How Social Media Contributed to Brazil’s Insurrection

By Shefali Kumar

On January 7th, 2023, supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed government institutions in Brasilia, Brazil. The protest closely resembled the infamous January 6th U.S. insurrection, where protestors attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election, which saw former President Trump lose his bid for a second term. While Brazil’s protests called for military intervention, rather than seeking to overturn results, both elections saw a far-right leader get voted out of office.

So how did another coup manage to get inspired to replicate the January 6th insurrection? It’s no secret that the media plays a role in public opinion and political influence. Global media climates are becoming increasingly polarized in the fight to promote democracy or, in some cases, silence it. Brazil is an interesting case to study, considering its position as a relatively new democracy. And considering the accessibility of social media, it’s understandable that more users are turning away from traditional media outlets to receive their news. As of 2022, nearly two-thirds of Brazilians get their news from a variety of social media platforms, with YouTube and Facebook as the top sources.

While YouTube and Facebook are primary contenders for approving and promoting attack ads and smear campaigns, WhatsApp has become an increasingly important player in influencing public opinion. WhatsApp is a frequently used tool to not only discuss politics, but to spread pieces of information to vast audiences. This has been a trend since at least 2018, when former President Jair Bolsonaro was first elected to office.

In conjunction with Time Magazine, SumofUs, a non-profit government watchdog, ran a campaign studying political advertisements shared on Facebook. Their research found that in the lead up to the election, several ads were run in support of Bolsonaro, including those that contained false electoral information. In their report, ‘Stop the Steal 2.0,’ they call out Meta, the parent company of Facebook and WhatsApp, for not only allowing disinformation but for profiting off of political ads that were inciting violence:

‘With political tensions running high in Brazil and the country facing the threat of an antidemocratic uprising, Meta is routinely approving ads that are inciting violence, spreading disinformation and throwing doubt on the integrity of the upcoming elections. Many of the ads identified by SumOfUs researchers are also illegal under Brazilian law as well as falling foul of Meta’s own policies.’

The ads studied in their sample included messages of encouraging violence, instilling distrust in electoral systems, spreading falsities of other candidates, and more. Though their sample was small, the ads they found had a far reach. And while their report was published in warning of the September 7th protests in 2022, their findings are still relevant in understanding the role of media leading up to the January 7th incident this year.

Since Facebook is a more public platform, media monitoring is an easier task to implement. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have the ability to implement disinformation and content moderation teams that can develop policies regarding media monitoring. Platforms also give users the opportunity to take part in content moderation by offering self-reporting on potentially harmful content. However, what makes monitoring on WhatsApp difficult is that the messages shared on the app are protected with end-to-end encryption. Meaning, private chats between users on WhatsApp are nearly impossible to access for research. Therefore, most of the studies conducted have to rely on group participation in order to access content shared on the app.

For example, David Nemer, an Assistant Professor at University of Virginia, sought to understand how misinformation spread through WhatsApp,leading up to the 2022 election. He did this by joining various chat groups and examining the types of content shared, along with the groups’ response to the information.In his paper, ‘Disentangling Brazil’s Disinformation Insurgency,’ he categorized WhatsApp users into three types: influencers, the Bolso-Army, and “Average Brazilians.” Influencers were tasked with creating the disinformation and the BolsoArmy would circulate the posts in their various groups. The “Average Brazilians” were the most impressionable, as they were the group most targeted by these campaigns. And given the current status of content moderation on WhatsApp, the responsibility of fact-checking falls on the users instead of the platform.

While we may not know the full extent to which WhatsApp contributed to rising political tensions in Brazil, it seems clear that a severe lack of content moderation and profit prioritization are fostering an environment through which unfiltered extremist rhetoric can gain traction. And if the pattern continues, we may see more antidemocratic uprisings around the world.

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