Brazilian police were questioning some 1,000 supporters of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro who had been detained on Monday following the storming of the country’s Congress, Supreme Court, and the presidential palace. Sunday’s attack on key government buildings was a shocking sight, but the warning signs had been there for months.
“This was actually months in the making, and it was seen coming. The misinformation/disinformation had been spreading since October,” explained Dr. Jeff Treistman, assistant professor of International Affairs in the National Security Department at the University of New Haven.
“It wasn’t really too much of a surprise, and there were even serious concerns that there could be a coup,” Treistman added.
Yet, it appeared that the signs and portents were completely missed — or at least ignored — by the social media platforms. Supporters of Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, vowed on social media for months they’d take to the streets to protest against his left-leaning successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Those same platforms reacted slowly as the protesters stormed the government buildings – an eerily similar sight to the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol Building riot. Images and videos were shared in real-time on WhatsApp groups and on Twitter on Sunday, even as there were efforts to stop their spread.
Starting An Inferno
It now seems that the smallest spark can turn into an inferno thanks to comments posted on social media. But this is hardly new.
Dr. Robert Sanders, associate professor in the National Security Department of the University of New Haven, noted how the Tulsa Riots of 1921 began slowly by word of mouth, before 35 square blocks of a neighborhood – at the time one of the wealthiest black communities in the United States, colloquially known as “Black Wall Street” – was destroyed in one of the worst race riots in our country’s history.
“You had somebody say something, about a young black man raping a white girl, and then the newspaper came out and it took on a life of its own,” explained Sanders. “It took days for it to simmer as it had to reach the printing press and then go out to the masses. Social media now allows someone to reach an audience by simply typing a message and pressing a button. If you want to mobilize a fringe element, all you have to do is send out a tweet.”
The lack of accountability thus makes it all the easier to spread misinformation and even disinformation to the world.
“There is no single figure, like a Walter Cronkite, who serves as the gatekeeper for what is fact,” warns Sanders. “Instead everyone with a social media account is the editor, and can decide how much the message is nuanced or not nuanced at all.”
Reign Of Domestic Terrorism
As noted, the ability to whip up a crowd into a political frenzy that turns violent isn’t new. This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, the failed coup d’état by Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler. It involved some 2,000 of his ardent supporters – and it was inspired by Benito Mussolini’s own March on Rome a year earlier.
“We should remember that the origin of ‘terrorism’ came from the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution,” said Prof. Kurt Braddock, assistant professor of Public Communication in the School of Communication at American University. “What is changing the game now is that modern communication – notably social media – facilitates coordination of action in a way not previously possible.”
Moreover, as social media has become an echo chamber for those with similar views, it is bringing those with fringe ideas – if not actual ideology – together.
“Social media often lacks a dissenting voice,” added Braddock. “This can result in the spread of misinformation and disinformation, where a big lie becomes the truth – something that is right out of the playbook of the Soviet Union. If a lie is big enough, it is impossible to tell what is the truth.”
The Threat To Democracy
The great danger is that misinformation and disinformation will continue to spread faster than actual news.
“What is different now is that such a greater number of people have access to social media, and that results in so many more being exposed to the misinformation,” said Treistman. “As people are persuaded by those with similar viewpoints, they often find what they are reading as trustworthy, without confirming if it is true.”
This can even serve as a force multiplier for fringe groups.
“Mini-and-undeveloped movements can gain followers as their opinions are amplified,” said Sanders. “We can expect a charismatic leader – like a Bolsonaro – to spin a narrative. That individual can invent serious grievances that can then take on a life of their own, and that could inflame their supporters.”
The good news is that social media does bring this out into the open. Yet, as was seen in Brazil for months, the platforms did little to actually address it.