Major social media companies are taking aim at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's dismissal of social distancing, joining others in the country who have lined up against his controversial stance regarding the new coronavirus.
Facebook and Instagram removed posts by the far-right leader Monday night that showed Bolsonaro walking around outside capital Brasilia on Sunday and mingling with groups. It was yet another affront to World Health Organization recommendations to self-isolate as a means to contain the pandemic. The companies' move came one day after Twitter also removed some Bolsonaro posts.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in a statement that it removes content "that violates our community standards, which do not allow disinformation that might cause real damage to people."
Twitter justified its decision by saying in a statement that its rules prohibit content that runs "against public health information given by official sources and can put people at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19."
Bolsonaro is one of few world leaders who say the virus itself will cause less harm than shutting down the economy. In a national address Tuesday night, while repeating that same argument, he changed his rhetoric, calling the pandemic he once described as "a little flu" as "the biggest challenge of our generation." His speech was met with pot-banging protests for the 15th night in a row.
His defiance has received vocal backing from supporters — both on social media and in several cities where they staged demonstrations demanding life return to normal — but his attitude has also been rejected by mayors, state governors and judges. Even some members of Bolsonaro's own administration have insisted on broad lockdown measures that run contrary to his statements.
Last Thursday, Bolsonaro issued a decree that added religious activities to the list of "essential services," meaning churches could remain open even though governors had banned large gatherings. The decree was overruled by a federal court the following day.
Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio Mello authorized an opposition lawmaker's request for Bolsonaro's own prosecutor general to investigate an alleged crime committed by the president, the Supreme Court's website said Tuesday. The allegation of endangering the public is based on Bolsonaro encouraging people to disobey isolation measures, calling concern over the pandemic "hysteria" and characterizing the virus itself as "a little cold." The judge's action requires the prosecutor general to issue a legal opinion.
In an interview with the newspaper O Globo, Prosecutor General Augusto Aras said that Bolsonaro is free to express his opinion and go out in public so long as he doesn't issue any official decrees that counter broad lockdown guidelines, which could tread into territory that requires legal evaluation.
Despite the president's open skepticism, senior members of his own Cabinet have insisted on hewing closely to guidelines recommended by international health authorities. "Always technical, always scientific, always doing the maximum we can to preserve lives," Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta told reporters on Monday.
On Tuesday, Brazil's health ministry reported 5,717 cases of Covid-19 and 201 deaths, the largest figures in Latin America. That included more than 1,100 new cases since the prior day — by far Brazil's biggest single-day increase yet.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially the elderly and people with preexisting health conditions, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Bolsonaro has 12 million followers on Facebook, almost 16 million on Instagram and more than 6 million on Twitter. Social media was key for his election victory in 2018.
Twitter recently deleted posts from Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro for sharing speculation about possible unusual cures for Covid-19.