TV ads critical to Brazil's presidential race

Jordi MIRO
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A Brazilian Worker's Party rally in early June in Contagem, in Minas Gerais state

A huge election in Brazil is little over a month away and voter Domingo Souza says he knows little about who's running for president.

"I will wait for the television to get informed and decide," he said, with the first campaign ads due to run on TV on Saturday.

Granted, the campaign is also unfolding on Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. But TV is critical to who emerges triumphant on October 7.

In this vast country that boasts Latin America's largest economy, more than one third of the population has no access to the internet. And 62 percent have television as their main source of news on the pretenders to replace the unpopular outgoing conservative president, Michel Temer.

Souza, a 51 year old electrician who lives in Aguas Lindas, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Brasilia, is one of those people with no internet.

He is also an undecided voter in an unusual race in which the frontrunner -- leftist former president and national hero Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- is in prison after being convicted of corruption.

If you take Lula out of the race, the undecided make up 28 percent of voters. But in the unlikely case that Lula is allowed to run from prison, the number of undecided drops to 14 percent, according to pollsters Datafolha.

Each of the 13 candidates gets 25 minutes of free TV ads three times a week. They are divided into two blocs of 12.5 minutes at 1 pm and 8:30 pm, up until October 4.

The newspaper O Globo said four of the last six elections were won by the candidate who had the most time on TV.

Candidates can also jut into programming with 30 second ads. These are called insertions.

- Election campaigns or TV shows? -

Brazil's Electoral Tribunal allocates the precious television minutes and seconds depending on the size of parties and their coalitions.

"Candidates with a lot of time will have a big competitive advantage," said political analyst Michael Mohallem of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Consider former Sao Paulo mayor Geraldo Alckmin of the center right PSDB party. In presidential polls that exclude Lula, he is running fourth.

He hopes to make it to a runoff election thanks to his "TV time."

In order to do this, he joined forces with a bloc of conservative parties. This allowed him to keep nearly half -- 5.32 minutes -- of the 12.5 available in each bloc.

Lula's Workers' Party will have the second longest advertising time, at 2.23 minutes per bloc.

This party is trying to put off as long it can a decision by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on disqualifying Lula.

The Worker's Party also wants to use videos that Lula recorded before April, when he surrendered to authorities to serve a 12 year and one month prison sentence for corruption.

If Electoral Tribunal disqualifies Lula, then he can transfer those minutes to his running mate, Fernando Haddad.

- Networks, fake news and bots -

In surveys that exclude Lula, the top candidates are right-winger Jair Bolsonaro and environmentalist Marina Silva. Both are doing well on social media.

With more than 100 million users, Brazil is one of the world's main markets for Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter -- powerful tools for candidates seeking to get their message out.

This is the first election in Brazil in which parties are allowed to sponsor messages on social media and on search engines.

Bolsonaro already has 8.5 million followers on those three social media platforms, while Silva boasts 4.3 million followers.

"The presence of politicians on social media is mandatory and not just another option," Caio Tulio Costa, co-founder of Torabit, a digital monitoring platform.

But in a country losing interest in religion and drowning in crime and corruption scandals, social media is also fertile ground to confuse voters and spread misinformation.

Determined to avoid a dirty campaign, the Electoral Tribunal signed agreements with political parties, Facebook and Google to help fight the spread of fake news.

Platforms themselves have eliminated phony accounts and pages, and blocked "bots" used to automatically spread content and inflate the number of a user's followers.

Twenty-four news outlets in Brazil, including Agence France-Presse, have joined forces in the so-called Comprova project designed to battle misinformation.