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Social Media, Conspiracies, and Brazil’s Presidential Transition

Social Media, Conspiracies, and Brazil’s Presidential Transition
4th November 2022 Dr. Alexis Henshaw
In Insights

On October 30, 2022, Brazilians voted in a presidential election that was closely watched around the world. For scholars of political violence and extremism, this election was of special interest because of the perceived consequences for Brazil’s democracy. Incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro had, even long before the polls opened, stoked fears of voter fraud that were reminiscent of the Big Lie narrative which followed the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The possibility that Bolsonaro might not concede if he lost was further complicated by the concern that extremist factions could take part in election-related violence.

As I wrote in a previous Insight, Brazilian politics had become closely intertwined with disinformation and conspiracy theories during Bolsonaro’s tenure. Since 2019, the spread of misinformation and disinformation related to political events and the COVID-19 pandemic has been under investigation by a commission established by the National Congress. As described by researchers publishing in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, members of this commission expressed concern that figures close to Bolsonaro were engaged in targeted campaigns to minimise concerns about the pandemic, sow distrust about public health data, and discredit public health officials who openly disagreed with the government’s positions on COVID-19. 

Beyond that, there was also substantial concern about the role extremist communities could play in influencing the election. Much of this was focused on the prevalence of QAnon in Brazil. Researchers examining the globalisation of QAnon have noted that Portuguese is among the top languages in use among the QAnon community on Telegram. The use of Portuguese language in related channels surged during the early months of 2020 when the COVID-19 virus was beginning to spread in Brazil. Brazilian politics was also, at one point, a top topic in these online communities. The political relevance of all this lies in the fact that Brazilian QAnon communities have portrayed Bolsonaro as a messianic figure. Similar to former U.S. President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro was viewed in these communities as an outside leader who could disrupt the power of shadowy cabals and protect religious faith in Brazil. The high stakes that Brazilian QAnon adherents saw in this contest raised concerns about what would happen if Bolsonaro did not win.

Leading up to the elections this month (including the first-round contest on Oct. 2 and the runoff on Oct. 30), social media companies made some efforts to limit the potential spread of mis- or disinformation. Examples include a decision by Meta to limit some functionalities of WhatsApp in Brazil until after the election and a pledge signed by eight social media companies to step up content moderation in Brazil. Still, these preventative measures faced an uphill battle. Bolsonaro’s government passed rulings in 2021 that attempted to limit the ability of social media companies to suspend users or remove harmful content. In the days leading up to the Oct. 30 runoff, social media sites also appeared to be overwhelmed by a high volume of posts engaged in a cross-platform attempt to influence voters. Even after it became apparent that the opposition candidate, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had won by a slim margin, social media was filled with misleading or inaccurate electoral maps hinting at an unfair result, if not outright wrongdoing.

What happens next for Brazil remains to be seen. On November 1, Jair Bolsonaro made a statement in which he stated his intent to begin a transition of power without acknowledging a loss or conceding the election. This opens the door for conspiracy theories to persist. Already, parts of Brazil have been brought to a standstill by impromptu roadblocks created by Bolsonaro supporters. Though some media outlets have referred to these as trucker’s protests, calling to mind incidents in Canada earlier this year, the association is misleading. Industry groups and some protesters themselves have noted that these are not industry actions, rather, they are being supported by Bolsonaro supporters from all walks of life. Supporters have reportedly used services including WhatsApp and Telegram to coordinate the protests and call for continued support. The continued use of these platforms suggests an ongoing need for social media companies to be vigilant about the future spread of conspiracies during Brazil’s presidential transition.