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.

Mexico: Peña Nieto’s big push

By CLALS Staff

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Peña Nieto’s reformist agenda wins kudos from the business and financial class, but both a recalcitrant leftist opposition and mass organizations previously aligned with his party are taking to the streets in protest – raising serious doubts about its prospects.  In his first state of the nation speech, delivered last week, Peña Nieto pledged to plow ahead with “transformational” reforms, giving flesh to the PRI’s slogan that it is Transformando a México. In education, he’s proposed a more rigorous system for hiring, evaluating, promoting and firing teachers who have resisted change despite evidence that the current system is not equipping Mexican youth for employment.  In the energy sector, he wants to open up the oil and gas industry to foreign investment, an idea that was strictly off-limits in the past even though lagging investment has caused production in Mexico’s leading export industry to decline steadily.  He is also pursuing tax reforms that, although watered down when announced on Sunday, entail political risk and, tellingly, raise marginal rates by 2 percent for higher earners and impose a levy on capital gains.  In June, he picked a fight with powerful business leaders over control of the country’s telecommunications industry, an oligopolistic structure that imposes excess costs on consumers and producers alike, diminishing Mexico’s economic competitiveness.

The teachers unions, whose symbiosis with the PRI in the past ensured cooperation, mobilized huge protests in Mexico City, forcing Peña Nieto to delay his speech by a day and then causing monstrous traffic jams during it.  The President cloaked his announcement of the energy reform in nationalistic rhetoric, and PEMEX, the oil company, followed it up with predictions of positive results – huge increases in oil investment and production that purportedly would help to create 500,000 new oil-sector jobs by 2018 and 2.5 million by 2025. But opposition to the reform has been strident, and tens of thousands filled the Zócalo on Sunday to protest it as a “covert privatization.”  Opposition leaders are already pledging demonstrations to oppose taxes, though the likelihood of this may be diminished because the long rumored reform unexpectedly left untouched the value-added tax exemption for food and medicines, which would have been a major rallying point for the Left.

Some Mexican commentators say Peña Nieto’s leadership is already losing its shine and that his Pacto por México, the loose coalition he engineered in Congress, is at risk of falling apart.  He prevailed in his congressional showdown over the long overdue education reforms, but success in transforming the underperforming education sector appears uncertain, as the teachers are threatening more protests.  The arrest of narco bosses from the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have not given him a bounce on the security front; indeed, Mexican press reports indicate that kidnapping, extortion and other crimes that more directly affect citizens’ lives continue to rise. Further complicating Peña Nieto’s life is news last month that the economy is slowing down.  The first contraction in four years has forced the government to cut its 2013 GDP growth forecast in half, to 1.8 percent.  The administration will undoubtedly point to data showing that PEMEX production has fallen by about a quarter in the past decade because of low investment, and will emphasize that this makes modernization of the oil sector all the more imperative.  But Mexicans have heard promises before, during NAFTA debates and since, that economic reforms and greater openness to trade and investment will massively improve their lives.  Whether there is any fuel left in that rhetorical tank remains to be seen.