Brazil: A Moment of Truth

By Barbara dos Santos*

Brazil elections 2018

A group of demonstrators gathered in São Paulo last week to protest Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and show their support for other candidates like Ciro Gomes. / Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Sunday’s election has brought out deep divisions in Brazilian society and set the stage for an even more divisive runoff later this month.  This week’s polls underscore that, although most voters arguably occupy the center, the right and the left have the strongest candidates.  Populist conservative Jair Bolsonaro (31 percent) has a 10-point lead over Workers Party (PT) latecomer Fernando Haddad (21 percent), who started campaigning only after party standard-bearer “Lula” da Silva definitively pulled out of the race three weeks ago.  But both candidates have high negatives, and the polls suggest that they would be tied in a second round (42 percent each).  Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), is still hovering around 11 percent, but polls also show that he would beat Bolsonaro (39 to 45 percent) if they face off on October 28.  Everyone else is polling in the single digits.

  • Hate politics has spiked during this campaign, powered by polarization, culture wars, and fake news on social media. Uncivil discourse and even physical violence have increased.  Although Federal Police have concluded that the man who stabbed Bolsonaro last month acted alone, the candidate and allied social media are hyping the incident as a political attack.  Other rumors circulating online are that Haddad’s running mate, Manuela d’Ávila of the Partido Comunista do Brasil, ordered the stabbing (which prompted threats against her.)  A review by the national daily O Estado de São Paulo found that several of Bolsonaro’s campaign themes – defending the death penalty and vigilantism, the use of torture, and past racial cleansing – have fueled aggressive attacks by both opponents and supporters.  One of the leaders of the Facebook group Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro was assaulted by three men outside her home on September 24; their political views are clear, although their affiliation remains unconfirmed.
  • The emergence of Bolsonaro – who has publicly called women unequal, stupid, and even “too ugly to rape” – shows the stridency of the culture wars now occurring in Brazil. His campaign has also revealed greater tolerance among some sectors for misogyny going far beyond traditional machismo.  It reflects a rejection of the younger generation’s progressive and liberal values of equality and inclusion.  Bolsonaro’s proud refusal to apologize for his remarks suggests confidence that his base sympathizes with his views.

In terms of political institutions, the election is crucial to the future of the PT and the left in Brazil and beyond.  Over its 14 years in power, the party led the country on a path of decreasing inequality, a booming economy, and international prestige as a “global player.”  It all came tumbling down for external and internal reasons:  commodity prices crashed, economic recession set in, and massive corruption scandals led to deep, sustained political crises.  The PT’s opponents have cast the party as the embodiment of all that is wrong with Brazilian society and institutions, and Bolsonaro and others on the right are hoping to deal it a deathblow.  Haddad is running hard, but local observers believe he needs to distance himself more from his party’s past – such as by trying harder to avoid criticizing the judicial processes that landed Lula in jail, advocating a responsible government budget, and more aggressively criticizing Presidents Maduro in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua.

This round of elections is the most important since the re-democratization of Brazil in 1988.  While some democracies around the world are known for tumult and strident campaigning – and may even be able to weather periods of authoritarianism – those that are of more recent vintage and less institutionalized, including Brazil, can break.  A Bolsonaro victory would not necessarily lead the country to military dictatorship, but the acceptance of his authoritarian vision, including his praise for military rule in the past, poses a potentially serious threat to the continuing strengthening of Brazilian democratic institutions.  In an interview last week, he even implied that if he were not elected, he would reject the vote count and claim that PT committed fraud.  Similarly, Haddad would also pose a threat to democratic institutionalization if he does not allow the justice system to handle Lula according to the law.

 October 4, 2018

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

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

The TecnoLatinas: A Start-Up Revolution

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Latin America is experiencing a full-fledged start-up movement amid rapid growth of an innovation and information economy.  Over the last several years the region’s online population has grown faster than in any other part of the world – with approximately 255 million internet users as of last year.  Half of the top 10 markets worldwide, ranked by time spent on Facebook and other social media, are in Latin America.  Clusters of innovation start-ups, such as those around Monterrey, Mexico, are springing up with astonishing speed.  In 2012 Mexico was among the largest exporters of information technology services in the world.  Google is currently building a data center in Chile, while Amazon Web Services opened a data center in Sao Paolo last December.  But these are not information-era maquiladoras. Instead, Latin American entrepreneurs are combining the availability of open-source innovation tools and the emergence of cloud computing with effective bridge building in Silicon Valley to bring collaboration, expertise, and capital to their home markets.

  • Latin America offers multiple advantages for tech start-ups: a low cost of development, an educated and growing talent pool with the necessary technical and entrepreneurial skills, and increasingly available and affordable broadband and internet access.
  • In particular, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia, along with metropolitan areas across the region, are incentivizing the development of a competitive start-up ecosystem – an advantage attracting a growing number of “angel investors.”
  • Start-Up Chile, a national program begun in 2010 with 22 start-ups from 14 countries, offers seed capital, grants, tax protection, space, mentoring, and networking to “accelerate” promising ventures.  Its most recent competition drew 1421 applicants from 60 countries, including from Singapore, London, and San Francisco.

The lack of tech innovation and incentives for start-ups has been an Achilles’ heel of Latin American economies for decades.  If the start-up trend continues, the region could make significant, lasting progress toward narrowing the sizable gap between itself and the most dynamic developing countries, mostly in Asia.  Latin America’s start-up movement is both top-down and bottom-up, with a tech-savvy generation of entrepreneurs not afraid to take risks and to leverage government support, as part of a collaborative business model built on multiple ties to Silicon Valley.  A core challenge will be whether these initiatives are scalable, and whether governments can move away from stale policy debates rooted in antiquated paradigms to move their economies toward the frontiers of innovation of the information age.  Old elites with a lock on traditional industries are poorly positioned to obstruct the phenomenon, but if these emerging innovation hubs are to succeed, at some point they are likely to confront  the entrenched and oligopolistic business practices still prevalent in the region’s energy, telecom, and other sectors.