The Brazilian Truckers’ Strike: How WhatsApp Is Changing the Rules of the Game

The massive truckers’ strike that began on May 21 and immobilized Brazil for a week and half was one of the largest mobilizations ever carried out via the messaging platform WhatsApp.

With hundreds of thousands participating in the strike, gasoline, diesel and ethanol ran out across Brazil within a few days. Flights were canceled and airplanes grounded as jet fuel ran low at major airports. Supermarket shelves were emptied. Schools were closed. Buses ran on reduced schedules. Tankers, waiting to ship thousands of tons of soy and sugar, waited and waited some more, as truckers blocked all movement of freight and ground the country to a halt. There were even reports that officials might be forced to shut down reactors at nuclear plants because of a shortage of fuel.

The truckers were upset over the price of diesel, which had risen consecutively in the preceding months, and was adjusted 16 times in the month before the strike, in some parts of Brazil. The price hikes stemmed from a shift in the policies of the state-owned oil company Petrobras, which let the price of diesel float with the market under the government of Michel Temer. Temer rose to power in 2016 following the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff, in what many called a congressional coup.

Truckers stand in front of a blockade in Tubarão, Santa Catarina, on the evening of May 24.
Michael Fox

The truckers said the high diesel costs made their job impossible. They parked their trucks along the highway and truck stops. Blockades ensured that nothing would get through. Hundreds of protests dotted the country.

Four days into the strike, the government announced that a deal had been reached to suspend the strike and that it would be cutting the cost of diesel by 10 percent over 30 days.

The truckers didn’t buy it. They refused to move.

Trucks line the side of a highway in Santa Catarina, during the Brazilian truckers’ strike on May 25.
Michael Fox

They said the concessions weren’t enough and the truckers’ unions, which struck the deal with the government, didn’t represent them. The Brazilian Truckers’ Association — which represents 600,000 truckers across the country, and which had been one of the main groups calling for the strike — had actually walked out of the talks.

Over countless groups formed via the messaging platform WhatsApp, truckers said they weren’t going anywhere and called on their companions across the country to hold firm and continue to protest.

This thing is far from over. That union isn’t worth anything,” said one trucker with a Sao Paulo phone number in a WhatsApp group titled “Fight for Better,” according to a report by the Brazilian weekly Piauí, that followed four truckers’ WhatsApp groups during the strike.

“This is a lie. It’s not over. We haven’t achieved our objective,” wrote another trucker from Sao Paulo.

The truckers would hold out for another week and another round of negotiations with the government, in which WhatsApp would be key in legitimizing those at the table. The truckers refused to budge until the government had agreed to several concessions, including slashing some fuel taxes and cutting diesel prices by nearly US $0.50 a gallon for 60 days. Even then, some held on further, and were only pushed back to work after the Temer government called on the military to clear the remaining points of protests around the country.

The truckers had held strikes before, but none so successful as this.

“It was historic. Not just for the truckers, but for the country,” said Hilário Eugênio da Fonceca, a trucker from Santa Catarina, who has been behind the wheel for 12 years.

WhatsApp, they said, made the difference. The platform enabled truckers, and their highly decentralized movement, to communicate with each other in real time, sending messages, audio and video across the country.

A trucker on strike checks his phone at a truck stop outside of Imbituba, Santa Catarina, on May 25.
Michael Fox

“It was practically the driving force behind the strike,” Anderson Pereira Gonçalves, a trucker from the state of Rio Grande do Sul, told Truthout later, via WhatsApp, as he was hauling a shipment out of Brasilia. “WhatsApp was fundamental in creating a unified opinion among the truckers.”

According to Yasodara Córdova — a research fellow at the Digital Harvard Kennedy School — the truckers’ strike was the largest mobilization ever carried out via WhatsApp.

As of January, the 9-year-old messaging service had over 1.5 billion users in 180 countries. In Brazil it has grown exponentially since 2014, when it was purchased by Facebook and included free-of-charge on many basic cell phone plans. According to a recent article by BBC Brasil, WhatsApp is used by 60 percent of Brazilians. It has become a way of life. WhatsApp numbers are included beside cell phone numbers on advertisements and websites. People generally use it instead of SMS messaging, which is more expensive in Brazil.

The truckers largely communicated via WhatsApp groups. These are limited to 256 people, but most truckers participated in several groups at the same time. Some were created in the lead-up to the strike and included truckers across the country. Others were formed organically, in the early days of the shut down, in order to coordinate communication around specific occupations and protests. According to Gonçalves, many trucking companies have done away with email and now only communicate via WhatsApp. It’s an easy fit for most truckers, as the app has largely replaced CB radio.

Córdova believes that the messaging service was so key during the truckers’ strike that she compares the truckers’ use of WhatsApp to the use of Twitter during the Arab Spring, with one major difference.

“That was public,” she told Truthout. “All of the researchers and journalists could go to the API [Application Programming Interface] and get the data and write about it, but in this case, we didn’t have data, nothing was public and it was happening in these WhatsApp groups, with no one watching.”

Córdova celebrates this privacy, or security — which she likens to a dining room, where people feel safe to say what they like. But it is also a double-edged sword, as Brazil is fighting a war against false and distorted news.

Fighting Misinformation

A trucker honks his horn during a midday protest during the truckers’ strike on May 25.
Michael Fox

On May 10, Facebook announced that it would be partnering with the Brazilian fact-checking agencies Aos Fatos and Agência Lupa as part of a renewed push for transparency on its platform in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The move came just over a month after a court in Rio de Janeiro ordered Facebook to remove posts with false information about the slain Black LGBT city councilwoman Marielle Franco within 24 hours. Her murder on March 14 sparked global outrage, but also a plethora of distorted and inaccurate reports that she herself was involved with drug gangs and “radical communists.”

In particular, Facebook removed the pageCeticismo Político” — linked to Brazil’s Tea Party-style Free Brasil Movement — which was responsible for publishing many of the false reports about Franco.

When Facebook announced the move to partner with Aos Fatos and Agência Lupa, the Free Brazil Movement pushed back with its own campaign, calling the move “censorship” and attacking the journalists at the fact-checking agencies as “left-wing activists.”

This is indicative of the increasing polarization of information in Brazil, where, like the United States, different groups are battling over what is real and what is fake.

But in Brazil, this war is also playing out over WhatsApp.

On the fifth day of the truckers strike, a post went viral over the messaging service that claimed to be written by one of the country’s most active gangs — the Sao Paulo-based PCC.

“ATTENTION PEOPLE!! We are going to leave things very clear for everyone that whoever is driving their car on the road will suffer the consequences,” it read. “Join the war in favor of the truckers, or don’t leave your home! Here’s the deal, we are going to attack everything that belongs to the government, and whatever does not join our cause from today on.”

The post scared people across the country, but nothing came of it.

The next day, pictures of massive marches were shared over several WhatsApp groups in the state of Santa Catarina. They claimed to have been taken that evening or the night before in Florianópolis during marches in support of the truckers. They turned out to be images from 2013 protests against bus fare hikes—a reality that becomes apparent if one searches for the images on Google.

False audio also went viral over WhatsApp in the final days of the strike, in which someone impersonating the commander of the Brazilian Army Forces announced that the military would be overthrowing the government the morning of May 31.

Even after the strikes had ended, messages spun across the country via WhatsApp, warning that an even larger strike was expected to begin on Monday, June 4, and that people should now prepare for the worst. Rumors said tens of thousands of truckers were on their way to Brasilia, where they would shut down the government. Brazilians stocked up on extra goods and waited in long lines to fill up on gas. Despite a minor truckers’ protest in Brasília, the roads were clear across the country.

These cases highlight the complexity of identifying rumors and misinformation on WhatsApp. Since the platform is private and things are easily forwarded from one account to the next, there is no way to identify who originally created the content.

Further complicating the ability to check reports over WhatsApp is the fact that although the service is free with many cell phone plans, data is not. Everyone can receive messages, audio, video and links and titles to articles via WhatsApp, but not everyone can check the content on the web, or other sources to confirm that it is accurate.

Calls for Military Intervention

Anderson Pereira Gonçalves — a trucker from Brazil’s Southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul — has been driving a truck for 21 years. He sits a truck stop in Imbituba, Santa Catarina, on May 25.
Michael Fox

It is very likely that WhatsApp was also used to influence the direction of the truckers’ movement itself.

In the early days of the strike, the truckers had focused exclusively on demanding that the price of diesel be slashed. But as the strike wore on and the days camped at the truck stops and parked along the highways continued, the narrative began to change.

Increasingly, truckers and their allies were calling for military intervention — a coup d’etat against the Temer government — to resolve their impasse and wipe the corruption clean from Brasília.

Truckers were definitely involved, but it’s difficult to identify exactly which other groups and individuals were behind this shifting narrative. They kept their identities well hidden, but there is consensus among the truckers and analysts interviewed for this article that outside groups were working to influence the direction and the demands of the truckers’ strike. They did so in person and also over WhatsApp.

According to Córdova, after Temer’s failed agreement with the truckers on the fourth day of the strike, the “right wing woke up, because they saw that they were losing an opportunity.”

The BBC Brasil was monitoring five WhatsApp groups created in support of the truckers’ strike. Messages, memes and videos calling for military intervention began to gain force.

“The reactions to the truckers’ strike, widely supported by the people, show that Brazilians are losing their patience with ‘authorities,’” read one of the most widely shared messages. “The conditions are ideal for a true revolution to re-found Brazil. But where are the leaders of this process? Write on the wind-shields of trucks and cars. Military intervention!”

Professionally printed banners calling for military intervention began to appear at protest points across the country, with similar fonts and colors.

Many truckers — whose movement overall leaned to the political right — jumped on board, sharing their own messages and videos in support of military intervention. Although according to the Santa Catarina trucker Hilário Eugênio da Fonceca, most truckers at the camp where he was located didn’t really understand what that would mean.

“Just like there were people that took advantage of the impeachment against Dilma Rousseff, there are people that are taking advantage of the truckers’ movement now,” said the trucker Pereira Gonçalves from the truck stop outside of the port of Imbituba, where he was camped for 10 days during the strike. “There are people who are taking advantage of this moment of crisis … that are trying to force the idea into people’s heads that military intervention is the way to go.”

Looking Toward the October Elections

Analysts say Brazil is likely to see similar manipulation of information and use of WhatsApp in the coming months, ahead of the presidential elections.

“The app will have a fundamental role in the campaigns leading up to the October elections. It’s a cheap and direct way to speak to the electorate. It’s a cheap and direct way to spread lies and hate,” wrote Nizan Guanaes, the owner of the Brazil’s largest advertising firm, in the Folha de Sao Paulo.

Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is far ahead in the latest polls. But he has been in prison for more than two months, after being convicted of accepting a beachside apartment from a company seeking government contracts. He and his supporters insist he’s innocent. They say he is a political prisoner and that his imprisonment is a move to block him from a return to the presidency.

His closest challenger is Trump-like candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has been fined for racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. He served as a captain in the Brazilian military during the dictatorship, which ran from 1964-1985. He is the far-right favorite of the Free Brasil Movement, and the candidate who most benefited — albeit slightly — from the truckers’ strike, due to his long-time connections to the military and his anti-corruption rhetoric.

The stakes are high. With an approval rating in the single digits, President Michel Temer has spun the country down a path of fiscal reforms and privatizations, following 13 years of more progressive Workers’ Party governments. The left hopes to turn the tide on the austerity agenda and restore rights for workers, minorities and the poor. The far right hopes to upend the system even further with a Bolsonaro presidency. The country is more polarized than it has been in decades.

“Are people going to use WhatsApp to spread misinformation? Yes, they will,” Córdova told Truthout. “But it’s impossible to censor WhatsApp. WhatsApp is actually very good. It’s a place for people to get together and talk about their causes and invent strategies. WhatsApp can also be used for good. It’s just one piece of the ecosystem.”