Social Media War in Brazil Pushes Far-Right Candidate Toward Presidency

Giovani Baffo is a poet and a street artist in Sao Paulo’s trendy Vila Madalena neighborhood. With a thick, unkempt beard and a red Nike t-shirt, he is not the prototypical image of a political analyst. But his words just days before the first round of Brazil’s presidential election on October 7 were wisdom far beyond that of most political pundits.

“Our election will not be decided by the candidates’ proposals or their speeches. It will be decided by the lies spread online,” he told Truthout, under the thick grey sky of the country’s largest city. “The Brazilian elections will be decided by the ability of some groups to push ‘fake news’ and the ability of us [voters] to discern what is and what is not real.”

The day before Baffo uttered this prediction, former Sao Paulo Mayor and leftist Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad had held a press conference to denounce a barrage of distorted information against his campaign, himself and his family, particularly spread over the Facebook-owned messaging application WhatsApp.

Haddad announced that his team had opened a WhatsApp hotline to receive complaints of false or misleading news and memes over the platform. Within 24 hours, they received 15,000 messages.

Their lawyers passed this information to the Supreme Electoral Court, which oversees Brazilian elections. Within a few days, it ruled that 68 posts and links to distorted information should be taken offline.

Among them is slanderous information against Haddad and his running mate, Brazilian Communist Party member Manuela d’Ávila. Posts reported that Haddad said that after a child turns five, he or she will belong to the state. Another said that if Haddad is elected, he will confiscate savings accounts. Another accused d’Ávila of distributing pornographic material to children. These were all shared countless times across social media platforms.

But the court decision was a tiny drop in a bucket overflowing with memes and reports, news and information. The list is endless.

The messages and memes have continued unrelentingly. They accuse Haddad of incest — and of owning a yellow Ferrari and a $100,000 watch. They claim that if the left wins, a million people will be fired across the country. Meanwhile, they repeat unsubstantiated claims that fraud in the first round of the elections blocked the far-right former military captain Jair Bolsonaro from winning outright.

Bolsonaro’s Threats Against Oppressed Groups

The overwhelming share of false reports has been directed against Haddad and in support of Bolsonaro. Some of the claims have been promoted directly by Bolsonaro, his campaign and his three sons, who are all rising political stars in Brazil for the conservative far right. Some have likely been produced independently, but increasingly over social media, the lines of supporters and campaigners, official and unofficial, real and fake, are blurred.

Bolsonaro came within just a handful of points of winning the presidency in the first round. He is now expected to coast to victory in the October 28 runoff, on a wave of Trump-like nationalism that is sweeping across the globe. According to the latest polls, released Monday, he has an 18-point lead over Haddad.

A Bolsonaro presidency is a frightening prospect for many in Brazil who are afraid of a return to military-style rule, the policies of the dictatorship (which ran from 1964 through 1985), and an overwhelming rollback in rights for oppressed communities.

Bolsonaro, who served in the military under the dictatorship, has praised torture and death squads, and Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet. He has promised to do away with activism in Brazil, and has been fined for sexist, racist and homophobic rhetoric. He told a fellow congresswoman, “I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it.” He said he would rather have his son be dead than gay.

But Bolsonaro is also the candidate of Brazil’s growing evangelical movement, and evangelical Christians now make up 25 percent of the country’s population. During his campaign, he has focused his messaging on the Brazilian version of “draining the swamp,” fighting corruption, arming the people against insecurity and defending so-called family values: God, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT stances.

Bolsonaro’s supporters believe that despite his violent rhetoric, he is poised to save the country from corruption, crime and Communist takeover. Many appreciate and identify with his bigoted attitude — and support him because of it.

Women United Against Bolsonaro

There has been major resistance to Bolsonaro’s candidacy. One month out from the first round, women began to organize against him. They created the Facebook page Women United Against Bolsonaro, and the hashtag #EleNao, or #NotHim. They planned a massive march for September 29. Momentum was on their side. Haddad was rising in the polls.

The marches were historic — some of the largest women’s marches in Brazilian history. They were compared to the women’s marches that hit US streets (and streets around the world) on the heels of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Hundreds of thousands occupied Brazil’s major cities. Clad in purple — long a color embraced by feminists and women’s movements — and waving rainbow flags, they cheered. They danced. They took a stand. The feeling was contagious.

But the right wing was organizing too, riling up its base. Pictures of angry, half naked women began to go viral through WhatsApp groups and more conservative social media networks. An image of a woman defecating on Bolsonaro’s picture. Another depicted the letters #EleNao painted on the bare behinds of a row of half-naked men. Some of the images weren’t even from the marches. While Brazil’s mainstream media largely ignored the protests, these were the memes pushed into everyday households on cell phones around the country.

The next day, during Sunday religious services, evangelical pastors took advantage of the moment to reflect on the images their members had seen the day before. They called on them to stop the advance of so-called “immoral” groups and vote for “family values”: vote for Bolsonaro. (In reality, a vote for Bolsonaro, of course, does not serve “families” — it serves white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and repression.)

The first polls released after that weekend showed a substantial spike for Bolsonaro. The social media messages, the evangelical response, and the conservative backlash clearly had an impact. Haddad’s support plateaued. There has been no going back.

“The bottom line is that Bolsonsaro’s communication strategy has been very effective,” Rio de Janeiro State University professor Mauricio Santoro told Truthout a week after the first round of elections. “We have never had a presidential candidate in Brazil, with this number of votes, without time on television. He did it all over social media, with the help of the religious communities and evangelical leaders, in particular, who have used social media to recommend Bolsonaro and candidates allied with him.”

Under Brazilian election law, presidential candidates receive airtime for television ads proportionate to the number of candidates their party has in Congress. Until the moment Bolsonaro joined the far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL) earlier this year, it had only one congressional representative. Bolsonaro, therefore, had less than 10 seconds of airtime in each TV and radio ad bloc.

It hasn’t mattered.

The Social Liberal Party carried out a mind-boggling shift in the first round of the elections, flipping longtime established parties upside down and turning Brazil’s political system on its head. The Social Liberal Party is now the second-largest party in the lower house, after the Workers Party, with 52 seats.

Behind the Scenes

According to a poll released Monday, 53 percent of Brazilians receive information about politics and the election over WhatsApp groups. This is precisely where Bolsonaro’s social media campaign has been most successful, and where millions of his diehard followers have been most active.

According to an October 7 report from O Globo, Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, a team of 15 people at the digital strategy firm AM4 work on behalf of the Bolsonaro campaign to distribute content to 1,500 WhatsApp groups, which then share it across the web and with countless other WhatsApp groups.

George Washington University researcher Maurício Moura says that on a big day, Bolsonaro’s content can be shared across 40,000 WhatsApp groups, each with a maximum of 256 people per group.

“It’s not clear how much coordination there is,” University of São Paulo researcher Márcio Ribeiro told the GaúchaZH journal. “Apparently, we are seeing a process from the ground up: where people are convinced to defend Bolsonaro and voluntarily do propaganda for him.”

This means that the messaging platform has become a hotbed for disinformation. The challenge of fully monitoring or comprehensively refuting the false reports or distorted memes is an impossible task.

Early in the campaign, the Supreme Electoral Court had promised to task a working group with responding to cases of misinformation with robust action. However, it has found itself ineffective in its ability to handle the blitzkrieg of distorted information, posts and memes.

“It’s not that we haven’t done anything,” said Court President Rosa Weber on October 7, the day of the first round of the election. “But preventing fake news? I don’t know how we could have acted more in this area where we have a larger principle, which is the freedom of expression.”

This has been the case, particularly over WhatsApp. On October 12, the court denied a request from Haddad to remove false messages circulating on the messaging platform.

In his decision, Court Justice Luis Felipe Salomão wrote that “this type of control would clearly be impossible.”

This is the inherent blessing and curse of WhatsApp that Yasodara Córdova, a research fellow at the Digital Harvard Kennedy School, spoke of in June, shortly after thousands of decentralized truckers were able to shut down Brazil for nine days using little more than the messaging application to coordinate their movement. WhatsApp is a powerful tool, but it is nearly impossible to regulate because the messages are shared privately or in groups rather than publicly, as in the case of Facebook or Twitter.

At the time, Córdova worried about how the platform would be used in the lead-up to the elections.

“Are people going to use WhatsApp to spread misinformation? Yes, they will,” she told Truthout. “It’s impossible to censor WhatsApp.”

Meanwhile, many of the truckers who shut down the country have been a sounding pipe for the Bolsonaro campaign. According to truckers still in the WhatsApp groups, the vast majority of the information shared is in support of Bolsonaro’s campaign, and much of it replicating disinformation.

On Monday, October 15, the Supreme Electoral Court called for a meeting between Bolsonaro and Haddad to discuss the ongoing torrent of misreported information.

The following day, Brazil’s attorney general’s office announced it would be investigating reports that individuals have been contracted to spread false information against political adversaries.

“What is concerning is when you have an industrial scheme producing lies, with an artificial means of propelling that information. This is very serious,” said Humberto Jacques de Medeiros, assistant electoral attorney general.

That scheme was at least partially revealed by a story from Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo newspaper on October 18. It reported that businessmen had spent millions of dollars to illegally finance and send false news in favor of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to Brazilian voters.

The misleading information was sent in blasts over the messaging service WhatsApp. Bolsonaro’s challenger, Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad, called on Bolsonaro to be disqualified because of the illegal scheme, and for essentially receiving millions of dollars in undeclared donations, an electoral crime.

Bolsonaro has adamantly denied wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, with the social media campaign in full gear, Bolsonaro has done his best to physically stay out of the spotlight. He was stabbed while campaigning in early September, which left him hospitalized and in critical condition for several weeks. He returned home on the day of the women’s marches, but he has preferred to keep most of his appearances online. He sat out the last debate before the first round of elections under doctor’s orders, but then agreed to be interviewed on a competing channel at exactly the same time. So far, Bolsonaro has recused himself from debating Haddad in the second round.

Much like Trump before him, it appears his strategy is to stay where he knows he can win, and where it is hard to regulate his discourse: online and over social media.

There are other parallels to Trump’s campaign in the United States. In August, Trump’s former campaign strategist Steve Bannon met with Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, in New York. At the time, Eduardo tweeted that Bannon had agreed to offer pro bono advice to the team.

Whether or not this is true, Bolsonaro’s strategy is working.

“The polarization, coupled with the scenario of distrust means that people believe much more in what they receive via WhatsApp or Facebook than what is published by the media,” said Santoro.

This very point is likely to define Brazil’s presidential election and the direction of the country for years to come.