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Brazil’s ‘Whatsapp uncle’ coup: How social media galvanises political activism

March 2023
 by Tom Stewart-Smith

Brazil’s ‘Whatsapp uncle’ coup: How social media galvanises political activism

March 2023
 By Tom Stewart-Smith

On 8 January 2023, Brazil’s Federal Congress, Senate and Judicial buildings were rampaged by a group of rioters protesting against a perceived rigged election that saw incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro lose the country’s presidency to his opponent Lula da Silva. Outspoken and polarizing, Bolsonaro is often compared to Donald Trump, and the riots in Brazil have drawn comparisons to the 2021 Capitol riots in the US.

As with the Capitol riots, much of the mobilisation in Brazil took place on social media, led by ‘Tios do Zap’ (WhatsApp Uncles) who have become the standard-bearers for Bolsonaro’s far-right movement. As the internet continues to play an increasingly important role in Brazil’s culture, we examine how the groundwork was laid for the riots, the rise of social media in Brazilian politics, and the culture of misinformation that is fuelling political activism on a global scale.

The rise of alternative news in a changing political landscape

The influence of traditional news media in Brazil has been in decline since the 2010s, with people increasingly turning to alternative online and social media sources for news that many see as more accurate and trustworthy than that of the mainstream news outlets. Brazil’s ‘Operation Car Wash’ corruption investigation, which has been unfolding since 2014, has added to the breakdown in the public’s trust of authorities.

This mistrust in the Brazilian political class led many to be receptive when an outsider, Jair Bolsonaro, arrived to shake up the system. Bolsonaro quickly gained mass attention, with his controversial views on women and the LGBT community sparking outrage and making him a household name.

By the time the 2018 presidential election campaign began in Brazil, public dissatisfaction in society was at an all-time high, providing an opportunity for Bolsonaro to enter the race. However, as his campaign team struggled to get TV airtime because he was not a member of a main political party, they took to the internet and social media to gather support.

Brazil has a high social media adoption rate, fuelled by zero-rating mobile plans which exclude certain popular apps from being subject to data use charges. This means that while the use of Facebook and WhatsApp is free for the majority of Brazil’s mobile phone customers, a Google search will often be subject to charges. As a result, mobile internet users will often view fake news stories on WhatsApp, but be discouraged from fact-checking them via Google because of the charges this incurs.

How Bolsonaro maximised the social media landscape to win the 2018 election

The increasing mistrust in mainstream politics combined with a social media boom to provide the perfect landscape for Bolsonaro to reach the public in their millions during Brazil’s 2018 presidential election campaign. And with the Brazilian government slow to implement proper data protection laws, it was still relatively easy to create precise targeted ads in 2018, further enabling him to reach his intended audience without relying on a traditional media strategy.

Bolsonaro made appearances on popular YouTube channels, including that of Brazilian musician-turned-conservative-commentator Nando Moura, to increase his exposure to the younger generation. Meanwhile, his campaign team took to WhatsApp, mobilising ‘Tios do Zap’ (WhatsApp Uncles), who circulated disinformation through large WhatsApp group chats with a demographic consisting primarily of socially-conservative, middle-aged parents. The WhatsApp groups grew as members shared stories and invited friends to join. The same moderators worked across the groups, coordinating the spread of disinformation to ensure maximum reach. The groups often included pictures and videos so users did not have to visit an outside source that would contribute to their data cap.

In one such group, a video was shared of a concerned parent holding a phallic-shaped water bottle that they claimed had been given to their son at school in Sao Paolo, where Bolsonaro’s opponent Fernando Haddad was Mayor. The video spread quickly, and Bolsonaro supporters alleged that Haddad was on a crusade to convert children to homosexuality. Bolsonaro would go on to win against Haddad, with evangelical Christians acting as the most loyal members of his voter base.

Rather than fizzling out after Bolsonaro’s election victory, these WhatsApp groups were now able to claim more validity with the President on side. During the Coronavirus pandemic, Bolsonaro claimed vaccines were responsible for an uptick in AIDS, and made homophobic statements about those who chose to get vaccinated. Anti-vaccination opinions took hold in Brazilian society, and the country suffered one of the worst Covid fatality rates in the world.

How the 2022 Brazilian election campaign led to riots

During much of the campaign for the 2022 presidential election in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s opponent Lula da Silva led decisively in most polls. Bolsonaro turned to regularly issuing statements questioning the validity of voting systems. The Bolsonarista social media machine helped fuel the climate of distrust – in one instance a deepfake video of a news presenter describing a huge Bolsonaro poll lead was circulated on WhatsApp. This was by no means an isolated incident: in the final four months leading up to the election, the Superior Electoral Court found 15,500 electoral misinformation complaints.

Upon Bolsonaro’s narrow defeat in the election, the groundwork had already been laid to elicit a reaction from his supporters. Shortly after Lula’s inauguration, thousands of protestors mobilised on social media, and arrived in buses at the Federal Capital of Brasilia on 8 January 2023.

The rioters caused considerable damage and destruction in chaotic scenes, claiming the election was rigged. Some rioters said they were searching the buildings for “the source code” that they alleged had been used to hack voting machines to favour Lula. Eventually, military police arrived, as ordered by President Lula, to arrest the protestors and restore order.

Mitigating the risks of social media disinformation campaigns

The tale of the Brazilian riots is more than an isolated incident. As we have also seen in the US Capitol riots of 2021, it is but one example of the modern challenges that democracy increasingly faces on a global scale. With social media usage continuing to grow, disinformation campaigns becoming more sophisticated, and new tools such as deepfake technology becoming increasingly accessible, it is easier than ever for political leaders, supporters and campaigners to use false information to gather support and tarnish their opponents’ reputation, with major consequences. In this environment, it has become crucial for institutions and governments to pre-emptively halt false and harmful narratives spread through social media accounts, often operated by real people who form part of a coordinated group, as well as bot networks.

Improving the moderation capabilities of the social media platforms themselves is key to stopping mass disinformation campaigns, radicalisation, and other harmful manipulation. Despite the increasing challenges, however, Twitter’s moderation system frequently allows harmful content to slip through the net, as platforms struggle to keep up with increasingly sophisticated techniques to evade detection.

Until moderation is more watertight, targeted, tech-enabled investigations and monitoring are the most effective solutions. Responding to coordinated attacks requires sophisticated digital analysis to identify, challenge and trace the origins of inauthentic manipulation. Monitoring tools tailored for individual platforms can establish the presence of coordinated networks, identify the sources and spread of disinformation, and scan the constantly-evolving social media landscape for new threats.

Social media mapping investigations have proven crucial in helping institutions and governments to identify online disinformation and radicalisation campaigns, and to action takedowns against harmful content posted online. With the help of these insights, governments and institutions can navigate the challenges posed by digital media and combat online manipulation and polarisation.

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