A conspiracy theory that began as a throwaway joke in 2001 was amplified on YouTube and ended up being seriously quoted in a debate between Brazil’s presidential candidates on August 9.
YouTube played an important role in the spread of the United Socialist Republics of Latin America (URSAL) conspiracy theory in Brazil. YouTube algorithms consistently expose viewers who watch URSAL-related content to recommendations for other conspiracy-prone topics, making the theory an entryway into further online disinformation and potential radicalization.
The acronym “URSAL” was coined as a throwaway comment in an article 17 years ago. It was subsequently taken up by far-right supporters who took it seriously and later resurfaced on YouTube, finally being denounced as a genuine Communist conspiracy by a candidate during the first presidential debate in Brazil.
The incident shows the audience impact on YouTube, and the danger its algorithms pose in steering viewers toward content promoting fictitious conspiracy theories.
YouTube and URSAL
YouTube is currently the world’s second largest search engine and, just as other social media companies, has come under fire with accusations of being fertile ground for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. In 2016, Brazil was the second largest market for YouTube in terms of monthly users, according to Statista. The video-sharing platform was the leading social network in the country. This suggests YouTube may prominently feature in the October general elections in the country.
During Brazil’s first presidential debate, held by Band TV, evangelical candidate Cabo Daciolo asked center-left candidate Ciro Gomes about the “URSAL plan.” After Gomes denied knowing about URSAL, Daciolo said:
“Yes, you do know. We are talking here about a plan that is called the new world order, the South American union, removing all borders, building one single nation, the ‘big fatherland.’ Few have heard about this, and it will not be widely publicized. But they know what we are talking about. I want to make very clear that communism will have no space in our government.”
URSAL, however, is a fictitious acronym. The term was coined in an article published by professor Maria Lucia Victor Barbosa in 2001. According to Barbosa, the acronym was used ironically to criticize “Foro de São Paulo,” a group that gathers left-wing parties and organizations in Latin America. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (later elected president of Brazil) and Fidel Castro joined the group’s meeting in Havana that year. In his speech, Lula criticized the idea of creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), saying the agreement would mean the end of Latin American integration. Professor Barbosa then wrote:
“What would this integration in the Castro-Chávez-Lula model be like? Maybe the creation of the United Socialist Republics of Latin America (URSAL)?”
Barbosa states that as a reaction to the article, she received many calls from people wondering whether URSAL existed. Although she denied its existence and said the term was fictitious, the story stuck among the Brazilian far right. In 2006, for instance, far-right guru Olavo de Carvalho cited URSAL as a real plan in an article published by the “Diario do Comercio” newspaper. After the term was mentioned in the debate, Carvalho published a video boasting he had denounced URSAL years ago and repeating it was “an organ of Foro de São Paulo.” An anti-Workers Party (PT) apocryphal website launched in 2015 also spread the theory. The “Dossie Ursal” (URSAL dossier) contained a series of links, many redirecting readers to YouTube videos.
Over the years, the URSAL theory gained popularity on YouTube. Most videos mixed the idea of a Pátria Grande (big fatherland) — an expression coined by Argentine writer Manuel Ugarte in 1922 in a book of articles supporting the unification of Latin America — with Foro de São Paulo, political and economic agreements and regional blocs.
These blocs — the largest being MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market) and UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) — do not aim to create a unified socialist continent. Some videos, nonetheless, allege not only that, but take their claims further.
One video, published in 2016, featured a narrator talking about URSAL, and mixed clips from Olavo de Carvalho with a speech given by then Vice-President Michel Temer at an UNASUR meeting in 2012. Temer, who came to power in 2016 after the controversial impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, said in the video that he was the author of a passage of the Brazilian Constitution that mentions the formation of a community of Latin American nations. The video failed to point out the Brazilian constitution makes no mention of abolishing borders or giving up national sovereignty; the word “community” itself suggests a relationship between individual states, rather than their abolition.
In the same video, Carvalho said the BRICS countries — Brazil, China, Russia, India, and South Africa — wanted to create a unique currency, which “would automatically mean [the implementation of] a world government, headquartered in the United Nations.” There is no substantiation for this claim, although the BRICS did set up a joint development bank that has been in operation since 2016. Indeed, the idea of strategic rivals China and India joining a currency union appears far-fetched at best. This video, called “Ursal, Patria Grande, Brics, Foro de São Paulo e PMDB, tudo a ver, (URSAL, Big fatherland, Brics, São Paulo Forum and PMDB, everything to do with each other)” had 28,845 views on YouTube as of August 20.
Another video was published two weeks before the debate by the evangelical channel Alerta Cristão (Christian Alert), which has 113,000 subscribers. It claimed URSAL is the second part of a three- step plan to create one unique communist and anti-Christian nation in Latin America.
After the debate, the number of URSAL-related videos exploded on YouTube. Among the 10 most-watched URSAL videos on August 20, at least four took URSAL seriously. Most acknowledged that the acronym was created as a joke, but said what mattered was not the term itself, but the intention of creating a unified communist Latin America.
In one of the videos, the narrator accuses another candidate, Alvaro Dias, of being with the “lords of the world,” also known as the Illuminati. There are several theories on the internet about the Illuminati, a group formed in Germany in the 18th century. Many say the group is still active in powerful organizations and that it aims to create a new socialist-leaning world order. The same video mentions the map shown in the logo of the United Nations, implying this is the shape of the Earth — an argument usually made by people who claim the Earth is flat. After showing the map, the presenter of the video says the “lords of the world” already started to divide the world. He states:
“What will they do? A border between Mexico and the US. Donald Trump is already doing that, he wants to build a wall between Mexico and the US to divide […] they will leave a superior world there, divide with the wall and leave all Latin America, all the continent here to be communist. And the population here will die of disease and hunger, and a bit of civil war. This is great for the lords of the world, because this will reduce the world population.”
By August 20, the video had been watched 180,400 times on YouTube.
Watching URSAL videos could take users far deeper into layers of disinformation and conspiracy theories. On the “watch next” tab, YouTube suggested another URSAL-themed video created by user “Tio Lu” or Uncle Lu. YouTube’s algorithm then suggested more videos from this channel. In one, Tio Lu discussed whether the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is the anti-Christ. In another, he reproduced a video from a Brazilian evangelical Youtuber who claimed he had been to hell and there saw more women than men.
Another video, which also talked about URSAL, claimed the unification of Latin America is the first step to unifying the world under a single government. This video showed leaders such as George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Macron and former Pope Benedict XVI speaking about a “new world order” to claim they were supporting the union of all nations.
Finally, the Christian URSAL video from the channel mentioned above led users to a video about the “real” reason why the Titanic sank. This video refers to research conducted by journalist Senan Molony indicating that a fire accelerated the sinking of the ship — a theory that is not fully accepted. It is interesting to see, nonetheless, how YouTube’s algorithm directs the user interested in URSAL to a unrelated topic still within the realm of conspiracy theories. From the Titanic video, the user is guided to other mystery and conspiracy-theory prone subjects, such as God’s existence, the end of the world and the Egyptian pyramids.
The spread of the URSAL theory demonstrates how YouTube can perpetuate disinformation in Brazil. Findings suggest that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm can lead users who watch conspiracy-related content to other more extremist content, potentially acting as a radicalizer. Given YouTube’s high proliferation in Brazil, journalists and researchers should keep a close eye on the platform ahead of the October elections in the country.
Luiza Bandeira is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant for Brazil at the DFRLab and Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
#ElectionWatch Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.