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Authoritarian Platforms: Far-right Radicalisation Amidst Economic Precarity in Brazil

Authoritarian Platforms: Far-right Radicalisation Amidst Economic Precarity in Brazil
13th September 2023 Rosana Pinheiro Machado
In Insights

Introduction

When I started my fieldwork in an informal street market in Brazil, I was greeted with the statement ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. I met Joana Souza, a market vendor, in 1999, as she sold products like counterfeit Disney toys. During one routine police crackdown, I expected her to act in solidarity towards her neighbouring peers who were being fined, but, to my surprise, she supported the authorities. On another occasion, while Souza was trying to sell a cap for R$ 15, another neighbour broke into the negotiations, offering the same cap for R$ 10. To my research interlocutors, the law that ruled the ‘jungle’ was ‘every man for himself’. This kind of ‘neoliberalism from below’, as coined by Veronica Gago, contains the seeds of the free market ideology, with weak collective solidarity, high competition, and a strong sense of individualism. Yet, resistance, everyday politics, and mutual help were also important dimensions of the traders’ routines. They were indifferent to formal politics and their votes were diffuse, swinging from the left to the right of the political spectrum, depending on personal connections and individual interests.

Twenty-three years later, I resumed my fieldwork and discovered two things. Firstly, the network that I had studied had begun enterprising on social media platforms. Secondly, and more surprisingly, a large part of these traders were now fierce supporters of the far-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro. After many years of doing ethnography ‘on stone’— as the traders described the materiality of their businesses on the cement— the question remains: to what extent is this technological shift impacting political radicalisation? Is this political identification a reflection of predisposed political views that were already latent in the ‘jungle’? Or are the digital platforms pushing them to the far right? 

In this Insight, I argue that both answers are true. There are push and pull factors that enable the encounter between precarious workers and authoritarian populism. Certain groups are predisposed to be aligned with reactionary political values, but more importantly, technology is accelerating and therefore transforming this process. The first part of this Insight defines platform labour and its links to authoritarian populism. Afterwards, push and pull factors are detailed. The conclusion argues that platforms should be regulated along with policies towards decent employment and social justice. 

Labour Precarity and Authoritarian Politics

My current research project investigates the nexus between labour precariousness and authoritarian politics. Our team examines the use of digital platforms across six occupational sectors, namely beauty, cleaning, ride/delivery apps, retail, food, and craftwork. In our project, we conceptualise digital labour platforms or ‘platformisation’ as the phenomenon in which economic activities are increasingly exercised through digital platforms, connecting service providers and the public. By platform, we mean both the apps (e.g., Uber) and social media (e.g., Instagram, Facebook, etc.). When scholars, policymakers and international organisations discuss platformisation, they tend to focus on the labour carried out by platforms or apps that are specifically designed for work activities. The incorporation of social media to study platform labour is an innovation of our research, which aims to shed light on how these media are active agents in producing new forms of labour mediated by technology. 

This Insight focuses on Brazil, but the project also covers India and the Philippines. These three countries are emerging economies marked by high rates of informality but also by slight social mobility that has lifted millions above the poverty line. These people’s livelihoods, however, remain in precarity. We start from the principle that the platform economy did not invent reactionary politics amidst the precarious workers.  We instead claim that it facilitates the encounter between workers and the far right, potentially producing political radicalisation. In addition to several problems elicited by the contemporary increase of the digital economy through platforms, this relationship also poses risks to democracy.

These arguments, however, must be nuanced. Some labour occupations are more prone to support illiberalism and, therefore, to fall into the technological trap that connects workers and supporters of the far right. Feminist cooperatives that use Instagram to sell food, for example, are likely to be less impacted by extremist ecosystems. By the end of the project, we hope to provide a comprehensive map of different levels of political influence and radicalisation. Based on previous and initial research conducted so far among platform drivers and retail sellers in Brazil, it is possible to observe that the far right gains traction through a combination of push and pull factors. 

The pull factors are the ideological predisposition of unregulated working contexts that are animated by the free-market ideology, like Souza’s jungle. That means that people are not merely passive victims of a malicious internet but active stakeholders who utilise the online world to reaffirm their worldviews, connecting online with relatively like-minded individuals.

Simultaneously, there also exist push factors, such as ‘algorithmic logic’ — the technological infrastructure that makes traders encounter the far right. Within the specific studied context of social media retail in Brazil, for example, the more the traders grow online, the more inclined they are to support authoritarian populists.

Factors of Precarious Work 

The encounter between precarious work and the far right is made possible through a combination of four main factors.

The first factor is working conditions. Precarious workers have uncertain wages and generally face indebtedness and financial insecurity, being vulnerable to economic shocks. Depending on the activity, high competition and individualism amidst intensive labour routines are vital for meeting income targets. Brazilian platform divers, app deliverers, and retail traders on Instagram are usually active for more than 12 hours a day,  operating under intense self-imposed pressure.  Increasing isolation in the context of platform labour must also be considered. When people like Souza had to contend for their place in the ‘jungle’, it was usually through face-to-face interactions with other people. The digital environment nullifies all local and territorialised politics and exposes individual traders to biased online content, such as marketing influencers or Youtubers who are aligned with former President Jair Bolsonaro.

The second factor is the subjective dimension of work. In emerging economies, such subjectivity is marked by an ambiguity between active and reactive emotional drivers. On the one hand, rage, hate against minorities and resentment are typical responses to vulnerability and competitive pressure. On the other hand, encouraged by the national programmes of economic development, such as the so-called ‘inclusion through consumption’ in Brazil, precarious platform workers are motivated by aspirations to become middle-class. These workers are eager for labels like ‘entrepreneurship’ to re-signify occupations that have culturally been associated with subalternity.

The third factor leading to far-right radicalisation, facilitated by working conditions and subjectivity, is the far-right populist co-optation. Leaders like Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi deter labour rights while delivering an empty populist narrative that sounds encouraging at an individual level. The former Brazilian president, for example, was against the lockdown during the pandemic, launching the campaign ‘Brazil Cannot Stop’, which targeted micro-entrepreneurs, self-employed and/or informal workers who could not stop working.

The fourth factor is the technological infrastructure of platforms, such as hailing-ride apps and social media. These diverse platforms have in common an obscure algorithmic reward-based reasoning. Workers are relentlessly ranked and pressured to have ‘likes’ in an exploitative pyramidal structure that is, in essence, neoliberal. Our research shows that in the context of social media retail for example, unskilled digital sellers are propelled to follow influencers who teach digital marketing tools, ways to invest in cryptocurrency, and how to stay motivated and positive towards achieving financial targets. 

In the preliminary context of my current research, the vast majority of the influencers (approximately 88%) followed by my research network are aligned with the far right, by directly supporting the former president or discreetly showing their votes on the election day. Herein lies a paradox: traders need specific skills to grow online, but they inevitably fall into a digital political trap –  traders like Souza consequently start following more and more far-right exponents as they grow online. We also need to take into account these workers’ intense exposure to social media and navigating social platforms on which the far right has become predominant. The campaigns of leaders like Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro were skilled pioneers in understanding the importance of occupying and disputing social media politically. 

Conclusion

To date, we have strong indications in our research that precarious platform workers are subject to far-right radicalisation through technology, which intensifies, accelerates, and even transforms political views. As an anthropologist, I do not believe that people are mere victims of the digital environment; they have agency. However, the black box of the technological infrastructure of platforms and their impacts on radicalisation should be continuously investigated and studied cautiously by policymakers because the negative aspects of the digital economy will leave lasting impacts on the future of global democracy. 

Meanwhile, the positive features of the digital economy, namely the potential for formalisation, cooperatives, solidarity, and collective ties created by the virtual world, must continue to be visible to inspire policies aimed at just and democratic forms of enterprising online. At the moment, the far right has a hold over the conflicted hearts of people like Souza. We must find ways to make democracy, solidarity, and collectivism appeal ideologically to the masses again. 

Such a complex target demands a combination of actions. Labour platforms and social media need to be responsible for the political and labour activities they allow to spread. They also must be accountable for rewarding users displaying political content, and demonetising channels that promote hate speech and misinformation. In conversation with civil society and social movements, governments and international organisations should be firmer and quicker in creating a democratic mechanism of platform regulation that, without giving up the principle of free speech, is able to contain the nefarious impacts that platforms are having on global democracy. Finally, and most importantly, the pursuit of social justice must be the basis of policymaking.  Fighting inequality and providing full and decent employment are the main challenges to overcoming populist appeal and subsequent economic vulnerability. 

Rosana Pinheiro-Machado is a Professor in the School of Geography at the University College Dublin. She is the Director of the Digital Economy and Extreme Politics Lab and the Principal Investigator of the project ‘Flexible Work, Rigid Politics in Brazil, India, and the Philippines’, funded by the European Research Council, Consolidator Grant.

Twitter: @_pinheira