Brazil Election Scene Setter
This is the fourth of a series of pieces we have published on societies and elections at risk from online disinformation. The politically-fueled disinformation engine in Brazil puts the country in the midst of an information crisis leading up to its 2022 presidential election.
Brazil’s four-year electoral cycle means presidential, vice presidential, legislative and gubernatorial candidates will face off in two rounds of voting scheduled for October 2022. Brazil’s controversial president, former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, has already hinted that he may not accept the electoral results. The country has already seen a flurry of organized and overt disinformation, much of it directly from the current president.
To understand Brazil’s current political climate, we must reflect back to the end of military rule and establishment of democracy 36 years ago. In 1985, mounting economic and political unrest led Brazil’s congress to end nearly a century of populist, oligarchic and military rule. Brazil’s congress formed a constitutional assembly that laid out the contract for the new republic, which was ratified in 1988. Brazil’s democracy faced numerous challenges: its first democratically elected president, Fernando Collor de Mello, resigned half-way through his four-year term amidst a corruption scandal and impeachment probe. The next democratically elected president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, benefitted from a constitutional amendment that allowed the president to run for a second consecutive term. Later, details emerged indicating ties between Cardoso and several congressmen who may have accepted bribes for their votes in support of the amendment.
In 2002, Labor Party (PT) candidate Luis Inácio Lula da Silva won a decisive victory over Cardoso’s conservative party, the PSDB. Lula’s victory was the first time a liberal candidate took the presidency since before the military dictatorship. Lula served two consecutive terms and then, after being termed-out, threw his support behind his PT colleague Dilma Rousseff in her successful 2010 presidential campaign. In 2014 she narrowly defeated the PSDB candidate to win a second term.
Dilma’s second term got off to a rocky start. An economic crisis and recession led to a sharp drop in popularity and widespread protests in the months after the election. On top of that, Dilma and many high ranking members of her party were implicated in a major national criminal investigation known as “Operação Lava Jato” (Operation Car Wash). Led by the Federal Police and investigative judge Sergio Moro, the investigation ultimately led to Dilma’s impeachment in 2016 for violating budget laws. The scandal also engulfed Dilma’s predecessor, Lula, who was convicted (a conviction that has since been annulled) of money laundering in 2017 and again in 2018, rendering him ineligible to run for federal office in 2018.
With no popular PT candidate and the country engulfed in political turmoil, former congressman Jair Messias Bolsonaro emerged as the unlikely favorite and won the 2018 election. Bolsonaro, a populist far-right conservative, embraced his early reputation as the “Trump of the Tropics.” Bolsanaro’s style was brash: he made racist, sexist and homophobic comments and spoke in support of dictatorship, torture and military control.
As president, Bolsonaro has publicly threatened a coup and rallied protests of over 100,000 of his supporters against the other branches of government. Among numerous efforts to proactively delegitimize election results, he has alleged that the last two presidential elections were fraudulent, and has publicly stated that unless Brazil implements a paper ballot audit system, the country will have “worse problems than the United States” in the 2022 election. Electronic voting replaced paper ballots in 1996 to protect the secret ballot, reduce vote buying, and expedite vote counting and certification. He has threatened to cancel the 2022 elections if the system is not reformed and reject the results if he loses. In August, Bolsonaro asked the Senate to impeach the chief justice of the Federal Supreme Court after the chief justice opened an investigation into Bolsonaro for actions he took to promote his claims of electoral fraud.
On top of the political unrest, Bolsonaro has overseen the world’s second most deadly COVID-19 outbreak. Bolsonaro has denied COVID’s severity, refused to wear a mask and mocked social distancing. Painfully for the Brazilian public, he failed to sign vaccine contracts with major manufacturers despite numerous opportunities to do so, leading to slow vaccine rollout and nationwide vaccine shortages. On October 18, a congressional panel recommended that Bolsonaro be charged with crimes against humanity for his mishandling of the pandemic, specifically highlighting the role he played as a source of disinformation, which could lead to an impeachment trial before the October 2022 elections.
Should the elections proceed as planned, Bolsonaro is likely to face off against Lula who will again be eligible to run as the PT candidate along with a slate of other candidates from Brazil’s dozens of political parties and numerous unaligned candidates.
Political disinformation is a major concern in the leadup to Brazil’s 2022 election. The risk is intensified by three critical factors: 1) the unmoderated messaging platforms Telegram and WhatsApp are popular and effective tools for disseminating misinformation, yet leave limited digital trails for researchers to follow; 2) Bolsonaro and his allies have proven themselves effective at promoting false and misleading narratives through their online campaigns; and 3) fact-checkers who are critical for identifying and debunking false information face verbal and violent threats in the line of duty.
With over 147 million users in Brazil, the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp is a popular medium to share information and has been an effective vector for disseminating disinformation among the Brazilian public. In one study, researchers from the Federal University of Pelotas found that COVID-19 misinformation in public WhatsApp political groups was largely pro-Bolsonaro in nature. During the 2018 elections, companies aligned with Bolsonaro spent upwards of $12 million reais ($2.3 million) on packages that permitted the rapid dissemination of messages against the PT party. Telegram is also increasingly used for a similar kind of dissemination. Telegram groups can have up to 200,000 members and channels can have unlimited subscribers (WhatsApp groups are capped at 256). Channels are used to share ideas from a candidate or party to core supporters who then post them to their range of family and friend groups via WhatsApp. WhatsApp’s forwarding feature means that groups can operate like phone trees to disseminate the messages across users. These platforms are challenging to research and observe because of their closed nature, meaning that it is impossible to know how many individuals have seen a piece of content or how exactly the content traveled.
Bolsonaro and his supporters have shown themselves to be effective at creating and spreading false narratives. During the 2018 campaign and COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro’s sons were instrumental in running the “Gabinete do Ódio” (Cabinet of Hate), a propaganda network that would turn Jair Bolsonaro’s ideas into messages and spread them out through a team of at least 50 individuals and 25 websites. More recently, the disinformation has targeted a range of topics, focusing heavily on COVID-19 and preemptively delegitimizing the 2022 election. Bolsonaro himself is active and popular on a range of platforms, with 10 million followers on Facebook, 18.9 million on Instagram, 7 million on Twitter, 3.5 million on YouTube and over 1 million on Telegram.
Fact-checking organizations in Brazil serve a critical role in debunking misleading claims online. Facebook relies on several in-country organizations as part of their third-party fact-checking program that generates content labels or removals on their products. These groups face constant domestic attacks. Agência Lupa, Brazil’s largest fact-checking agency, received as many as 56,000 harassing messages and threats a month during the 2018 elections, largely from Bolsonaro supporters. Overall, the safety of journalists has deteriorated over the past four years; its ranking in the World Press Freedom Index has dropped from 103 to 111 out of 180 due to increased violence against journalists. The backlash has been harsher for journalists who speak out against Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro has lashed out against journalists.
Platforms and legal bodies have taken a range of actions against Bolsonaro’s various untrue claims. Recently, Facebook and YouTube took down a livestream video in which Bolsonaro claimed that there was a link between the COVID-19 vaccine and AIDS. However, despite Bolsonaro’s repeated use of his weekly Facebook Live sessions to spread misinformation, Facebook has yet to restrict or alter Bolsonaro’s ability to host the live sessions. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all taken down posts by Bolsonaro in the past related to COVID-19 disinformation. In Brazil, separate inquiries have been and are being made by the Senate, Supreme Court, and the electoral court, into disinformation spread by Bolsonaro and those in his orbit. Bolsonaro recently attempted to implement a rule to prevent sites from taking down posts for containing misinformation. Brazilian legislators for their part have introduced at least 45 bills that would attempt to prevent “Fake News.” These have been criticized for the negative impact they could have on data privacy.
Brazil has the sixth-most social media users in the world. Of the mainstream platforms, there are approximately 148 million Facebook users, 147 million WhatsApp users, 147 million YouTube users, 99 million Instagram users, and 17 million Twitter users in Brazil. Telegram is increasingly popular in Brazil, and in previous reports SIO has described the growing popularity of Gettr and Parler among followers of Bolsonaro.
Traditional media in Brazil is heavily dominated by the media conglomerate Grupo Globo. Its outsized control of television viewership in the country reaches 98.38% of potential viewers in Brazil and captures between 40-60% of the nation’s television market. Globo has historically been conservative in its news reporting and particularly biased against the PT, especially during and following Operation Car Wash, but its reporters have not been supportive of Bolsonaro or his rhetoric. On multiple occasions Bolsonaro has called out Globo for its outward criticism of him by different journalists.
Most of Brazil's print and digital media companies have a conservative editorial bent historically favoring conservative and right-wing parties and critiquing the liberal PT party. Major newspapers (and their corresponding websites) Folha de S. Paulo, O Estado de S. Paulo, and O Globo and magazines such as Veja, Isto É and Época (the latter belonging to Grupo Globo) are also highly critical of past PT governments and politicians. As with Globo, they too have been critical of Bolsonaro, yet are often sympathetic towards less polarizing players in the Bolsonaro administration including current Minister of the Economy Paulo Guedes and former Minister of Justice Sergio Moro.
Beyond Brazil's mainstream outlets, the internet news environment tends towards sensationalism. Multiple outlets (and their social media accounts) are closely associated with current investigations on fake news dissemination, most recently in regards to misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. Jornal da Cidade Online, Brasil Sem Medo, Gazeta Brasil). Those with the greatest internet presence are often rightist in their views. Other very active news outlets on the left include Brasil247, which is particularly extreme but rarely regarded seriously.
Narratives in play
We expect narratives for this election to be less oriented toward identity politics (e.g. homophobic memes, appeals to religious factions, anti-PT conspiracy theories) and more oriented toward militarization, threats of a coup, communist fear mongering and election fraud. While the 2018 election was characterized by a proliferation of false news stories and networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior (similar to the US in 2016), we anticipate that automation will play a lesser role in the 2022 elections.
Printed, auditable votes
Bolsonaro has pushed a narrative that upcoming elections will be fraudulent unless voting machines are changed to output an auditable paper trail. He has also claimed that fraud was prevalent in previous elections, including those he won. This is analogous to efforts by Donald Trump to delegitimize the US 2020 elections before they had even occurred. The Superior Electoral Court (TSE) has stated that there is no evidence of significant fraud with the current voting system.
Common slogans are “Our flag will never be red” or “Brazil will not be Venezuela,” pushing the narrative that PT is a communist party and that the country is under threat from communist forces. While Bolsonaro has intensified anti-communist rhetoric during his administration, this was a major feature of Brazilian politics during most of the 20th century, often used as justification for dictatorship.
Cancelation of Elections
Bolsonaro and others have stated that if auditable paper voting is not implemented, there will be no election—usually without elaborating further, though some (e.g. José Carlos Bernardi) have explicitly called for military intervention. This narrative is tightly related to pro-dictatorship sentiment among the right in Brazil.
Military defends democracy & arming civilians
Government ministers in Brazil have been steadily replaced by military personnel, and Bolsonaro actively lauds the military, referring to it as “his army”. Bolsonaro has also encouraged supporters to arm themselves, to defend against a coup or tyrannical government.
Voting machine hacking
While not a common narrative, Bolsonaro has floated the theory that election systems were vulnerable to hacking, citing a YouTube video showing a simulated voting machine. This may become a more prominent narrative in the future, particularly post-election.
Antipathy toward the Supreme Court
Opposition to the STF (Supreme Federal Court) among the right wing is widespread, with “#STFOrganizacaoCriminosa” (“the STF is a criminal organization”) being a frequently used hashtag. Justice Alexandre de Moraes is a frequent target of animosity, due to him heading an inquiry into false news and attacks against members of the STF.
Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil
Party: Partido Liberal (Liberal Party, PL, right)
The current president of Brazil, seeking reelection on a coalition frequently summarized as “bulls, bullets, and Bibles,” linking the Evangelical, agricultural, and security blocs of voters. Bolsonaro has declared that “only God can take him from the presidency.”
Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, former President of Brazil
Party: Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT, left)
Lula, the President of Brazil between 2003 and 2010, is currently leading in the 2022 election polls for the presidency (despite not having formally declared). He remains popular for the Bolsa Familia poverty-alleviation program. Despite his socialist reputation, Lula’s fiscal policies were largely orthodox. Lula was implicated in the ‘Lava Jato’ (Car Wash) corruption scandal, his hand-picked successor Dilma Roussef was impeached, and Lula has also been indirectly implicated in other scandals.
Rodrigo Pacheco, the President of the Senate, Eduardo Leite, Governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, former health minister, and José Luiz Datena, tv and radio presenter all have announced or appear to be intending to announce their candidacy for the Presidency. Currently, there are two leading third-way candidates: Ciro Gomes and Sérgio Moro. Gomes, the third-placed finisher in 2018, has suspended his campaign in a dispute over the budget with his Democratic Labor Party (center-left), though has not officially forgone running. Moro, a prominent judge from the Operation Car Wash case that targeted Lula, has gained support due to his reputation as an anti-corruption campaigner, and recently joined the centrist PODEMOS party, a signal of his political ambitions.
Arthur Lira, President of the Chamber of Deputies
Party: PP (Progressistas, despite the name, a center-right party)
Elected to the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies with Bolsonaro’s support, Lira has increased the power of his position and reduced the power of transparency measures. Lira has so far prevented the impeachment of Bolsonaro.
Flávio, Eduardo and Carlos Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro’s sons are all involved in Brazilian conservative politics in the Senate (Flávio), Chamber of Deputies (Eduardo), and at the local level (Carlos). Eduardo is the Latin America head of Steve Bannon’s “The Movement,” an effort to promote right-wing candidates around the world.
Supreme Court (STF)
- Bolsonaro has openly feuded with the Supreme Court, going up to the point of questioning whether or not he would acknowledge its decisions.
- Person to know: Jair Bolsonaro has called Justice Alexandre de Moraes a “scoundrel” and announced that he would disregard cases decided by Moraes, a statement that he later walked back.
Electoral Court (TSE)
- Charged with upholding Brazil’s electoral rules, the Electoral Court has clashed with Bolsonaro in the past and is likely to play an important role in adjudicating conflict during the 2022 election. Recently, the TSE revoked the mandate of Fernando Francischini of the PSL (a far-right party), for spreading false news about voting machines during the 2018 election. The court decision rendered Deputy Francischini ineligible until 2026.
For Further Reading
Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior and Misinformation Studies:
"How Bolsonaro’s disinfo machine targeted Brazil’s pro-quarantine health minister" by Luiza Bandeira, DFRLab
Election Monitoring Projects:
Eleições sem fake at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
Are there projects we should be aware of? If so, please email them to Elena (ecryst at stanford dot edu).