Weaponising Fear in Brazil: How Online Election Disinformation is Inciting Offline Harm

On July 9, Brazilian municipal guard and Worker's Party (PT) officer Marcelo Arruda was celebrating his 50th birthday. For the special occasion, he invited his friends to a PT-themed party in the southern city of Foz do Iguaçu. The walls were decorated with red balloons and a poster of former president and leftist presidential candidate Luis Inácio Lula da Silva under the slogan: "For Brazil to smile again." At the end of the night, the smiles ended when a supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro stormed in with a gun, yelling: "Here is Bolsonaro, fuck!" Jorge Guaranho killed Arruda with two shots.  

The Arruda case was not an isolated episode of violence related to the Brazilian October general elections campaign, which officially took off this week. Historically, now would be the time when the election would return to the national discussion, as the campaigns take to the streets and the jingles start to pop up on media channels. 

But these are not ordinary times. Since the 2018 election, pro-Bolsonaro digital networks have worked non-stop to weaponise disinformation, hate speech, and conspiracy theories as a political tool against perceived enemies. Forty-five days from the election, Brazil is already living through one of the most tense elections in its history. 

Days before Arruda's murder, another Bolsonaro supporter threw a homemade bomb during Lula's pre-campaign event. Two weeks later, in another episode, YouTube influencer Ivan Boa Pinto was arrested for encouraging people to take to the streets with guns to "hunt" leftists and "hang" Supreme Court justices. "We are at war. It is time for us to go to another level of demonstration, and I am saying: the war process has many casualties," Pinto said in one of his videos. There is more. Brazilian politics has unfolded like a thriller threatening democracy these days. 

The conspiracy theory narratives propelling political violence go from Bolsonaro's false claims of election fraud (any similarity to Donald Trump is not purely coincidental) to explicit threats of a coup d'etat aimed to keep him in power regardless of the results. The current administration is the most militarized since the Military Dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, and so far the Armed Forces have backed Bolsonaro’s attacks on the voting system.

The persistent hateful rhetoric underlying the narratives has increased tensions and division to an unprecedented level. Anybody who criticizes the government is labeled as a "communist", a "traitor to the nation", and the list of enemies goes beyond party representatives. Stocked by election fraud conspiracy theory narratives, far-right actors have accused the Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court of conspiring to defraud the upcoming election. In response, they have attacked democratic institutions to stop the imagined "fraud" from happening.

Disinformation is not exclusive to one side of the political aisle. Leftist social media channels also spread false narratives; for example, denying that Bolsonaro was stabbed in the 2018 campaign, calling the stab a "fakeada" (combining the words fake and stab). However, Brazilian right-wing disinformation has been significantly more abundant, extreme and violent. It includes supporters accusing leftists of planning to kill Bolsonaro to prevent his reelection and motivating people to join the demonstrations against the Supreme Court and the voting system scheduled for September 7, Brazil's independence day. Researchers are worried that September 7 could be the next January 6. 

Extremists are using disinformation as a key electoral tactic. Appealing to moral values and the conservative vote, their channels spread false narratives that former President Lula has promoted the use of drugs by kids and teens. In a recent video, Bolsonaro's former minister for Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, alleged that the Lula administration had a manual to "teach young people how to use crack", falsely suggesting that a guide aimed at health professionals working with drug addicts to reduce the spread of HIV and other diseases had been distributed to the general public. 

Even though such false claims have been repeatedly debunked, disinformation actors keep lying and leveraging hate because the political gains so far have largely surpassed any negative consequences. As in past elections, false and defamatory content often reaches millions of people - and voters - across multiple social media platforms before being taken down. Shortening this time gap between diffusion and removal is essential, especially at a crucial time that can influence the election results. 

By combining human expertise and technology, we can act more quickly to identify the spread of disinformation. At Kinzen, we are working in both trenches to understand the disinformation and extremist narratives closely. With the help of technological tools that allow us to analyze large amounts of data, including within podcasting and video, we are documenting the evolution of keywords and dog whistles in real-time. 

We have noticed, for example, how some Brazilian channels are switching their language to avoid content detection. When casting doubt on election integrity, for example, some channels have avoided mentioning obvious terms like "election fraud" or "dirty elections", instead alleging they are campaigning for "clean elections" and "real democracy". Instead of explicitly calling for a military coup to break democracy, they often claim the country is facing a "war" of good against evil and that a Military action would be "a divine intervention" to "stop the fraud". 

We are seeing video influencers playing a key role in spreading violent rhetoric, such as Ivan Boa Pinto, but also political agents and networks profiting from these lies. Rising national tensions is a way to keep their audience mobilized, and sensationalist headlines suggesting the Military is about to take action are circulating every day, along with heavy imagery of war tanks and soldiers dressed for war. Although the narratives they propagate are false, the consequences of this massive disinformation operation are very real. 

In a press conference about the case of the murder of Arruda, Prosecutor Luís Marcelo Mafra Bernardes da Silva said he hoped that the case would serve as a "clearing brake for this escalation of violence that our country has experienced on the political-party spectrum". So far, this hope has been defeated by the escalation of the violent rhetoric. 

But this doesn’t have to be our fate. There are concrete ways to limit the spread of disinformation, and the time to act is now. This requires collective action. The Brazilian election campaign has demonstrated that hate speech is not only a digital threat: it threatens people's lives, the same way it has threatened democracy. And this is far from being an exclusively Brazilian problem. We should not wait for the next victims. 

What to read next