A truism for our times: a story doesn’t need to be factual to go viral. In June 2020, not long into the Covid-19 pandemic, an Instagram user shared a video of a mustachioed man wearing floral shorts and a cropped tank top, pouring himself some beer at a crowded bar in Santos, a coastal city in southeastern Brazil. According to the caption, the man was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization. He had apparently decided to break the quarantine by ditching his shoes and dancing to a forró song called “Já que me ensinou a beber” (Since You Taught Me to Drink).
Of course, it wasn’t the director of the WHO in the video, which was actually recorded before the start of the pandemic. Nonetheless it circulated as evidence of the hypocrisy of international health authorities, and news of it was translated into several languages. Last August I saw an updated version of the video: this time, Ghebreyesus had been “caught enjoying his vacation in Brazil and spreading monkeypox.” So much homophobia and moral outrage in such a short phrase.
Brazilians, like many others around the world, have been exposed to a deluge of fake news and social media hoaxes over the past few years. Again and again we have been pushed toward radicalization, tribalism, and conspiracy. In this light, the results of the presidential election held in October are not surprising: the center-left candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, did prevail, but it was an alarmingly tight race against the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, who led a catastrophically irresponsible administration. The race went to a runoff, which Lula won with 50.9 percent of the vote. Despite refusing to implement measures scientifically proven to mitigate the spread of the virus, leading to over 695,000 Covid deaths in the past three years, Bolsonaro still enjoys enormous support in much of the country.
Indeed, on January 8 thousands of his supporters marched to the federal government buildings in Brasília. They proceeded—in an echo of the January 6, 2021, attempted coup at the US Capitol, and with the same baseless claims of election fraud—to invade and ransack the National Congress building, the Supreme Federal Court, and the presidential palace. (After an insufficient initial reaction, the police managed to reclaim the three buildings.)
In the October election the far right tightened its grip on both houses of Congress. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party won ninety-nine seats in the 513-member lower house—an increase of twenty-two—and a coalition of right-leaning parties now controls half the chamber. In the Senate, the Liberal Party won eight of the twenty-seven seats in dispute. Four of the new senators, who will be in office for the next eight years, are Bolsonaro’s former ministers; Hamilton Mourão, his former vice-president and a retired army general, also won a seat. Bolsonaro’s close allies and former high officials have also been elected governors of major states such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In total he helped to elect fourteen governors of Brazil’s twenty-seven federative units.
These are not ordinary conservatives. They are extremist politicians who seem to celebrate the period of brutal military dictatorship, when, beginning in 1964, the military dissolved Congress, suspended constitutional rights, and imposed extensive censorship; democracy was not restored until 1985. They claim that the great mistake of the military regime was “to torture but not kill,” as Bolsonaro himself declared in 2016.
Many of these right-wing figures are not ashamed to call for a new military intervention in the government. They follow a leader who advocated for the death penalty and sought impunity for police officers who murder alleged lawbreakers. And they still panic, or at least perform panic, over the threat of Communists, who will supposedly confiscate their property, turn their children into homosexuals and drug addicts, and convince all women to stop shaving their armpits. “They want a single bathroom for boys and girls,” a conservative woman in her seventies told me in December when I visited a pro-Bolsonaro campsite in São Paulo. She was one of the thousands of far-right extremists who spent two months after the vote lodged in front of military barracks around the country demanding a coup.
Over the past decade the country’s center-right has steadily collapsed. Bolsonaro’s radical vision has ascended. What remained of other centrist democratic parties gathered around Lula, but even that broad front was nearly defeated. Lula’s return to the presidency is a profound relief. All the same, the election results were shocking.
Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, with more than 215 million people and the highest GDP in the region. Historically, it has been conservative and majority-Catholic, with a stratified and hierarchical society. Brazil was the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Today 60 percent of the population is against the legalization of abortion.
The Portuguese arrived in 1500 and ruled until 1822, when Emperor Pedro I established a Brazilian monarchy. In 1889 the military worked with large landholders to create a republican government. The presidents of the First Republic were backed by the wealthy coffee and dairy oligarchs in fecund states like São Paulo and Minas Gerais, and ruled until 1930, when Brazilians revolted after the assassination of João Pessoa, a vice-presidential candidate in that year’s election. The military swiftly staged a coup and handed power to the populist dictator Getúlio Vargas, who governed until 1945, when he was deposed in another military coup.
Vargas returned in 1951 but in 1954 was again threatened by the military (and discredited after one of his bodyguards attempted to assassinate a political opponent); then he shot himself. The next elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek, built a new capital, Brasília, and ruled until 1961, when the conservative Jânio Quadros was elected under an anticorruption banner. But Quadros resigned after seven months in office. He was succeeded by the left-wing reformist João Goulart, a member of the Brazilian Labor Party who had served as vice-president under both Kubitschek and Quadros.
Goulart was deposed in the 1964 coup. The military dictatorship, backed by the United States, seized power, claiming it would save the country from the (vastly overblown) threat of communism. In the two dark decades that followed, five generals took turns as president. The regime tortured approximately 20,000 people and killed or “disappeared” more than four hundred.
The government at last returned to civilian control in 1985, after a complex redemocratization process during which the old military regime’s main opposition groups consolidated into political parties. They have been succeeding one another in the presidency ever since. In her recent book O ovo da serpente (The Serpent’s Egg, 2022), the Brazilian journalist Consuelo Dieguez offers an excellent synthesis of our recent history, one deeply informed by her interview with the Brazilian economist Eduardo Giannetti. In the late 1980s the first of these opposition groups, the center-right PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro), solidified Brazil’s young democracy by organizing and putting into place a new constitution. Ulysses Guimarães and José Sarney were the PMDB’s main leaders.
The second group, the more centrist PSDB (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira), formed in 1988, managed to stabilize the economy and end inflation. One of its leaders was the sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who governed the country from 1995 to 2002. The last group, the center-left PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party), led by Lula from 2003 to 2010 and then by Dilma Rousseff from 2011 to 2016, pursued macroeconomic balance and bolder income-distribution policies. Millions of Brazilians were lifted from poverty. Lula’s government implemented a pioneering program of monthly cash allowances to the poor called Bolsa Família, which also contributed to advances in children’s schooling, nutrition, and health care.
This steady progress was marred by corruption scandals and the economic crisis in the 2010s. Brazilians began to feel dissatisfied. In 2013 an estimated one million people took to the streets, demanding everything from free public transportation to the end of endemic corruption. Multiple groups rose up, on the left and the right. In 2016 Rousseff was impeached and removed from office by a largely conservative legislature on vague charges of manipulating the federal budget to conceal evidence of economic shortcomings. It was, in fact, a congressional coup to oust a very unpopular president.
Lula was considered a front-runner in the 2018 presidential election, but he was deemed ineligible to participate after he was arrested on money-laundering and corruption charges. He spent 580 days in prison. In 2021 the Supreme Federal Court nullified the convictions, declaring that the trial was faulty and the judge biased. (Sergio Moro, the crusading young judge who presided over Lula’s trial, later served as Bolsonaro’s minister of justice and public security.)
Bolsonaro, a sixty-three-year-old retired army captain, emerged from the depths of Congress, where he had served in relative obscurity for twenty-seven years, to speak to those nostalgic for the military era. Born in the countryside of São Paulo, he served briefly in the army’s parachute brigade. He was considered a “bad military man” by the former president General Ernesto Geisel. After being imprisoned for insubordination, he left the armed forces and launched a political career in Rio de Janeiro.
Bolsonaro is a self-declared homophobe. He once told a congresswoman that he would never rape her because she didn’t “deserve it.” After his decades in Congress he ran for president with a promise to drag the country back into the past if elected. In 2018—while Lula was still imprisoned—Bolsonaro defeated Fernando Haddad of the PT with 55.1 percent of the vote.
How did Bolsonaro stage this ascendance? And how has the Brazilian center-right been so totally overrun? In The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World (2022), the New York Times reporter Max Fisher begins to answer that question. In a chapter on the political situation in Brazil over the past few years, Fisher correctly notes that the political establishment had rejected Bolsonaro for decades because of his fanatical positions, misogyny, and hate speech. “But that attention-grabbing behavior performed well online,” Fisher notes, with social media channels such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and particularly YouTube responsible for the upsurge in Bolsonaro’s popularity. I especially appreciated a comment from Brian Winter, the editor of Americas Quarterly, who visited Bolsonaro’s office before the 2018 election. All eight staffers were “doing social media the entire time I was there,” he said. “There was no legislative work being done.”
Fisher explains how social media platforms are designed to provide users with more and more divisive content, driving them into “self-reinforcing echo chambers of extremism” in order to retain their attention and increase engagement time. A 2019 internal Facebook report on hate and misinformation found “compelling evidence that our core product mechanics, such as virality, recommendations, and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part of why these types of speech flourish on the platform.” Fisher’s book is not specific to Brazil, but the populous, diverse country offers a laboratory for his thesis.
Fisher draws on his field research to argue that YouTube not only created an online fringe community but also radicalized Brazil’s entire conservative movement, displacing traditional right-wing politics almost completely. The results of the October election corroborate this. The PSDB, which once was one of the strongest political forces in the country, is now virtually dead.
I have followed many right-wing groups on social media for The New York Times and piauí, a monthly Brazilian magazine, trying to make sense of these changes. I’ve been submerged in racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and violent discussions. (“Nobody in the past hundred years has done more for peace than Adolf Hitler,” I read in a Brazilian chat group with over 4,500 members.) I’ve heard endless refutations of science and epidemiology. Social media has let opinions that long lurked in the ugly political fringes bask in the open.
In this historically violent and unequal country we feel that there is a void in the democratic field, that political rationality has been disappearing before our eyes. This void can be explained by the conversion of a large group of voters to autocratic extremisms with conspiratorial outlooks.
“I think even fake news is valid, with all due respect,” Bolsonaro said in a radio interview in 2018, months before that year’s election. Three years later, as president of the country, he declared: “Fake news is part of our lives.” And: “The Internet is a success.” He had just been granted a special communication award from his own Ministry of Communications (which kind of sums up our situation).
From the beginning of his presidency Bolsonaro tried to undermine the credibility of Brazil’s media and the Supreme Federal Court, institutions necessary for rational balance in our democracy and capable of constraining his totalitarian impulses. He also worked hard to disparage Brazil’s electronic voting machines—the same ones on which he was elected. In July 2022, for example, he called dozens of foreign diplomats to the presidential palace to discredit the country’s voting system, lecturing from a baseless and bizarre PowerPoint presentation. After he finished there was an embarrassing silence from the audience, followed by timid applause from the president’s cabinet members.
Apparently the main goal of Bolsonaro’s right is to promote a flood of disinformation to keep people disoriented and angry, spreading distrust. A (provisional) list of institutions vilified on Brazilian Telegram by the far right includes the United Nations, UNESCO, the WHO, the Supreme Federal Court, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, the Health Regulatory Agency, NASA, the mainstream media, fact-checking organizations, Pope Francis, heliocentrism, stars, dinosaurs (they never existed), pollsters, and padded bras.
On Telegram, a messaging service that supports groups of up to 200,000 members and channels with an unlimited number of subscribers, a kind of moral and epistemological free-for-all has been reigning for years. YouTube videos are often among the most shared posts on the platform. According to Digital Democracy Room, a project run by the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian think tank and higher education institution, YouTube videos accounted for eight of the top ten major links shared on Telegram in August. These are often videos from right-wing influencers who spread misinformation about their political enemies to keep their base inflamed.
It took me a while to absorb the terminology used by members of these communities. People who trust vaccines are called aceitacionistas (a neologism to describe people who accept things without questioning). Those of us who received Covid shots are “hybrids” who have been “zombified.” LGBTQ people are “people with inverted poles.” I have browsed through a Telegram dating group exclusive to single heterosexuals “with a 100 percent uncorrupted DNA,” which means those who have gotten no Covid vaccinations and never submitted to PCR tests. The main goal is to “date, marry, and procreate.”
Despite exhaustive efforts from fact-checking agencies and the WHO, these groups continue spreading old falsehoods claiming that Covid vaccines contain microchips, nanoparticles, graphene oxide, quantum dots, and parasites activated by electromagnetic impulses. According to them, vaccines can carry HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), make coins stick to our arms, and give us the ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks or pair with Bluetooth devices. From these groups I have also learned of “vaccine shedding,” which occurs when a vaccinated individual stands near someone “with pure DNA,” sometimes fatally contaminating them. Members still apparently believe in hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as Covid treatments, while denying effective mitigations like masking and social distancing.
Their rhetoric is so absurd that, after many turns of the screw, it almost becomes a work of art. My favorite channel is the completely insane “Desmagnetizado” (Demagnetized), which has over 11,000 subscribers and headlines such as “Zombified Hybrids Interacting with 5G” and “Explosive Zombified People.” The following is a description of a video that I did not watch: “A male synthetic organism was walking down the street when it came across an evil 5G entity. The biological entity had taken the third dose of the vaccine and its graphene nano-bot system was revved up.”
Here is an example of a fake headline that caused moral outrage on a Brazilian Telegram channel: “UNICEF Suggests That Pornography May Be Good for Children.” On a YouTube channel, a similar assertion aroused the wrath of its members: “They want to pass a pro-incest law.” (“They” are obviously the Satan-worshiping, pedophilic left.) Made-up stories like these are designed to set off tribal defense instincts among groups that feel they are threatened, creating a climate of “us versus them.”
There are many who share fake news unwittingly, and there are those who exploit this vulnerability. Rodrigo Nunes, a philosophy professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, explains that the new Brazilian far right can be seen as an entrepreneurial movement, with politicians carving out a niche market for the high demand of frustrated citizens. In his essay collection Do transe à vertigem (From Trance to Vertigo, 2022), Nunes discusses the resentment among the Brazilian petty bourgeoisie, who feel aggrieved by a “cultural elite” that masters intellectual codes, a “social elite” that has connections, and an “economic elite” that holds the wealth. On the other hand, they also feel the threat of losing their markers of dominance: exclusive access to services such as international travel and paid domestic work. Meanwhile, Nunes writes, sensing new market demands, hundreds of “bankrupt businessmen, decadent rock stars, failed actors, journalists of dubious reputation, sub-celebrity ‘activists,’ struggling traders, mediocre life coaches, police and military officers looking to supplement their income” have found an opportunity for a new career. They began to identify themselves as conservative and patriotic agitators, often entering mainstream politics. Look at Nikolas Ferreira, a twenty-six-year-old evangelical TikTok star who received nearly 1.5 million votes in his run for a seat in Congress.
We are trapped in a vicious cycle: moral outrage and threats to status produce stronger group affiliations, which are then exploited by politicians who profit from this division and further incentivize it. It can be a short climb from here to autocracy. As noted in the 2022 Democracy Report published by the V-Dem Institute, a research group based in Sweden that tracks the state of democracy around the world, “Once political elites and their followers no longer believe that political opponents are legitimate and deserve equal respect, democratic norms and rules can be set aside to ‘save the nation.’”
The race between Lula and Bolsonaro was, seen from this perspective, a momentous crossroads: Brazil could either keep sliding toward a democratic rupture or reverse course.
The political scientist Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the School of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation and a columnist for Americas Quarterly, argues that to sink a democratic system an authoritarian leader in most cases needs to be reelected at least once. This is because, first, the dismantling of institutions usually takes time. Reducing legislative and judicial independence might require, for example, multiple opportunities to nominate ideologically aligned judges. Second, reelection represents both a moral boost for the authoritarian leader and a strong letdown for the opposition and civil society.
Bolsonaro’s own tactics mixed a violent and morally righteous discourse with a generous dash of militarism. In 2019 around a third of his cabinet was made up of retired or active-duty military personnel, with many more in crucial government positions. While in power Bolsonaro helped to dismantle environmental agencies, increasing the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. Each year he was in office, hundreds of indigenous people were murdered. He signed over a dozen decrees loosening restrictions on civilian gun ownership; as a result, the number of privately owned weapons rose to 1.9 million in 2022, up from 695,000 in 2018.
Luckily, we’ll never know what he had in mind for a second term, but his next step at least was clear: to eliminate the opposition from the judiciary. He appointed two hard-right justices to the Supreme Federal Court. Had he won, he would have appointed two more to fill this year’s vacancies. (There are eleven members of the court.) The Supreme Federal Court and the Superior Electoral Court were a strong check on Bolsonaro; in 2022, for instance, they ordered social networks to remove antidemocratic posts spreading disinformation about the electoral system. They also issued an arrest warrant for a right-wing congressman for inciting both a coup and violence against the judges. (Bolsonaro pardoned him the next day.)
Most importantly, the judiciary has been conducting investigations to identify the groups responsible for funding and spreading misinformation and propaganda in the country. The evidence points to an orchestrated scheme that fabricates and broadcasts disinformation on social networks for “ideological, party-political, and financial gains.” This so-called cabinet of hate is allegedly composed of Bolsonaro’s closest allies, his special aides, and members of his family. Carlos Bolsonaro, one of the former president’s sons and a Rio de Janeiro city councilman, has been identified as a central player in the scheme. The former president himself is being investigated for his “direct and relevant role” in spreading disinformation. (They all deny the accusations.)
Now the federal police are working to identify the January 8 rioters and their financial sponsors, and a Supreme Federal Court judge approved a request from prosecutors to include Bolsonaro in the investigation. Around 1,500 people have been detained so far in relation to January 8—two hundred during the attacks on government buildings and others at the pro-Bolsonaro camp in Brasília—on charges of terrorism, criminal association, attacks on the democratic rule of law, coup d’état, persecution, and inciting crime. There’s nothing left of the campsite in São Paulo that I visited in December.
Bolsonaro’s electoral defeat means respite for Brazilians from his endless promotion of conspiracy theories. Lula’s victory was only possible because democratic forces from many points on the political spectrum united to block the country’s descent into the old depths of totalitarianism. This means that Lula will have to share power with a broad-based coalition whose interests are quite varied.
But it also means that there will be no place anymore for antiscientific discourse in the fight against Covid and other illnesses, including polio and tuberculosis; we desperately need to restore the excellent vaccination coverage for childhood diseases that we had in the not-so-distant past. Lula has promised to address the urgency of food deprivation and hunger, which affect 33 million Brazilians (an increase of 57 percent from December 2020). And with Marina Silva as minister of the environment and climate change and Sônia Guajajara in the newly created Ministry of Indigenous People, there is also great hope for the Amazon rainforest. It is perhaps here that Lula’s election matters most to the planet.
Still, we are at a fragile moment. All the components that enabled Bolsonaro’s rise are still in place. As two Democratic members of the US Congress, Tom Malinowski and Anna Eshoo, wrote in a letter to the CEOs of Google and YouTube, it would take eliminating “the fundamental problem” of algorithms that reinforce users’ existing biases—“especially those rooted in anger, anxiety, and fear”—to curb this toxic polarization.
Facebook, according to internal documents quoted by Fisher, knew by April 2021 that their algorithms “were boosting dangerous misinformation, that they could have stemmed the problem dramatically with the flip of a switch, and that they refused to do so for fear of hurting traffic.” The company’s researchers had found that “serial reshares” were likelier to be false, but the algorithm, measuring them for potential virality, artificially boosted their reach anyway. “Simply turning off this boost,” the researchers found, “would curb Covid-related misinformation by up to 38 percent.” This would be an important step to amend political fracturing in Brazil and elsewhere. After all, despite the results of the last presidential election, extremism on the Brazilian far right has not been defeated.
The day after the election, my four-year-old daughter returned from preschool telling me about a heated bathroom scuffle. A little boy shouted that President-elect Lula was a thief. My daughter and her classmate yelled back at him, “He is not! He is not!” A commotion followed. Luckily, discussions in the preschool bathroom are not intensified by an exploitative algorithm, and before long the children were on speaking terms again.
Lula was inaugurated on the first day of the year, but liberals should not presume that almost half of the population has returned to their senses now that the sensible guy is back in office. It is still up to Brazilians to set their country on a more democratic, less ludicrous course.
—January 26, 2023