Brazil: The WhatsApp President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Bolsonaro social medis

Graphics from Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s social media detailing his followers on Facebook (left) and Twitter (right). / Twitter: @jairbolsonaro / Creative Commons

If polls predicting a landslide victory for Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s runoff election are correct, Brazil on January 1 will inaugurate its first president to win by virtue of his superior social media prowess rather than the strong party bases that propelled his predecessors.  He gained strong support from different sectors of Brazilian society by delivering – legally and potentially illegally – the message his supporters wanted to hear directly to their personal electronic devices, without the validation and transparency of traditional media.  The receptivity of his young supporter base compensated for the low amount of TV time allotted to him under Brazilian law.

  • WhatsApp has around 120 million users in Brazil, around 60 percent of the population, for a wide array of personal and commercial communication needs. The polling firm Datafolha found that two-thirds of Brazilian voters use WhatsApp, and that of them a majority (61 percent) are Bolsonaro supporters likely to follow political news on the service – compared to 38 percent of the backers of his opponent, Fernando Haddad.
  • The platform is perfect for manipulation of information. Messages are encrypted and are therefore beyond the domain of electoral authorities, independent fact-checkers, or even WhatsApp managers.  Real and fake news spread like wildfire.  Agência Lupa, a fact-checker service, has found that only 50 of the most shared pictures in 347 WhatsApp groups were factually correct.  During the weekend of October 6-7, the company found that 12 of the fake news items it evaluated were shared 1.2 million times.  The Federal Electoral Court (TSE), which created a consultative council earlier this year to tackle online misinformation, has been slow to respond to the threat – perhaps out of fear it would be accused of limiting free speech.

Bolsonaro’s campaign also used Facebook effectively even after it twice shut down pages carrying content of his deemed to be fake – 197 pages and 87 accounts in July, and 68 pages and 43 accounts two weeks ago.  Many of the pages portrayed Haddad as a Communist whose Workers Party would turn Brazil into another Cuba and convert children to homosexuality.  One attack – alleging that Haddad would distribute “gay kits” to expose schoolchildren to homosexuality – was so blatant that the TSE ordered Bolsonaro’s campaign to stop it.

  • Haddad’s presence on Facebook (1.5 million followers) is minuscule compared to Bolsonaro’s (7.8 million). Some of Haddad’s followers used social media to spread rumors that Bolsonaro staged his near-fatal stabbing at a rally last month; social media have not shut down any of Haddad’s pages or accounts.

Bolsonaro’s social media campaign has also allegedly been tainted by illegal funding.  Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers, last week reported that wealthy businesspersons spent US$3.2 million on a WhatsApp fake news operation.  If true, they broke electoral laws barring undeclared corporate campaign donations and the purchase of contact lists from a third party.  Speaking on Facebook Live, Bolsonaro said Folha had no evidence, adding in an interview later that he has no control over the businesspersons anyway.

Fake news in elections – in the traditional or social media – is not a new phenomenon, but its wildfire impact has caught many in Brazil by surprise.  The mere speed that disinformation travels makes it nearly impossible for Brazilian authorities to curb its spread, and self-policing by social media platforms also seems an implausible solution given their benefit from the high traffic fake news drives.  Bolsonaro and his campaign team realized this earlier and embraced it more aggressively than Haddad, who did not enter the race until September 11, ever did.  Haddad was busy trying to simultaneously convince Lula’s supporters to vote for him and others that he was not Lula’s puppet, while Bolsonaro’s message was reaching tens of millions of Brazilians with smartphones.  The likely president’s expertise in using social media (legally or not) has clearly boosted his campaign, but governing by WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter remains an untested proposition.  It seems that Bolsonaro may also follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook into government.  Crushing his opposition under a barrage of half-truths and lies does not bode well for democratic governance.

October 26, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

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