Brazil’s incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro utilized populist rhetoric and disinformation to help win his 2018 election campaign. At the beginning of this month, Bolsonaro lost to former left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in their first round of voting by five percent and will face each other once again for the second round on October 30th. Ahead of an expected defeat, Bolsonaro has promised his many diehard supporters that the election results are fradulent if he does not win.
Bolsonaro made claims of voter fraud much before the initial October 2nd election. By equating his policy goals with an all-encompassing “voice of the people”, Bolsonaro can preemptively justify his denial of election results. If the results of the election go against his expectations, then they are not representing the people’s will. If the election does not represent the people’s will, then as a proper national leader Bolsonaro must stand against these fraudulent results. As Jan-Werner Müller points out in Why is Populism, populist politicians frequently use this type of circular logic to justify their otherwise dubious actions. Representing an unreadable entity like the singular voice of an intellectually diverse nation allows malicious populists to get away with infringements that other leaders would not attempt. To his diehard supporters, this whole ordeal seems like further evidence of his genuine skill and care as Brazil’s President.
While he and his party did better than expected from polling, Bolsonaro still lost to Lula by five points. His party, “The Liberal Party,” did impressively in its fight for congressional seats securing a combined 112-seat majority in the Lower House and Senate. The party still does not have enough seats to pass legislation on its own accord, but its performance still shattered the metrics predicted by experts. Even if the polls are right and Bolsonaro loses later this month, the right-wing populist wave will still be very much alive in Brazil.
Additionally, this widespread congressional support has led to the introduction of a bill that establishes prison sentences for polling places that do not accurately predict election results. This blatant anti-press and anti-freedom of speech legislation comes on top of already existing investigations by the antitrust regulator and Federal Police into possible election manipulation by pollster cartels. The Associated Press consulted multiple analysts on these efforts who described them as “senseless” and “an embarrassment.” These public efforts to delegitimize a Bolsonaro loss are unmistakable acts of democratic erosion. Or at the very least, attempts at such by a dangerous party and their figurehead.
Bolsonaros’ 2018 win came on the back of huge waves of online disinformation shared online through spaces like Facebook and, most notably, Whatsapp. 75% of Brazilians use the internet as their first or second choice for staying informed; fringe-candidate Bolsonaro and a series of increasingly partisan news websites used the public’s media consumption preferences to garner support for their populist-fueled agenda. These websites, along with public figures like Bolsonaros own son, frequently backed unsubstantiated stories throughout the election process. Bolsonaro supporters were told that traditional media was inflating the number of protestors at anti-Bolsonaro rallies and were fed videos wrongfully claiming to prove widespread fraud against Bolsonaro in Brazil’s voting machines.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Whatsapp is directly centered around direct messaging. You are more likely to believe something sent directly from a relative or close friend than a tweet posted by a nonbreathing institution or organization. These factually untrue stories were shared rapidly between voters on Whatsapp, much faster than is possible through traditional social media. The platform’s massive popularity in the country proved so valuable in Bolsonaro’s 2018 victory that parent-company Facebook limited the app’s mass-sharing capabilities in the country. Bolsonaro’s presidency has centered on lies and media manipulation since the very beginning. While more limited, Whatsapp and general disinformation remain important factors in the 2022 cycle. Populist leaders require either a docile press or complete control to ensure their narratives surrounding the people’s desires go substantially unchallenged.
Fact-checkers in Brazil remain vigilante, but have expressed that the top-down spread of disinformation could be outpacing them in the weeks leading up to the October 30th runoff. While fact-checking has been proven to be an effective weapon against disinformation, Bolsonaro and his supporters have repeatedly attacked renowned fact-checking body Aos Fatos for claims made against the incumbent. While his supporters have threatened use of the judicial system against them, Aos Fatos has already been forced into Brazilian court for fact-checking that was found to be a financial burden on Brazilian publication Revista Oeste. Whatsapp does not have native fact checkers because of its primary role as a messaging service, but these fact-checking bodies are an extremely important pro-democratic presence on other platforms. Bolsonaro and the Liberal Party have taken every available effort to both outpace these fact-checkers and turn their supporters against them. With the final vote for Brazil’s President just around the corner, Bolsonaros use of populist rhetoric, disinformation, and attacks against the press and media remain as serious as ever. In the event of a Bolsonaro loss, his highly vocal base will be easy to communicate with, manipulate, and mobilize.