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language