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On 8 January 2023, Brazil made news all over the world. The riots and storming of the Planalto Presidential Palace, the Supreme Federal Court and the National Congress in Brasilia, the country’s capital, shocked Brazil and the world. Supporters of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro, wearing Brazilian football team shirts, unabashedly destroyed public property and historic buildings considered architectural jewels. Worse, they vandalised the very buildings in the Praça dos Três Poderes that symbolise democracy. And they livestreamed it on YouTube channels and other platforms. 

These Bolsonaro voters wanted to change the election results “by force”. Busloads of these voters came from various cities to Brasilia to protest against the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, legitimately elected in 2022, announcing that they wanted to “take power”, “overthrow the government”, and “make the armed forces take over the government.” 

Although terrifying, it was not exactly surprising: since 6 January 2021, when Trump supporters invaded the US Capitol, ex-president Bolsonaro had threatened that if the “paper ballot” was not reintroduced in Brazil, something worse than what happened in the United States could take place. Unfounded rumours about the unreliability of electronic voting machines were circulating long before the elections, fuelled by statements by Bolsonaro and his supporters. However, the electronic voting system has been in use in Brazil since 1996, and Bolsonaro was elected five times as a federal deputy, and once as president of the nation in 2018, using this very system. Moreover, in 2022, his supporters and political camp were elected with a large number of representatives in the first round of voting, an election that was never called into question.

The coup attempt

The attempted coup arose from a scenario that developed over the years, reinforced through messaging apps and social networks, with fake news being distributed systematically – and methodically – by the Brazilian extreme right. Although for many, sharing seems “spontaneous”, mass disinformation is – initially – organised. 

Investigations are still under way and everything indicates that, in the months following the elections, there were highly varied attempts to create the setting for a coup: from making use of constitutional mechanisms, interpreted completely fallaciously, to the plan to create “traps” to compromise the reputation and neutrality of the president of the Superior Electoral Court, paving the way for cancellation of the electoral result. However, none of these leads were followed – apparently there was a lack of support from major stakeholders. Bolsonaro then left for Florida, in the United States, refusing to comply with the traditional democratic rite of passing on the presidential sash to Lula – implying that he was refusing to legitimise the poll results. 

In yet another episode of applying the “strategy of chaos” (repeatedly used by Bolsonaro since he was a federal deputy), after the elections an environment was created for the free circulation of more disinformation including: if the people went to the streets, the armed forces would take power and restore Bolsonaro to the presidency; the electronic voting systems had been rigged and the elections would be annulled; Alexandre de Moraes, president of the Superior Electoral Court, would be imprisoned. 

It is therefore possible and probable that many people in Brazil in favour of “taking the Planalto Presidential Palace” would have been led to sincerely believe that they had access to the best information and were therefore heroically doing their best for Brazil – even during their efforts to organise a coup and to create a blueprint for destruction.

Use of social networks and platforms

Social networks were widely used to organise, convene and spread coup-inciting protests. They became the primary means of disseminating information and “live” coverage. At the beginning of the attack, major media corporations did not have journalists on site. The first images broadcast on television channels came from extremist protesters broadcasting the invasion in real time. Mainly through Telegram and WhatsApp messages and live YouTube feeds, coup plotters broadcast the crime they were committing, live, inviting people to join them, and proudly showing their faces. 

Many rioters recorded scenes of vandalism and evidence of crimes without the slightest shame: either they were convinced of the success of their undertaking and sure of the amnesty they would be granted, or they really did not understand that their actions crossed the boundaries of exercising the right to freedom of expression. Whichever it was, this can only be explained by a mistaken belief in a parallel reality, systematic denials of fact-based news, science and laws – a type of “multiverse”. 

When confronted with these images, many viewers even refused to believe what they were seeing, attributing the acts of vandalism to supposed “infiltrators from the left wing”. Ignorance or cynicism? It’s hard to say. The basis of the coup attempt was neofascism promoted by creation of a parallel world, which, to those who want to believe in it, appears to form a coherent whole.

On 8 and 9 January 2023, Atlas Intelligence, a polling agency, carried out an opinion survey on the events with 2,200 respondents from throughout the country: at the time, 18.4% said they agreed with “the actions of the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators who occupied” the Praça dos Três Poderes – an alarming proportion. In terms of social class, the largest percentage of people who agreed with the actions (32.3%) were from the upper middle-class, those in the income bracket between R$5,000 and R$10,000 per month, the second-largest income group covered in the survey.

In the days that followed, 10 and 11 January, a new survey was conducted by Datafolha, a polling agency run by Grupo Folha, which owns some of Brazil’s most popular media. The question was asked in a different way: not about “the actions of the occupying demonstrators”, but about the “invasion and destruction of the Congress, Supreme Federal Court and Planalto Palace”. Only 3% were in favour. Of the respondents, 2% were members of Bolsonaro support groups on Telegram and/or WhatsApp. In relation to a statement from President Lula that Jair Bolsonaro “incited the action through social media”, 45% agreed and 45% disagreed. Of those who disagreed, 88% reported voting for Bolsonaro and of those who agreed, 80% voted for Lula. 

Use of social networks and the consequent reaction of the Brazilian courts and Attorney-General’s Office intensified debates about content moderation and platform regulation, debates that are generally limited to the world of digital rights activists. In many cases, the free circulation of messages inviting people to coup-inciting demonstrations constituted a crime of incitement to hatred, violence and attacks on democracy. 

A memorial with images and destroyed objects was set up at the Supreme Federal Court. Among the items on display is this burnt copy of the country's democratic constitution.

Defence of democracy

Soon after 8 January, the Attorney-General’s Office presented a petition requesting that the Supreme Federal Court (STF) ensure identification and removal of coup-inciting content from digital platforms, as well as the demonetisation of broadcasting channels that push disinformation. 

Generally, the free press was also fairly incisive in characterising participants in the action as coup plotters and, with some exceptions, largely acted to show the public that 8 January was not a democratic protest but an attack on democracy. 

President Lula called on Congress, the STF and governors from all states to show unity against antidemocratic actions. Prison sentences were expedited against identified culprits, those who funded the actions and the Public Security Secretary of the Federal District, responsible for security in the country’s capital, who was also in Florida at the time of the attack. Even the Brazilian Football Confederation published a memo condemning the use of team shirts in antidemocratic actions, after years of appropriation of the symbolic clothes by the extreme right.

On 1 February 2023, the government presented the “Democracy Package”, which included a proposal to amend the constitution, a proposed provisional measure and two draft laws. Their objective is to create instruments allowing the government to adopt incisive actions to defend the constitutional democratic state.

According to Minister of Justice Flávio Dino, the provisional measure, based on the existing legislation, will seek to hold social media platforms accountable for more thorough moderation of content that violates the law. Existing mechanisms include decisions made by the Superior Electoral Court during the election season. As part of a social media platform regulation working group, in 2022, the Comitê Gestor da Internet (Brazilian Internet Steering Committee, had already conducted a workshop on the theme, bringing together specialists and activists from various sectors. The report from this workshop – which has not yet been submitted to the committee as a whole – indicated guidelines for platform regulation, keeping in mind preservation of the environment for democratic debate.

The role of social networks

As noted by Rafael Evangelista in PoliTICs, an Instituto Nupef publication, we celebrate the existence of the internet because of the opportunities it creates to increase diversity and freedom of expression. However, there are also other consequences. One is the loss of a common imagination and common informational field, and the creation of information bubbles and communication niches, heavily exploited by microtargeting strategies like that operated by the US political strategist Steve Bannon which led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

The second is that the business model of social media platforms is based on audience retention and user-generated content – and monetisation of this process. They collect, store and analyse use, in order to forecast user behaviour. They therefore adopt algorithms to maximise this experience. According to Evangelista, “One of the best examples is YouTube, which has become the hotbed of radicalism and conspiracy theories. The recommendation algorithm, which is already responsible for 70% of traffic on the platform, seeks engagement, incessant visualisation and reaction to the content.”

Guilherme Felitti, researcher and founder of the Novelo data analytics agency, has also been observing the behaviour of the extreme right on YouTube. In a 2021 article, he flagged methodologies of removing (and hiding) content produced and published by the Brazilian far right. One of the strategies of the Bolsonaro supporters was to post sensitive and controversial videos in unlisted mode (which keeps videos accessible only for those with the relevant link), meaning that the videos do not appear on the channel. However, members of mass distribution groups and channels who receive this link may access them. Content thus circulates among people who are already predisposed to believe in it. 

The tactic is also used to create trial balloons, testing content that “works” before expanding its circulation. Many participants in these bubbles have the clear impression that they are receiving “privileged” or “unique” information, as opposed to “mass” information, and that they are receiving false information through the mass media. It is the extreme version of the loss of a common imagination that Evangelista described. 

A 2021 study conducted by various researchers in seven countries (not including Brazil) indicates that Twitter algorithms amplify more ideas from the political right than the left. 

Researcher Letícia Cesarino points out that the events of January 2023 can be traced back to the 2018 elections, when Bolsonaro was elected after a campaign on social and messaging networks that made heavy use of lies and dispensed with the traditional media. The seeds of these events could be seen even before that time, with the right using the networks to organise supposedly “patriotic” protests against former President Dilma Rousseff, which resulted in obstruction that was patently political and with no legal basis, as history has proven. 

However, at that time, possibly the most significant development was the mobilisation of a massive, dissatisfied audience, that until then had not been identified as a group. From then on, the use of social media platforms became much more sophisticated in engaging affinity groups, and feeding these segments with information not necessarily corresponding with reality, but leading to mass mobilisation. For this reason, the algorithmic architecture and business model structures of these platforms promote the creation of misinformation and conspiracies. 

In the words of Cesarino, “While the public pre-digital sphere is based on public facts – scientific, journalistic, legal, public policy facts – the attention economy of social media platforms is based on the proliferation of private stories – the entertainment industry, celebrity culture, posting of everyday experiences on social networks, customised marketing, gossip and rumours, as well as their extreme forms, conspiracy theories. This inversion is favoured in the algorithmic architecture of social media platforms, moulded in an attention economy model based on the serial production of impressionable subjects, whose screen time and behavioural data are sold to real social media platform clients.” 

And now?

The government now has the challenge of standing firm against disinformation. It needs to urgently stimulate significant change that makes it difficult to disseminate false narratives, but without ceasing to consult civil society in this process, and while supporting international resolutions. 

On 22 and 23 February 2023, an international UNESCO conference on disinformation and hate speech was attended by the Brazilian government, several other governments, regulatory bodies, corporate representatives and civil society. Beginning in September 2022, public consultations were held to define international guidelines, with UNESCO intending to publish them in 2023 to inform policy on a worldwide level.

Naturally, the Brazilian government will also need to rely on the endorsement by the National Congress, a task hampered by the election of various conservative stakeholders who rely on fake news, pretending they are protecting Brazilians’ freedom of expression. 

Such a challenge is complicated and needs to be accompanied by other measures: (re)-strengthening of citizens’ access to information and transparency, effective running of the economy and strengthening of social policies so that the government can be thoroughly evaluated by the people, and making room for negotiation with Congress. 

The responsibility of social media platforms in a world being increasingly overtaken by disinformation is a theme for debate worldwide. These discussions needs to be encouraged so that societies can deploy the most crucial raw material for progress: truthful information. 


Photos: Joedson Alves/Agencia Brasil


A member of APC's executive board of directors, Oona Castro is director of institutional development at Instituto Nupef, a Brazilian non-profit organisation whose mission is to generate the conditions for the exercise of digital citizenship, working in the defence of democracy, access to knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy and cultural diversity, among other fundamental rights. She is a journalist with a master's degree in social communication and has worked for organisations such as the Wikimedia Foundation, Instituto Overmundo, Fundação Getúlio Vargas, British Council and e-Government of the City of São Paulo. She is also co-founder of and a volunteer at another APC member, Intervozes. 


Leia este artigo também em português na edição 35 da revista poliTICs.

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