Millennial authoritarianism rises in Brazil as Bolsonaro takes on TikTok
With his poll numbers falling, President Jair Bolsonaro tries to overhaul the social media strategy that brought him to power
On June 19, the day Brazil hit 500,000 official Covid deaths, President Jair Bolsonaro posted a TikTok video where he rode a horse and saluted a crowd to the sound of “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash.
There was barely a mask in sight.
Bolsonaro’s TikTok audience is exploding. His followers on the youth-dominated site grew to more than 340,000 people at a rate of almost 50% in the past month alone. Bolsonaro tries to make authoritarianism look cool. In his TikTok profile created last June, the populist, far-right president posts videos where he goes on diplomatic missions, visits his mother, plays around with his staff, and engages in the traditional politics of hugging children and giving long motivational speeches.
Bolsonaro is known as the “Tropical Trump”. Besides similar governing styles, both leaders rode to power attacking the press as fake news and Big Tech for persecuting them. While Trump was in office, Bolsonaro made no secret of his admiration, and looked to the American for direction. Since Trump’s failure to win re-election, however, Bolsonaro has gone role model shopping.
He has found what he’s looking for in the young men’s aisle.
With elections coming up in October, Bolsonaro is adjusting his strategy to mimic the social media tactics of El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, who calls himself the “world’s coolest dictator.” Salvadoran researcher Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez coined the term “millennial authoritarianism” to explain the rise to power of the 40-year-old Bukele.
Bolsonaro is 66 years old. Still, the term applies to him, too, argues Vitor Machado, a political researcher at the Federal University of Paraná, in southern Brazil. Millennial authoritarianism is a political strategy, says Machado, that encompasses authoritarian behavior, populist appeals, and a modern and youthful personal brand built mainly via social media. Bolsonaro has associated his online identity with his millennial sons –who are themselves politicians– while, says Machado, fine-tuning his social media discourse to resonate with millennials.
Speaking the same language as young people has become a key tactic for many Latin American leaders regardless of ideological leanings — from leftists such as newly-elected Gabriel Boric in Chile to authoritarians such as Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras.
For Brazil, where Bolsonaro is widely viewed by political scientists as a threat to the future of democracy, the president’s ability to manipulate youth sentiment with his newfound social media hipness has radically changed the election calculus.
“I see only three options: prison, death, or victory,” said Bolsonaro when questioned about the upcoming election during a meeting of religious leaders last September. More than once, the president has threatened a military coup if he loses his mandate. Though after recent confrontations with the Supreme Court — which is currently considering five criminal inquiries into the president — he has downplayed his threat. “Who never told a little lie to their girlfriend? If you didn’t, the night wouldn’t end well,” he said to the laughter of an audience of allies.
The Bolsonaro Family on TikTok
When searching “Bolsonaro” on TikTok, dozens of related hashtags appeared, including “bolsonaro2022” and its less popular counterpart “bolsonarocorrupt.” The total posts with the “Bolsonaro” tag have, collectively, more than five billion views. And, although TikTok has a delicate relationship with political content because of its moderation guidelines, Bolsonaro does not seem to be dividing opinions.
The platform appears to be on his side: the first 15 hashtags that pop up are either positive or neutral.
“Populist discourse is easy to understand and offers easy solutions,” says Veridiana Cordeiro, one of the lead researchers of Digital Sociology and Artificial Intelligence at the University of São Paulo. According to Cordeiro, millennials seek unconventional forms of political and civic engagement, and being active on social media is among them. “Flashy and performative posts are what bring adherence on social networks. Bolsonaro has managed to gain popularity with this type of political strategy.”.
Bolsonaro follows only four people on TikTok: Senator Flávio Bolsonaro who joined the platform last May and is known in Brazil as “son 01”; city councilor Carlos Bolsonaro who joined last October and is known as “son 02”; a Wolverine cosplay; and a Brazilian magician.
Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, “son 03”, does not have a TikTok profile and has even argued in favor of banning the app in Brazil.
Meanwhile, the president does not follow 23-year-old “son 04.” This is puzzling because Jair Renan was the first in his family to create a TikTok account, last March, and has the largest number of followers: almost 430,000. In his posts, he is an ardent proponent of his father’s politics.
“Not only Jair Renan, but the entire family fuels millennial authoritarianism,” explains Machado. Jair Renan’s half-brothers, Flávio and Carlos, also have their share of popular posts. Flávio regularly shows videos of Bolsonaro engaged in “cool activities” such as riding a sports car that belongs to the Federal Police and playing football with Arab sheiks.
Brazil has 160 million social media users, more than any other non-Asian country except the United States. Brazilians also score high in terms of time dedicated to social media, reaching almost 4 hours a day, behind the Philippines and Columbia, according to We Are Social.
The amount of time that Brazilians spend on social media has helped Bolsonaro in the past. In 2018, the year he won the election, the Supreme Electoral Court gave him only 48 seconds per week of unpaid electoral advertisements on public radio and television. Bolsonaro was affiliated with the Social Liberal Party, and, because of the party’s low representation rates, was granted less exposure time than his main opponents — lefist Fernando Haddad, from the Worker’s Party, and centrist Ciro Gomes, from the Democratic Labour Party.
As a result of these disadvantages on broadcast media, Bolsonaro took his presidential campaign to social media and won. He now has social media accounts in conservative social networks such as Gettr and Parler. In fact, he is the only world leader active on both outlier platforms.
These apps have grown rapidly in Brazil by promising a hands-off approach on censorship and the spread of misinformation. According to data company Sensor Tower, downloads of Gettr and Parler in Brazil are the second-highest of any country, just behind the United States.
Still, they are tiny compared to the number of Brazilians using Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, and the other major apps in Brazil. TikTok alone has almost 5 million users. Millennial authoritarianism, therefore, has become a crucial component of his re-election bid.
This puts Bolsonaro in something of a vice, says Issaaf Karhawi, a researcher at the the University of São Paulo specialized in social media. While hostile to the biggest social media platforms, he depends on them to mainstream his online engagement. Karhawi says that Bolsonaro and his family have built a social media juggernaut around themselves — a community that started with 8 million followers and that now, four years later, amounts to over 42 million, almost twice as many as his five main potential opponents in the upcoming election.
Bolsonaro’s brand of politics comes at an opportune time for capturing Brazil’s youth vote. Research suggests that millennials are disillusioned with liberal democracy and increasingly open to non-democratic forms of government. “Unlike their parents who experienced an authoritarian regime, millennials grew up in a democratic government and find themselves politically disillusioned and disengaged,” argues Cordeiro, the digital sociology expert at the University of São Paulo, who says the absence of a living memory of military dictatorship is decisive in Brazil.
Bolsonaro uses this “foggy memory” to push country-first, socially conservative, and ethnically majoritarian policies and posts and is able to leverage the divisiveness common to both social networks and populist politics. “If we continue to observe the prevalence of polarized attitudes among millennials, we can increasingly have fertile ground for populist policies,” Cordeiro said.
Fake news as a strategy
Discrediting legitimate media reports as “fake news” has been a central component of Bolsonaro’s administration. The president frequently encourages his supporters to follow him on his social media channels so he can bypass the press, control his image, and shape the political narrative around himself while disavowing democratic institutions.
He is also accused of spreading disinformation and misinformation. A Federal Police case is looking into the so-called “Office of Hate”: a pro-Bolsonaro online apparatus allegedly led by Bolsonaro’s sons and a group of young supporters committed to attacking government opponents and journalists.
In the congress, legislators have tried to find solutions, presenting at least 45 bills aimed at curbing the spread of fake news. The measures proposed are diverse. Some would allow users who share fake news to be prosecuted as criminals; and some pressure tech platforms to ban Bolsonaro, his family, and his supporters — similar to what happened with Trump in early 2021.
Aware of the possibility of losing his profiles on key social media channels, Bolsonaro is taking countermeasures of his own. In September 2021, he signed a decree forbidding social media platforms from banning users or taking down their content without a court order. It marked the first time social media companies had been stopped by a national government from taking down users’ content from their own platforms.
The decree was ruled unconstitutional just a few days later but it set Bolsonaro on a path to use all tools and maneuvers at his disposal to protect himself and his allies on social media.
The researcher also says that even though Bolsonaro has had a good run on social media, his strategy is dangerous. “When we see a president communicating almost exclusively on social media, we slowly observe a disavowal of democratic institutions, more specifically of the media, both traditional media and institutional or governmental media,” says Karhawi. “There is no such thing as an individual capable of embodying politics, the media and the truth.”
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