The logo of Telegram, an app that is estimated to be installed on more than half of Brazilian mobile phones
Telegram is estimated to be installed on more than 50% of mobile phones in Brazil © AFP via Getty Images

A Brazilian supreme court judge has ordered messaging app Telegram be suspended amid a spat over what critics allege is the platform’s hosting of misinformation and fabricated news.

On Friday, Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered the country’s internet regulator to block the use of Telegram, after the Dubai-based group allegedly failed to comply with orders to remove profiles linked to a prominent supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro and ignored repeated inquiries from the court.

It also did not fulfil a ruling that the company maintain a representative in Brazil to co-ordinate with authorities, the decision stated.

The judgment will be a blow to the far-right president, who in recent months has urged his supporters to migrate to the app after Meta-owned WhatsApp and Facebook, as well as Twitter, began cracking down on the spread of fake news.

Many analysts see Telegram — which is estimated to be installed on more than 50 per cent of mobile phones in Brazil — as central to the populist president’s social media strategy in his re-election campaign this year.

As part of the ruling, Apple and Google were ordered to introduce “technological obstacles” to block Telegram on their operating systems and withdraw it from their digital stores within five days. Internet service providers and phone networks were issued similar instructions.

“Telegram ignored the call of the Brazilian electoral justices, thus reiterating its total contempt for the Brazilian legal system,” said de Moraes, adding the suspension would stay in place until Telegram responded to the court’s communications and paid associated fines.

On Friday evening, Pavel Durov, Telegram’s chief executive, posted: “It seems that we had an issue with emails going between our telegram.org corporate addresses and the Brazilian Supreme Court. As a result of this miscommunication, the court ruled to ban Telegram for being unresponsive.

“On behalf of our team, I apologise to the Brazilian Supreme Court for our negligence. We definitely could have done a better job.”

Fake news spread via WhatsApp and Facebook played an influential role in Bolsonaro’s 2018 election.

Since then, however, the Meta-owned groups have moved to stem the flow of misinformation, with WhatsApp placing limits on the size of chat groups and how many times messages can be forwarded.

The Brazilian Supreme Court has also taken a markedly tougher line on fabricated news than during the previous election, and has been at pains to reduce its effect on polls in October.

David Nemer, a Brazilian professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said the suspension was “a little extreme”.

“Given the size of Telegram [in Brazil], it is not just about misinformation, it is a social media platform, where you have access to work groups, where people do their business, school work, get their information.

“But the courts have been trying to work with Telegram and . . . it’s hard to be flexible with someone who doesn’t show any flexibility and willingness to talk.”

Users on Bolsonaro’s Telegram channel were still posting comments on Friday afternoon.

“This is about national and digital sovereignty,” said Luca Belli, head of the Center for Technology and Society at the FGV Law School in Rio de Janeiro. “If you want to operate in the country you have to follow the rules, otherwise you will be blocked.”

The court order stakes out a new battleground between Bolsonaro and de Moraes, who last year ordered the president be investigated over his repeated claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system was vulnerable to fraud.

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza

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