Fake news and social media in Brazilian electoral process

The role of social media and applications for direct messaging (basically WhatsApp) in Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign is one of the central issues of the new ways of political configuration in Latin America.

Fake news, propaganda, building of an acritical common sense and spread hatred are not innovative practices neither in political history nor in war. The attempt at configuring passive and malleable subjects has been studied for centuries as substratum for ideological struggles orientated towards capturing social collective willingness and directing it in benefit of corporative interests. What has changed is the channel of its spreading, its directionality, and territory where the circulation of myths, versions, and convincing and sensitizing slogans become more effective.

Becoming viral and interactivity have replaced the historic verticality of political discourse. These have substituted the characteristic downward directionality of contents proposed by the party, program, and candidate. Bolsonaro’s campaign was supported by brutal gestures and based on mythology, present in accumulated social fears, much more than on proposals and projects. For a large part of Brazilian population, especially that which has less critical capacity for evaluating contents, the intrinsic complexity of public policies is perceived as an incomprehensible and convoluted entelechy. Lula, a metal worker, has left room for a brilliant Paulist academic. Bolsonaro is the naked and brutal rhetoric of the barrack. The PT endorsed the simplicity of a military.

Brazilians have changed the ways of communicational interaction and information access. The cellular phone has become the main recipient of news exchanges and inhabitants access news through WhatsApp that has 120 million young and adult users, who are integrated into a significant patina of reliability over what they send and receive. Such users represent 80 percent of all Brazilian voters and Bolsonaro’s campaign was effective mainly through that source, together with the platform of four social media; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

According to a report elaborated by the Latin American Strategic Center on Geopolitics (CELAG, for its Spanish acronyms), the distribution of social media receptors of Bolsonaro, Haddad, and Lula shows a clear prevalence of the first one over the other two, even if summing up both PT leaders. The peculiarity of these data is that the age weight of the followers lies in the youngest, the so called millennials, who have limited exposition to the TV, do not listen to regular radio but rather internet radios and that get informed only through social media segmented by their groups of interest[1].

Social Media Followers (in millions of users)
  Bolsonaro Lula Haddad
Facebook 7 5 1
Twitter 1.5 0.5 0.8
Instagram 4.5 0.5 0.5
Total 13 6 2.3

A large part of the campaign was instrumented by consulting firms with expertise on algorithms and audience analysis, capable of detecting the deepest emotional fears and rejections that run through society. Several of those fears were previously inoculated with unusual persistence by hegemonic media and then directed towards specific segments detected with demographic and statistical precision. The latter became the main political activism of the army’s captain, exonerated in 1988, under the accusation of planning bomb attacks on Adutora del Guandu central supply warehouse, which provided drinking water to the municipality of Rio de Janeiro. The following step was using thousands of social media influencers (previously detected for having large quantities of followers) to geometrically multiply the threats, lies, and occasional tergiversations that could be maximized throughout the campaign. The last step was the use of robotic applications capable of analyzing initial big data (provided by the reception trials) ready to evaluate the success or failure of fake-news. With this information, analysts reoriented and repositioned themselves in a precise and adjusted way regarding the most consented issues.

The viral circle predisposed to achieving a positive electoral wave for the interests of Brazilian right was configured from seven agreed axes with Bolsonaro’s campaign team, where Steve Bannon, former chief advisor to Donald Trump, participated. Together with him, members of the Command on Electronic War Communications of the army participated as well; they are trained in sociology, anthropology, communications and statistics, knowledge available for Operational Procedures and Tactics (TTP, for their acronym in Portuguese), undeniably devices for psychological war[2]. Espionage was not oblivious to this operation:  according to analyst Rodrigo Lentz, Fernando Haddad was illegally monitored by teams lead by General Sergio Etchegoyen, current member of the ministry of institutional security of the presidency in Brazil[3].

The apocryphal chapters of communicational intoxication, chosen mainly for delegitimizing Fernando Haddad and PT were the following: (1) the existence of an alleged “gay kit,” orientated towards sexualizing girls and boys that would have been distributed by Haddad in public schools while he was minister of education during Lula’s government. (2) The appeal to the crisis in Venezuela as potential future of a PT government. The dissemination of images of empty shelves with the label chavismo was the central image that accompanied such viralization. (3) The spread of an image of an old lady presumably attacked by left-wing activists (with her face deformed by the bruises), when in reality it was the photograph of an actress who had had an accident. (4) The alleged Haddad’s defense against incest, denounced by one of the extreme-right ideologists, Olavo Carvalho. (5) The pretended PT intention of legalizing pedophilia. (6) The dissemination of Dilma Rousseff’s photo as member of a Cuban military battalion.

None of those viralizations would be effective if they were not specifically targeted to those who have less critical capacity to deny or contrast them with reality. That is the role of the robots that analyze big data and can target more effective messages to each social segment. In a 1921 text, Historian Marc Bloch, shot dead by the Nazis for his double condition of Jew and member of the French resistance on June 16th, 1944, asked:

 “Fake news, in all their forms, have been part of humanity. How are they born? (…) A falsehood only propagates and is amplified, only comes alive, under one condition: finding a favorable breeding ground within the society where it comes alive. In such, unconsciously, men express their prejudices, hates, fears.” Fake-news are not new. They only demand subjects willing to believe in them to make room for determined already installed fears. Real solution implies the construction of critical citizens; not easily manipulated by symbolic manipulations.

After WWII, Albert Camus published The Plague. In the last paragraph he said: “Thus, he knew that such crowd happily ignored what can be read in books, that the plague bacillus does not ever die or disappear, that it can remain asleep for decades in the furniture, clothes, waiting peacefully in bedrooms, cellars, bags, handkerchiefs and papers, perhaps the day will come, for men’s misfortune and lesson, when the Plague will awaken its fleas and its rats and send them out to die in a doomed city.”  The plague has returned. It is called Bolsonaro. A Macri without marketing. And unbridled.


[1] . http://www.celag.org/el-neoliberalismo-millenial-la-campana-bolsonaro/ 

[2] . Livro Branco de Defesa Nacional 2016, pag 90. En: https://www.defesa.gov.br/arquivos/2017/mes03/livro_branco_de_defesa_nacional_minuta.pdf

[3] . Lentz, Rodrigo: Militares, desinformación y batalla política. https://www.cartacapital.com.br/politica/militares-des-informacao-e-batalha-politica

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