The world watched in disbelief this month as far-right activists trashed major government buildings and threatened to attack key infrastructure, including roads and airports in Brazil. Now, as concerns grow over the possibility of new riots occurring in the coming days, the country’s new administration faces the significant challenge of countering the ongoing rise in radicalization spurred by social media.
Under what is considered the most severe threat to democracy since Brazil resurfaced from a dictatorship in 1985, thousands of supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed into sites including the Congress and the presidential office on Sunday, leaving behind a trail of destruction. Their motive was the result of the October elections won by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, making Bolsonaro the only Brazilian president to ever fail at a reelection attempt. As scores of protesters were arrested, the former head of state, who fled to Florida before Lula took office, adopted an ambiguous stance.
However shocking these events may be, they are not necessarily a surprise. According to experts, the riots in Brasília and elsewhere in the largest economy in Latin America were the result of a process that has unfolded for nearly a decade. As developments such as the economic crisis and Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2013 took place, anti-left feelings arose along with growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, and protesters took to the streets between 2015 and 2016.
Given that Brazil was in dire economic straits, with widening inequality, rampant violence, and corruption, all the conditions were in place to facilitate the rise of the far-right. In that context, social networks became a primary vehicle for political radicalization in Brazil, said Guilherme Casarões, a professor of Political Science at the São Paulo School of Business Administration (FGV/EAESP) and a senior researcher at the Brazilian Center of International Relations (CEBRI).
“After 2016, various segments of the right started to emerge – the evangelicals, the libertarians, the extremists – but they didn’t talk to each other. Bolsonaro was very efficient in providing that sense of unity, which only happened because he was the first politician in Brazil to master the contemporary digital language,” he said.
“Bolsonaro only got this far because he could bring various interests of the right together: despite the fact he was talking about God and economic freedom, the core of his rhetoric is anti-establishment, racist, homophobic, authoritarian. The moderate sections of the right then started to tolerate his anti-democratic ideas and radicalize through digital narratives that are more emotional and less rational,” Casarões added.
As well as aspects such as Bolsonaro’s increasing efficiency in mobilizing online audiences and his crusade to discredit the mainstream press, another factor that explains how so many Brazilians adhere to anti-democratic rhetoric online is the country’s growing digital inclusion, according to Ronaldo Lemos, a lawyer, professor at Columbia University and director at the Institute for Technology and Society (ITS). “In addition to the sophistication of that type of inflammatory campaign, there is the fact that more people are online, which broadens the reach of that type of campaign and makes it more effective,” he said.
With nearly 12 million followers on Twitter, Bolsonaro commands the narrative across a plethora of groups across tools such as WhatsApp and Telegram and frequently uses YouTube and Facebook to stay in touch with supporters. That led to his victory in 2018, despite accusations of illegal campaigning tactics using WhatsApp. By comparison, Lula only got himself a smartphone last year: the head of state prefers face-to-face interactions and delegates social media activity to the First Lady, Janja, and his communications staff.
Blowing The Dog Whistle
The riots in Brazil on January 8 are surrounded by symbolism, starting with the date picked by the orchestrators. After all, it was on January 9, 1822, that Prince Pedro, then Brazil’s regent, refused to obey an order that he return to Portugal. The day became known as the Dia do Fico, for Pedro’s declaration: “I shall remain.”
Given that the violence did not escalate immediately after the election results, delivered swiftly thanks to Brazil’s electronic voting system, or even as Lula took office on January 1, one might ask: what took Bolsonaro’s supporters so long? According to Casarões, there was also a process involved. First, truck drivers staged road blockages, a movement that later shifted to large supporter camps, often in front of military buildings nationwide. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro remained largely silent in his social media channels.
“Bolsonaro’s silence was interpreted by his supporters as an authorization to remain [in camps], but he didn’t want to be associated with violence of any kind to avoid facing charges. He then left Brazil under the argument that his life was in danger, effectively creating an alibi that would warrant a radicalization on the streets,” the scholar said. “The events on January 8 only happened because Bolsonaro never accepted his defeat openly.”
Regarding how attacks were articulated on social media, Bolsonaro’s supporters employed what is defined by specialists as a “dog whistle” technique. In this particular case, the event was defined using a variation of “Festa na Selva” – which means “Party in the Jungle” in Portuguese, a military war cry – by swapping the “v” in the word selva for an “m.” The call to arms was then disguised as an inconspicuous “Festa na Selma” – a party at Selma’s place.
Social networks were instrumental in the practical organization of the riots, according to David Nemer, a professor at the University of Virginia and a researcher focusing on the dynamics of far-right supporters on platforms such as WhatsApp. “People would send their full details and get information on the route of caravans heading to Selma’s party, accommodation, and other needs. Organizers would send details of local leaders and ask for payments. Nothing was hidden, everything was quite explicit, and these groups are open,” he said.
The “Zap Aunties”
Although the stereotypical far-right supporter tends to be the middle-class white male, another group is often linked with susceptibility to disinformation and hate speech in Brazil, the “zap aunties.” The popular term describes older voters who tend to receive and spread content linked with radicalization, predominantly via WhatsApp and Telegram. According to Nemer, these supposedly “well-meaning citizens” were dragged into an echo chamber, partly explaining why so many were present in the riots.
“They truly believe they have enlisted in a patriotic mission, where they have the duty of saving Brazil, and there is nothing wrong about their actions. But, when they least realize it, they are already engaged in terrorism,” Nemer said. The researcher added this is the result of a trajectory with three stages: first, people are exposed to radicalized ideas online and then normalize them. Then, they get accustomed to anti-democratic discourse and then dehumanize the opponent. “It is a slow, dangerous and lethal process,” he noted.
However, the scholar stressed the rioters were part of a small group, which tends to diminish after Bolsonaro’s defeat. The actions in Brasília are mainly frowned upon by most voters: according to a poll by AtlasIntel with 2,200 respondents, 75,8% disapprove of the actions staged by the protesters, compared with 18,4% who considered the riots were valid. Nemer fears this minority may become even more radical.
When it comes to measures from the authorities to contain the ongoing radicalization, Nemer is skeptical. “No efforts are being made from a government perspective. Instead, [Supreme Court judge] Alexandre de Moraes is taking a reactive stance, arresting people as an educational way to make people stop. And before, there was nothing [to stop disinformation and hate speech online] since the previous government was trying to capitalize on that,” he argued.
Addressing The Root Of The Issue
While Brazilian institutions such as the Superior Electoral Court moved to counter fake news around the 2018 elections, the focus was mainly on Facebook, according to Lemos. “What happened was that disinformation started circulating on WhatsApp and YouTube, which became a loophole. As a result, all the attention was focused on a single platform when other channels became the main channel for inflammatory campaigns,” he said.
In 2022, the scenario changed again, with Telegram emerging as a favorite tool to support Bolsonaro supporters’ articulation. The tool also played a significant role in the riots last week. Other platforms such as Gettr and Discord are also being adopted among Brazilian radicals, Lemos said: “These dynamics are constantly shifting and that calls for strategic changes so that [authorities] can understand and act upon the issue.”
On the other hand, Lemos argued that Brazil has evolved regarding its preparedness to deal with disinformation on social networks in 2022 compared to the 2018 scenario. All platforms, including WhatsApp, YouTube – and later, Telegram – agreed to cooperate in dealing with the problem. There was also a significant change in strategy. “Before 2022, the modus operandi of the authorities was to determine that specific posts be removed. Last year, the Supreme Electoral Court started investigating where fake news come from and understanding the financing methods. That change of focus didn’t solve the issue, but had an important impact,” the lawyer noted.
Delving deep into how disinformation networks are funded should be among the priorities for the Brazilian government, but other measures must be taken, according to Nemer. “There is no silver bullet to this. It is a multifaceted problem and, as such, requires various types of solutions. We need updated regulation on online radicalization and online disinformation, as well as holding people to account and investing in media literacy,” he noted, adding Brazilian YouTubers with large audiences, such as Casimiro and Felipe Neto, could help counter radicalization.
Lula’s government will also need to deal with the fact that attempts to regulate or impose some censorship on individuals disseminating anti-democratic content have so far backfired, according to Casarões. “Any attempt to impose tougher rules can have the opposite effect. Therefore, the judiciary will have to act with a lot of caution and clarity so that criminalizing fake news doesn’t end up prompting new waves of radicalization based on the wrong premises Bolsonaro supporters often mention,” he said.
Casarões argued that changing mindsets is possible, but it is a task that goes way beyond Lula’s administration, given that the leftist leader is also a deeply polarizing figure in Brazil. “The pacification of the country will only come after many electoral cycles and an entire generation,” he said.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen the construction of two almost parallel and antagonizing realities, one of which is created by people who inform themselves through WhatsApp to whom facts matter very little. The movement for national reconciliation will happen after a process where Brazil will have to operate under the same premises about reality. But that won’t happen overnight,” he concluded.