In 2022, Brazil's Bolsonaro disinformation machine challenges a growing number of skeptics

There is a repressed demand for fact-based public policies from Brazilians who are tired of extremists, climate deniers and anti-science charlatanism.

By Tai Nalon

Making politics in Brazil in 2022 demands knowledge of how to manipulate social platforms and flood them with information that makes up a convincing narrative that the country is doing badly because of a convenient enemy.

For the radical right-wing group elected in 2018 led by President Jair Bolsonaro, the opponent could be the pandemic, globalism, communism, the new world order, the woke movement, or the judiciary.

Bolsonaro's entourage operates a disinformation machine capable of engaging between 10% and 20% of Brazilians — even if they do not share all of these radical values defended by the government. If these supporters are not fully convinced by the official propaganda that, for example, getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is bad, they can easily be convinced that Bolsonaro is successful in fighting corruption. He's not, but this argument is only plausible because a network of influence that encompasses official profiles of politicians, YouTube channels, and radio and TV networks operates in coordination, financed by an unknown amount of money.

Brazil's government propaganda currently depends mostly on groups on WhatsApp — the most popular messaging app in Brazil — and channels on Telegram. However, it is easy to find on both apps a large number of links to other platforms, such as YouTube videos, screenshots of politicians' tweets, and outrageous text messages from Facebook groups. In other words, if just one platform refrains from fighting disinformation on their Portuguese-language services, it can end up damaging other networks' information ecosystem.

Most of them also benefit from the emotional engagement these subjects drive, either by inflating their audience numbers or improving their algorithm's behavioral predictions.

It is precisely this hypertrophied dependence on social media that limits the lexicon of the far right and makes it predictable enough to be controlled. Those subjects range in a vicious cycle between the exaltation of masculinity, fascist nostalgia and conspiracy paranoia. Official disinformation operators are capable of generating so many falsehoods that they end up creating a sense of narrative homogeneity and, ultimately, a parallel perception of factual reality.

This also generates a depressing phenomenon in which the president of Brazil publicly extols false information while getting informed through it. More than three years after the beginning of his term, Bolsonaro surrounds himself with assistants who not only share, but also believe in false information, and advise him based on a pure lie.

The president has a fundamental role in this publicity structure. A systematic investigation by Aos Fatos pointed out that, as of March 21, 2022, Bolsonaro had made at least 5,084 false or misleading statements since the beginning of his term. Reproduced by official channels and even by professional journalism, these public speeches are daily polished and edited so that their messages penetrate the government’s communication systems — Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram — and find resonance among the public.

Aos Fatos has a group of 14 journalists — including reporters, editors, linguists and data scientists — who deal daily with political misinformation. Although there is a consistent effort to monitor falsehoods from all ideological leanings, the team at Aos Fatos is mostly occupied with dismantling far-right lies. This happens because the Bolsonarista disinformation agenda occupies a disproportionate space on social media.

Bolsonaro reacts so poorly when vexed that, on Feb. 23, he made one of his most aggressive attacks against fact-checking outlets. He said that fact-checkers who eventually point out false information about fraud in this year's presidential elections are acting against liberty.

"Usually, it is the Chief Executive who seeks to put an end to freedom and impose an authoritarian regime. Here, it is exactly the opposite. Here it is the Chief Executive who resists the scrutiny of fact-checking agencies and absurd arbitrariness," he said.

However, there are good reasons to keep working. Brazil enters a new electoral cycle with citizens that are more skeptical of Bolsonaro's lies. According to the Datafolha Institute, 60% of Brazilians say they don't trust anything the president says, compared to 13% who say they believe him. In this environment divided by hatred, having a growing number of citizens who reject lying as a political weapon is comforting.

Whoever wins the October elections should understand that there is a repressed demand for fact-based public policies from Brazilians who are tired of extremists, climate deniers and anti-science charlatanism.