Brazil’s insurrection followed the extreme right playbook
In one of the countless violent videos spreading rapidly among Brazil’s social networks, a right-wing radical — with his face covered by a Brazilian flag — holds up what looks like the original copy of the country’s 1988 Constitution. Hundreds of people watch, and dozens film, as he flips through the pages of the recently acquired trophy, perhaps unaware that it’s just a copy, a fake. But the image is symbolic of the violent uprising in many ways: it spreads disinformation and it undermines a pact that ended 21 years of dictatorship. And it is being used to foment further attacks on Brazilian democracy.
In the months leading up to the country’s presidential election in October — in which, in a close runoff, Lula da Silva from the leftist Worker’s Party defeated the right-wing incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro — social networks were flooded with disinformation, calls in Portuguese to “Stop the Steal” and Bolsonaro’s insistence that the elections would be rigged.
On January 8, a week after Lula began his third term as Brazil’s president, followers of Bolsonaro took the country’s capital by storm. Frustrated right-wing radicals armed with weapons, flags, mobile phones and conspiracy theories occupied and destroyed the three pillars of the federal government in Brasília: the Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. They not only left a trail of destruction but also stole documents and hard drives, and destroyed artworks and infrastructure.
“There was no surprise at all, they [right-wing radicals] followed the extreme-right playbook, step by step. They are just pawns in a bigger game,” said researcher Michele Prado, an independent analyst who studies digital movements and the Brazilian far-right. According to Prado, people who stormed the capital were “domestic terrorists” moved by conspiracy theories that reject liberal democracy and its institutions. The researcher added that the group views violence as a legitimate response to what it wrongly perceives as a fraudulent election. Prado also called attention to how people were proud to take part in the invasion, boasting of their presence on social media and inviting others to join. “It raises their in-group status,” she said. “The more they perform on social media, the higher their ‘score’ before their peers, the more radicalized they become.”
Bolsonaro has always welcomed and incentivized radicalization. His so-called “Office of Hate” — a pro-Bolsonaro online apparatus known for attacking government opponents and journalists — and his supporters have a long record of spreading hate speech, fake news and disinformation online. But since he lost his re-election bid in a highly-anticipated runoff vote, tensions and accusations have taken on a tone of all-out denialism. This narrative has dominated B-38, a pro-Bolsonaro Telegram channel with military roots and more than 60,000 members. On the night Bolsonaro lost the runoff, before the results were even announced, a member of B-38 claimed that the Brazil Supreme Court’s vote-counting “algorithm” — no such thing exists — was stealing votes from Bolsonaro and giving them to Lula. An avalanche of baseless rumors about election fraud followed.
Refusing to accept defeat, Bolsonaro supporters blocked roads and camped out in front of the quarters of the Brazilian Armed Forces, calling for a military intervention. All of these efforts were orchestrated online. By the end of November, paid ads on Facebook and Instagram called for a military coup, spreading misinformation and disinformation about the elections. Despite this going against Meta’s content policies, Agência Pública, a Brazilian investigative journalism outlet, found that the ads were viewed more than 400,000 times. In December, lawmakers aligned with Bolsonaro began taking to the floor of Brazil’s Congress to call for a military coup and generate online engagement. These calls were broadcast on TV Senado, Brazil’s version of C-SPAN, and were viewed by more than two million people.
Bolsonaro’s international allies were also quick to respond to his defeat. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former strategist, had warned of a “stolen election” in the lead-up to polling day and promoted the hashtag #BrazilianSpring across his social media channels. On the day of the invasion of Brasília, Bannon applauded the insurrectionists, calling them “freedom fighters,” even as Bolsonaro himself was keeping a low profile. Bannon’s strategy worked. Some rioters were photographed holding up a banner demanding (in both English and Portuguese) the “source code” of the elections, a reference to the technology behind voting machines that right-wing figures like Bannon and Trump have accused of swinging the election.
Right-wing radicals and their puppeteers baptized the invasion as “Festa da Selma,” or, in English, “Selma’s Party.” The #FestadaSelma hashtag saw plenty of action on Twitter, where users tracked its popularity in southern Brazil and Miami, Florida. According to the Washington Post, Elon Musk recently fired nearly all of the company’s staff in Brazil, except for a few salespeople, leaving the country of 217 million people with virtually no staff dedicated to moderating content that incites violence in Brazil.
The term “Festa da Selma” began popping up on social media on January 5. It is a word play on “Festa da Selva,” which is a military war cry: organizers substituted the “v” for an “m,” perhaps in hopes of avoiding detection by Brazilian authorities or even by social media platforms. “A very common practice of [right-wing radicals] is to talk things over through codes, under the radar. They use codenames and words with modified spelling,” said Leonardo Nascimento, a professor at the Federal University of Bahia and a researcher at the Internet Lab, which monitors more than 500 extreme-right Telegram groups. Nascimento explained that on mainstream platforms, far-right individuals are more careful about the content they post and promote because they fear being banned. But the same caution does not apply to “low-moderation” platforms. The researcher said that Telegram’s architecture, built on groups and the diffusion of messages, makes it a relative safe haven for extremism.
Telegram took on a key role in Brazilian elections in 2021, when Bolsonaro’s more prominent family members created profiles and began to direct traffic from their other social networks to Telegram. “But the platform is just a vessel. The real center of disinformation isn’t Telegram itself, it’s YouTube and YouTube videos that circulate on Telegram,” said Nascimento. And then the safe haven was forced to dissolve, at least in part. In 2022, in anticipation of the highly contested elections ahead, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered the company to shut down select Telegram groups and remove election-related disinformation they had distributed. The aforementioned B-38 group was temporarily suspended shortly thereafter, presumably due to this decision.
The move made Bolsonaro and his supporters turn to other platforms in the far-right online ecosystem such as Gettr, Parler and CloudHub, but also to more ephemeral and privacy-intensive applications like Zello and Signal. Still, according to Nascimento, four days before “Selma’s Party,” Telegram messages were circulating among extreme-right groups advising followers on what to bring to demonstrations, how to behave on arrival and how to withstand tear gas. They also posted information about caravans and buses heading for Brasília.
“They [rioters] wanted to make it look spontaneous so people would believe [Selma’s Party] was a movement that worked on a certain degree of legitimacy, of popular demand,” said Viktor Chagas, a professor at Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro state who researches online far-right movements. Chagas contends that Brazil’s extreme-right is now in deep dispute over the identity of Bolsonarism. “The Bolsonaro supporters are losing cohesion. We have the ultraliberals, the monarchists, the gun owners, the neo-Pentecostals and other subgroups going from a process of high centralization in the figure of Bolsonaro to a high level of fragmentation with his defeat,” explained Chagas. “We now have a network that is much more dispersed and much more difficult to monitor.”
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