On the evening of Sunday, July 7, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro attended the country’s resounding victory over Peru in the final game of the 2019 America’s Cup.
By his side was his embattled Justice Minister Sérgio Moro. Until recently, Moro had been the county’s top corruption crusader, the former judge overseeing the landmark investigations into Brazil’s Car Wash corruption scandal, in which billions were paid in bribes through the state oil company Petrobras, in exchange for government contracts. Moro was lifted to superhero status by fans and a benevolent press, and seen as a shoo-in for the next spot on the Supreme Court and a potential contender for the presidency in 2022 or 2026.
At the game, some of the 70,000 fans in attendance cheered for Bolsonaro and Moro’s presence at Rio de Janeiro’s historic Maracana stadium, but they were drowned out by the boos and heckles. Six months into his presidency, Bolsonaro’s approval rating has sunk to 33 percent, according to the latest polls. Moro himself is facing calls to step down a month after the first release of scathing revelations by the investigative outlet The Intercept, which show he was clearly biased in his 2017 conviction and subsequent jailing of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. His ruling blocked Lula from running in last year’s elections, paving the way for the election of Bolsonaro and the next president’s invitation for Moro to join him as justice minister.
The Intercept’s revelations, known on social media as #VazaJato, (a play on the title of the Car Wash corruption scandal, meaning #WashLeaks), stem from a massive trove of millions of Telegram chat app messages from federal prosecutors involved in the car wash scandal task force, which were acquired by The Intercept. The messages show that prosecutors schemed about how to block Lula’s Workers’ Party from returning to power, and questioned the trial against Lula because of a lack of evidence. They show that Moro encouraged prosecutors to let slide proof of corruption by former right-wing president Fernando Henrique Cardoso because he was an ally and a supporter of their corruption probe. The leaks also clearly show Moro illegally and consistently guided prosecutors in the car wash operation, while also presiding over the proceedings as a supposed impartial and independent judge.
“Moro left impartiality aside and acted on the side of the accusers,” wrote the authors of a joint investigation by The Intercept and the right-wing outlet Veja, whose team reviewed 649,551 messages in the Telegram archive. “The messages examined by our team are true & our investigation shows that the case is even more serious. Moro committed irregularities.”
Moro’s once-saintly status has crumbled. His approval rating dropped 10 points in the first poll released after the revelations. The Brazilian Lawyers Guild has called for the ex-judge to step down. He is currently taking a five-day leave of absence in the United States with his family.
But a concerted, right-wing counter campaign has also been underway to discredit the leaks and silence The Intercept and its lead journalists. It involves intimidation, faked documents, distorted news, Twitter bots, and attacks on leading members of The Intercept and their families.
A Fake Scandal to Distract From the Real One
As Brazilians were watching the America’s Cup final, an anonymous Twitter account called o Pavao Misterioso, the Mysterious Peacock, released hundreds of screen grabs supposedly showing chat messages between David Miranda — a leading gay congressman in Brazil and the partner of The Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald — and former leftist Brazilian congressman Jean Wyllys.
Until recently, Wyllys was an outspoken gay congressman in Brasilia in the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). Wyllys fled the country at the beginning of the year after threats on his life, following the murder of the Black lesbian Rio de Janeiro City Councilwoman Marielle Franco, and amid a wave of hate crimes and homophobia that has accompanied Bolsonaro’s rise. When Wyllys announced he would not be returning, Miranda — also a Black, gay PSOL member, who had been elected Wyllys’s substitute in Congress — took over his spot.
The Mysterious Peacock screen grabs — timed to go live at the very moment that the entirety of Brazil was glued to its television sets, cellphones and Twitter feeds — showed supposed discussions between Miranda and Wyllys that insinuated that Miranda and Greenwald were paying off Wyllys for his seat in Congress and that Wyllys was upset the payments were delayed.
More screen grabs supposedly showed chats between The Intercept Brasil Executive Editor Leandro Demori and PSOL congressional representative Marcelo Freixo triangulating in order to mediate between Miranda and Wyllys.
It’s fairly clear that the elaborate scheme of Mysterious Peacock messages is a hoax. This was not the first time the anonymous user published documents that were revealed to be fake. Twitter quickly suspended the account.
In order to acquire screen grabs of messages from only a few days before, those responsible would have needed to have used hacking strategies to “clone” four telephones in different locations: three in Brazil and one in Europe. In the screen grabs, the time stamps of the messages on what is supposed to be Wyllys’s phone appear to be four hours ahead of Miranda’s. In reality, Germany, where Wyllys is now living, is currently five hours ahead of the time in Brasilia. Finally, the Brasilia phone number, presented in one of the screen grabs as belonging to Demori, is registered on Twitter as belonging to the Mysterious Peacock, Truthout confirmed.
As if to corroborate the Mysterious Peacock’s screen grabs, a fake Twitter account was set up to appear as though it were Wyllys’s. It tweeted that he was angry he hadn’t received his money. This account, too, was suspended, but a screen grab of the message was shared thousands of times over Facebook. The Rio and Sao Paulo-based fact-checking agency Aos Fatos confirmed that the tweet was false.
What’s Behind the Campaign to Discredit The Intercept?
It is, at this point, impossible to say who may be behind the Mysterious Peacock and its fake leaks, but it’s clear they are part of a much larger disinformation campaign. The Mysterious Peacock’s screen caps are meant to be a distraction from the scathing revelations into ex-judge Sérgio Moro and bias in the ongoing corruption investigation, a desperate attempt at shifting the narrative to instead focus on questioning the integrity of those involved in The Intercept. In other words, create a fake scandal to distract from the real one.
It doesn’t matter what the content is, so long as it’s shocking, makes for a good conspiracy, attacks those seen to be the enemies of the Bolsonaro government, and sheds doubt and suspicion in the eyes of those that want to believe it: Bolsonaro supporters, Moro backers and people who already believe that Brazil’s left is to blame for the country’s failures. In this polarized media landscape, where misleading and distorted news is peddled as real, and where facts seem less important than political allegiance, this is sufficient enough.
And it’s working.
The Mysterious Peacock’s screen grabs went viral. They were celebrated by right-wing politicians, as well as Bolsonaro’s evangelical Minister of Human Rights, Family and Women, Damares Alves.
Just over 24 hours after their release, more than 100,000 tweets had been sent with the hashtag #GlennComprouMandato (which translates loosely into #GlennBoughtTheCongressionalSeat), the top trend in Brazil, at the time.
Brazil’s active right-wing YouTubers, who play a substantial role in guiding public opinion, jumped on the material, giddy like children who had discovered the treasure map to a buried stash of candy. They shared the revelations with their substantial followings, each racking up tens or hundreds of thousands of views overnight.
Greenwald and Miranda have since received numerous death threats. The messages include their address and other personal details.
“They’re very graphic and directed at our children, at our family, and at us personally,” Greenwald told Democracy Now! last week. “We take them very seriously and have been turning them over to the Federal Police. Unfortunately, that Federal Police is commanded by Sérgio Moro.”
The Mysterious Peacock first floated the conspiracy that Greenwald and Miranda had bought Wyllys’s seat only a week after the first #VazaJato release. It also published a document which it said proved that The Intercept had paid over $300,000 to a Russian hacker in order to illegally acquire the trove of incriminating Telegram messages. The document was clearly a fake. It purported to show wire transfers of the money, in cryptocurrencies, between Brazil, Panama and Russia, despite the fact that records for such secret exchanges are not actually kept and, in fact, go against the whole idea of cryptocurrencies. Words were misspelled in English. The comma and the period were transposed in the dollar amounts — monetary figures, written in Portuguese, as opposed to English.
“If you’re going to fabricate false documents in English in order to try and spread fake accusations against me, at least have the decency not to be so lazy as to misspell basic words,” tweeted Glenn Greenwald, in response, in Portuguese.
Fake or not, the conspiracy theory had been unveiled for others to pick up. A few days later, during Moro’s first Senate hearing to respond to the leaks, Brazilian Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro — the eldest son of the president — spent much of his allotted time reiterating the Mysterious Peacock’s accusations against Greenwald, Miranda and Wyllys. He then asked Moro if these individuals were being investigated and if a dictatorship-era security law could be applied against them for “destabilizing our democracy.”
The hearing was Moro’s stage to unveil his narrative — the first of many such opportunities. He accused The Intercept of participating in a criminal organization, defended his impartiality and questioned the “authenticity” of the leaks. He — and the entire team of corruption prosecutors, it seems — had deleted their old messages and changed numbers, so they said they had no way of confirming whether the messages were accurate or not.
This has generally been the response from the Bolsonaro government: Ignore, deny, diminish, and attack those responsible with suspect information — and often homophobic rhetoric. At the roots of the campaign against Greenwald and The Intercept is a latent homophobia that has been fueled by Bolsonaro and many of his supporters.
“I haven’t seen anything suspect yet,” Bolsonaro told reporters about The Intercept leaks on the same day as Moro’s Senate hearing. Bolsonaro then attacked Greenwald, repeating the allegation that he and Miranda had bought Wyllys’s seat, and called Wyllys “that other girl, their other girlfriend outside of the country.”
Wyllys responded days later, tweeting, “Bolsonaro and his crew run to the Nazi tactic of shamelessly lying about us over and over again, incentivizing violence against us and our families.”
The use of suspect or distorted information to sway public opinion is not new in Brazil. It was actively practiced, in particular, by the Bolsonaro campaign in the lead-up to last year’s election.
In early October 2018, the Workers’ Party launched a WhatsApp hotline to receive complaints of false or misleading news over the platform. It received 15,000 messages within 24 hours. The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper later revealed that businessmen had spent millions of dollars to illegally finance and send false news blasts over WhatsApp in favor of Bolsonaro to Brazilian voters.
As president, Bolsonaro has embraced President Trump’s tactic of sharing misleading information. According to an investigation by Aos Fatos, since Bolsonaro’s inauguration on January 1, he has made false or distorted declarations at a rate of more than one a day.
“Lies have always been used for political ends,” Santa Catarina Federal University sociology professor Jacques Mick told Truthout. “What’s new is the way in which these lies have been used, utilizing connections and social media, networks that put political actors in touch with each other…. It doesn’t matter if the argument is true or not.”
Powerful interests continue to mobilize online. In the days following the first Intercept revelations on June 9, the hashtag #DeportaGreenwald (#DeportGreenwald) went viral. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found that the campaign was largely fueled by bots and then carried on by Bolsonaro supporters.
Brazil’s Breitbart-style right-wing outlet O Antagonista — known for publishing suspect claims — reported that prosecutors would be investigating if Wyllys sold his congressional seat, and that the Ministry of Justice had asked the Finance Ministry to investigate Greenwald’s finances.
“I hope O Antagonista is just lying,” The Intercept Brasil‘s Demori told a packed audience in Florianopolis in early July. “If the Federal Police are taking action on this, I fear for the future of the Federal Police, because they have gone completely crazy. You can’t have even the shadow of a rupture of the journalistic right to protect your source. People would rise up if this happens.”
The Intercept has been rigorous in both protecting its source for the story series on Brazil’s anti-corruption task force and ensuring the validity of everything published. The trove of messages has been double-checked multiple times with outside journalists and other sources who appear in the archive. The Intercept has partnered with the Folha de Sao Paulo, Veja and other outlets in order to raise the prominence of the material and give independent legitimacy to the revelations. The Intercept editors say they have enough content for one to two years of stories, which they expect to roll out slowly, and thereby always have new material with which to stay one step ahead of any counter-narrative that may be thrown their direction. So far, this strategy has been successful.
Backing Bolsonaro, at All Costs
According to a recent Datafolha poll, 63 percent of those surveyed said they had heard about The Intercept leaks and 58 percent of those people said they believed Moro had acted improperly. Slightly more than that said that if it is proven that Moro carried out irregularities, his decisions as an ex-judge should be revisited.
Yet, for the third of the country that supports Bolsonaro, this would be unthinkable. For them, The Intercept revelations are just as credible as the supposed leaks from an anonymous Twitter user with an enigmatic name and a low-resolution, psychedelic profile picture of a peacock. Less so, in fact.
And that is how the Bolsonaro government wants it.
“The government strategy is to maintain this [pro-Bolsonaro] bloc of 33 percent of the country very loyal to its agenda, very mobilized, and permanently feed them new information, even if it is false, in order to maintain a firm base of solid support necessary to carry out its agenda of regressive reforms in Brazilian society,” said Mick.
This is why the campaign to discredit Greenwald and The Intercept has been so pervasive among the country’s far-right supporters. Sadly, Brazil, like most countries, is ill-equipped to respond to the challenge.