The October 2022 Brazilian general elections are expected not only to determine the next president of the largest country of South America, but the future of Brazil's democracy.
With zero evidence of fraud in Brazil's 100% electronic voting system since it was first adopted in 1996, President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly undermined trust in the entire voting system, using a similar playbook to Donald Trump's. There are also justifiable concerns that Brazil is likely to face post-election violence on the streets, similar to the US Capitol riot. Bolsonaro has said he will only end his current term victorious or dead.
False narratives in Brazil have become more aggressive. The claims range from unproven allegations of voting manipulation to delusive plans theoretically designed by national elites to kill the sitting president and transform Brazil into a communist nation. The president has been supportive of fringe groups demanding intervention by Brazil's military, which they see as a sure-fire way to give Bolsonaro extra powers and shut down democratic institutions such as the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, scientists, journalists, and human rights activists are increasingly victims of hate speech and even attacks.
Here are 10 trends playing out in Brazil this election year:
Last year, one of the most extreme conspiracy theories related to the Brazilian elections was a national version of QAnon. It claimed a former leader of PT, the Worker's Party, was supposed to have obtained evidence of sexual involvement between a Supreme Court justice and an infamous rapist and that, based on this, he would blackmail the justice to favor PT and defraud the elections.
Now, some actors are openly accusing the left of having a plan to assassinate President Bolsonaro. In a video posted on YouTube, a lawyer claimed he participated in a Masonic meeting where they discussed a plan to kill Bolsonaro to ensure the victory of his main opponent, leftist ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. With a theatrical touch, lawyer Erick Carvalho rubbed his eyes with a tissue in front of the camera while describing the plan, saying he feared for his own life for exposing it. The video was published on December 30 and was viewed over 300,000 times in a span of two weeks.
Other conspiracy theories about leftist parties wanting to kill Bolsonaro have circulated since he was stabbed during the 2018 campaign. As a response, there are leftist conspiracy theories alleging that the stabbing was staged by Bolsonaro to blame the opposition. The Federal Police concluded that Adelio Bispo, the man who stabbed Bolsonaro, was mentally ill and acted alone.
Since platforms have been more active in removing problematic content, disinformation actors are exploring new avenues to distribute their content.
One tactic is combining different networks. After analyzing four million messages in 150 Telegram chats between January and October of 2021, a group of Brazilian scholars concluded that pro-Bolsonaro networks are using Telegram to evade YouTube's rules. Disinformation channels post the more extreme videos as unlisted on YouTube and then share their links on Telegram, so they can continue promoting the problematic content without gaining unwanted attention.
The video of the lawyer exposing the alleged leftist plan to kill Bolsonaro, for example, was shared on Telegram by influencers such as Allan dos Santos, the head of the Terça Livre website. Santos had his accounts banned in 2021 from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, following orders by the Brazilian Supreme Court, for spreading disinformation.
Brazilian disinformation actors are also migrating part of their content from mainstream platforms to alt-tech platforms such as Gettr, Rumble, and Gab to avoid content restrictions. Despite being very active on Twitter, for example, representative Carla Zambelli started sharing the most explicit anti-vaccine videos on her personal website to avoid the risk of suspension from Twitter, as recently reported by Folha de S.Paulo. The same content was posted on Rumble. Some of the most prominent extreme-right Brazilian influencers already have verified accounts on Gettr, including the president and his sons. President Bolsonaro was awarded the "Person of the Year" at the 2021 GETTR Awards.
In a recent YouTube live stream, the host of Shock Wave Radio advised her listeners:
"The internet is a place of anonymity!"
"Delete your photos!"
"Leave all Telegram groups!"
The message was clear: they should hide their tracks to avoid criminal liability. The reason, she explained, is that the Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court were watching their interactions and would come after them. The concern was justified: in advance of the elections, the Supreme Court opened two investigations on disinformation networks and threats to democracy. As a result, among other actions to limit the spread of false news and hate speech, they ordered the demonetization of at least 14 YouTube channels notorious for spreading election disinformation.
As these actions will continue and are likely to be intensified as the year goes on, we can expect that more and more people will try to mask their own identities to spread false information and expand access to hate campaigns more freely.
President Bolsonaro started spreading unfounded claims of election fraud even in the 2018 campaign: 93,1% of Bolsonaro voters were exposed to false stories about defrauded votes during the last election and 89,77% believed in it, according to research.
Since his election, the president hasn't stopped attacking the Brazilian voting system. Last year, he called a press conference in which he presented a series of unfounded claims of election fraud in past elections, based on internet videos already debunked by fact-checking organizations. He suggested the same could happen in 2022. We can expect more attempts to discredit the voting system, with recycled versions of the same claims.
While the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA) and respected global health authorities recommended that children be vaccinated against COVID, President Bolsonaro, again and again, spread misinformation to undermine trust in the vaccines and encouraged his followers to do similarly through an official online government channel and hotline. The opinions of science denialists were aired at a public hearing called by the government. This has helped to spread false controversies about the vaccines' safety and efficacy, creating an environment of uncertainty and conspiracy.
Having an enemy is central to "us against them" narratives, and hate speech has become more targeted. In the past months, as a result of the anti-vaccination campaign, ANVISA workers received over 458 threats, including death threats. In one of the emails, a man attached a video in which he tortured a dog to death. The video ended with a Nazi salute and the man promising to travel to Brasilia to "purify the land where ANVISA is based." A week after that, conservative representative Bia Kicks leaked personal data from pro-vaccine doctors, including their IDs and phone numbers, to WhatsApp groups.
As polarization increases, even Nazism has been trivialized: recently, a popular podcaster was fired for saying on air that Brazil should have its own Nazi party, in the name of "free speech".
Prominent voices who gained national attention promoting false COVID treatments are now preparing their campaigns to run in the 2022 elections. One of them is Doctor Nise Yamaguchi, who made headlines promoting chloroquine to cure COVID. She recently announced her intention to run for a Senate seat. In an Instagram post, she said her platform will be "the battle of good against evil".
Brazil, the country with the largest Catholic majority in the world, has a growing population of vocal evangelical devotees. These candidates often use hate speech and conspiracy theories, customizing what they say in a way that praises religious voters and appeals to their moral values. A common conspiracy theory invokes an alleged "communist threat". Leftists are accused of being perverted, indoctrinating children with "gender ideology", supposedly designed to turn children into homosexuals. LGBTQ+ communities have been a common target of hate speech, and these attacks are likely to intensify in the next months.
In reaction to the spread of disinformation, civic organizations have demanded bolder actions from platforms. An online campaign led by Sleeping Giants in Brazil, for example, started promoting a hashtag accusing Twitter Brazil of supporting misinformation by not removing it with the same rigor as other countries. The hashtag #TwitterApoiaFakeNews ("Twitter supports fake news") had more than 58,000 mentions in a week. The pressure worked. In response, Twitter announced that, as of January 17, users would be able to report posts with pandemic-related misinformation.
YouTube has also received attention. Recently, The International Fact-Checking Network released an open letter to YouTube’s CEO urging that the platform take more effective actions against disinformation and misinformation. The letter was signed by several international fact-checking organizations, including two in Brazil: Aos Fatos and Lupa.
Since President Bolsonaro's election, in 2018, when concerns about his constant threats to democracy in Brazil are raised, responses from national authorities are variations on the same theme: "don't worry, the institutions are working". By the end of this year's election, we will learn if this is true.