Strengthening Brazil’s democracy with digital policies

05 Oct 2023

Welcome to the “Voices of Evidence Users” interview series, offering firsthand insights from the people who use evidence in decision making – a collaboration between the Hub LAC and On Think Tanks.

Samara Castro In this conversation Hub LAC talks to Samara Mariana de Castro, a lawyer with a career in the field of law marked by her work in Electoral and Party Law, Digital Law, Privacy, and Data Protection. 

In 2023, Samara assumed the position of Director of the Department for the Promotion of Freedom of Expression at the new Department of Digital Policies of the Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency of the Republic (SECOM), where she has had the opportunity to pioneer an environment for informing digital public policies in Brazil with the best available evidence. In this interview, she discusses the progress and challenges that she and her team have encountered on this journey.

How would you describe your role and what are the top priorities as the Director of the Department for the Promotion of Freedom of Expression in the Department of Digital Policies?

We’ve been dealing with several challenges. This includes supporting the sustainability of journalism amidst changes in advertising, regulating digital services to combat disinformation, and promoting strong values of freedom of expression in a digital era. 

Additionally, the department operates in a pioneering environment, where many problems still lack available evidence. 

As an unprecedented Secretariat we face the challenge of being part of a Ministry, meaning we don’t have permanent staff. In this regard, we don’t have the institutional memory that other ministries have; we are now creating our own history. 

The previous SECOM was under the Ministry of Communications, and there was no smooth transition in critical areas, so we are redesigning a new structure. Our work today also contrasts with the processes created by the previous government, which operated with a logic of disinformation and distrust towards adversaries and other branches of government, in what became known in the media as the ‘hate cabinet.’ 

Our challenges are not specific to the Brazilian context. These are challenges that democratic governments worldwide are simultaneously facing, as they involve new and emerging issues.

What is the role of evidence in addressing these priorities? How do you cooperate and seek support from research centers and networks within the government and civil society to better inform yourself about the challenges and potential solutions?

Evidence plays a crucial role in decision-making. The government relies on evidence to persuade legislators on regulatory issues, primarily using executive reports containing quantitative and qualitative research. 

The active search for this evidence is done in partnership with civil society organizations, academia, and industry, along with my personal network of contacts and direct channels with the legislative and judicial branches. 

We also seek international experiences, primarily from Latin American and other global contexts, to create institutional advertising policies focused on ensuring a reliable and trustworthy information environment, that does not directly or indirectly finance illegal, dangerous, or misinformative content, while ensuring equality and rights.

To this intent, a new secretariat was created at SECOM, the Secretariat for Analysis, Strategy and Articulation (SEART), designed to support decision-making informed by evidence for digital policies. We can say that we also act as an evidence hub for other ministries, coordinating interministerial actions on specific issues that require our collaboration.

A recent practical example of our team’s work was the creation of a strategic plan to combat misinformation on vaccination. Calls were made to different areas of the government (Ministry of Health, Attorney General of the Union-AGU, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Management and Information, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Communications and Comptroller General of the Union), carrying out meetings with each ministry, according to the points that needed to be aligned to achieve integrated work between these spheres. 

Communication tools, even the most informal ones, such as WhatsApp, are being used to disseminate reliable information in a simple and friendly way, easy to understand for public managers with different levels of knowledge in their areas of activity. We also seek to ensure social participation through public surveys and open meetings in decision-making.

What are the main challenges you see in systematically incorporating evidence into the decision-making process?

Some of the main challenges we face include the lack of reliable data and limited access to information from digital platforms. 

What we have is rough data that indicates general trends but does not explain phenomena at the granularity necessary to inform our policies.  

These are contemporary challenges, and there are still information gaps. There are not many successful experiences, and we have to contend with anti-democratic regimes that steer policies in the opposite direction of what we are striving for.

Furthermore, there is a shortage of funding to institutionalise decision support structures. Within the government, I perceive fragmentation and difficulty in organising, curating, and analyzing the vast range of information we receive almost every day.

What advice would you give to researchers and decision-makers looking to improve the use of evidence?

For researchers, it is crucial to build an advocacy network, connecting to organisations that can provide the most relevant information to decision makers in a way that is personalised to their demands. 

It is important to emphasise this: the delivery of evidence must be adapted to the target audience, avoiding standardised reports that do not dialogue with those who need to make decisions based on them.

As for decision makers, it is essential to establish channels  for evidence to reach those who need it and in a timely manner. 

Training is also needed so that evidence can be processed optimally. Translating information to facilitate understanding and action is crucial to ensuring that evidence has influence and impact, especially in a context where misinformation is widely disseminated.

Samara Castro