The election of Jair Bolsonaro heralds a new political order based largely on disinformation spread through social media.
By Pedro Noel
RIO DE JANEIRO — Since 2016, new vectors for disinformation and misinformation have been fundamentally reshaping the political and media cultures of Brazil. Malicious actors have used lies and false rumors to interfere with local and national information flows, and vilify and delegitimize traditional news outlets. In the general elections of 2018, they fueled the presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right ex-Army Captain who expresses nostalgia for the military junta that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985.
The recent assaults on traditional media in Brazil are part of deeper religious and political changes that have been accelerating since the 1960s. They involve the rise of three so-called“blocs” in Congress: the “Bible bloc,” a coalition of evangelical congressmen ; the “Cattle Bloc,” which acts in defense of rural entrepreneurs and the cattle business; and the “Bullet bloc,” comprised largely of former police and armed forces. Together, the “BBB blocs” (which stands for Bible, Bullet and Cattle in Portuguese) have attracted the attention and benefited from the support of the country’s most powerful conservative businessmen seeking to deregulate industry and the economy generally. More recently, they have developed and deployed youth groups such as the Free Brazil Movement lead by Kim Kataguiri, now one of Brazil’s most influential men under 30, accordingto Forbes.
In Jair Bolsonaro, a traditional member of the “Bullet bloc”, these groups found one of their own to rule the country. Bolsonaro is charismatic, radical, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and in favor of deregulating the economy and gun laws. But in order to win popular support for their radical agenda, Brazil’s new right forces needed to define and delegitimize a common enemy. This was not a simple task: Their enemy was the entire status-quo, and the status quo had on its side the most powerful media institution in the country, TV Globo.
To circumvent Globo, the Brazil’s new right turned to social media: Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook. Sixty-five percent of Brazilians over the age of 10 now has active access to the Internet; 127 million use Facebook, and 120 million use Whatsapp. Through these channels, the rightwing alliance could spread any story or attack line it chose, without having to deal with expert oversight or the scrutiny exerted by traditional media. Armed with bots and content farms, they spread enormous amounts of false information about Bolsonaro’s challenger for president, Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party.
In the months before and during the election, thousands of Facebook pages, Twitter profiles and Whatsapp groups spread an unending flow of polemical and distorted declarations. Bolsonaro maintained, in contradiction to established facts, “the military period was not a dictatorship.” At the same time, he brought back the anti-communist discourse of that period, which had not been used in Brazil since the junta abdicated in the 1980s. He claimed he alone could “save Brazil” from communism” and described his divine calling as a “crusade.” Following Trump’s recipe, any information stating the opposite was dismissed as “fake news.” This network also denied Global Warming and argued that those who support abortion are against the birth of the next Jesus Christ. The false story that got the most attention outside of Brazil involved a non-existant plot by the Worker’s Party to force schools to use a “gay kit” in the teaching of human sexuality.
This “fake news” machine used the most absurd hoaxes to tarnish any non-aligned political or economic group as “communist.” Its major targets were the left-wing parties and the traditional media, the only forces capable of challenging their radical and brazen manipulation of public opinion. The memes produced by these channels were in turn shared back to the public by Bolsonaro and his allies through their official accounts on social networks. This dynamic produced a level of informational garbage, and its absorption by the public, without precedent in Brazil.
In the mainstream media, the new right enjoyed an ally in Edir Macedo, a TV mogul and leader of the biggest evangelic church in Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Through his pulpits and media channels, Macedo pushed and fed an “anti-communist” agenda, and his Record TV became the network of preference for Bolsonaro and his crew. After winning the election, Bolsonaro gave his first interview as elected president to the station.
The deployment of Record can only be understood in the context of the right’s concurrent war against Globo, the most watched and influential TV channel in Brazil (the Globo Group also has a large print, online, and radio presence), known for being able to elect and impeach presidents. As it built up its alternative universe of information, the right sowed distrust among the public against its traditionally favored source of information. For example, the hashtag #GloboLixo (“Globo is trash” in Portuguese) trended several times (it’s still trending), pushed by popular political figures aligned with Bolsonaro and his party’s online task-force.
For not supporting their agenda, Globo was accused of being part of an atheistic communist agenda. It reached a point where Globo Group’s newspapers had to publish pedagogic editorials explaining the definitions of “socialism” and “communism.” The Globo service dedicated to combatting false claims on the Internet ended up being used mostly to debunk misinformation about its own company. The irony is that Globo has historically been aligned with a generally conservative establishment in Brazil.
Globo is still paying the price for opposing Bolsonaro. The president’s eldest son is currently investigating the Globo Group on hyped up corruption charges. Its editorials, meanwhile, have grown increasingly acid, targeting the rising new establishment, one which, for the first time in decades, it no longer belongs or has sway over. On November, 2018, Globo TV experienced its worst audience numbers since 2015, and while it still holds its position as the most watched channel in Brazil, the numbers keep falling. Meanwhile, Record TV — Brazil’s “Fox News” — has firmly established itself as the second choice of the public and is a live menace to Globo, often beating its audience at certain hours of the day.
The case of Globo is emblematic. Very similar processes are occurring with every other mainstream media outlet, from conservative to progressive. For not joining forces with these emergent right, newspapers such as Estadao and Folha de Sao Paulo, and TV channels such as Band and Cultura, are losing voice and influence with a public that has been manipulated by automated blogs, biased Facebook pages, Whatsapp disinformation, and Record TV, the semi-official public platform for Bolsonaro, his family and friends.
Part of the dirty strategy has come into light. For example, the newspaper Folha recently published an investigation that disclosed paid defamation campaigns on Whatsapp in Bolsonaro’s favor during the elections. But it is too late to reverse the damage done, or the new alignment that has resulted. The country is extremely polarized, with the battle between Globo and Record standing in for a bigger ideological clash fueled by fake news. The old media authorities have lost their power. But that power has not been democratized. It has shifted to new institutions and structures, ones controlled by other elites and defined by the dissemination of lies.
Pedro Noel is a fellow at the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; a Transparency International Journalist for Transparency; and a researcher at the office of Agence France-Presse in Rio de Janeiro.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.2
Last edited: March 18, 2019
Author: Pedro Noel
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash