“His campaign was shot from his home, shared as a Facebook Live transmission, as well as his first press conference – where big news agencies were not allowed to participate.”
Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil is just part of a new entangled reality that not everybody wants to know about.
Long before the final results of the presidential election in Brazil, much had already been said about the threat of a far-right populist becoming president of what was once a promising developing country. A deep identity and economical crisis tore Brazil into a polarization that elected Jair Bolsonaro, who took advantage of the ideal environment for his WhatsApp based campaign, which included “God above all things” sloganed on pictures of the candidate pointing imaginary guns. In the era of fast, uncontrolled content sharing through the internet, how long will society deal with this populist trend of using technology and social media to confuse and win over people?
Social media did it again
WhatsApp is a freeware messaging app that worked initially like an internet based SMS service, and nowadays its features have expanded, similar to other messaging apps. The service was created in 2009 by two former Yahoo! Employees, then acquired by Facebook in 2014 by US$ 19 billion. With more than 1 billion users in the world, WhatsApp is one of the most popular messaging app in Brazil, with 120 million users, India and Russia, for example.
Brazilians are very social in real and virtual life, and participate in several WhatsApp groups simultaneously. There are groups for the family, extended family, work or old school colleagues, friends, all female or male group chats, parents of children in the same class or school, and any other possible association of people that share common interests. It has always been known that literally all sorts of content are shared in these groups – from cute good mornings and birthday wishes to pornography and bloody crime scenes, particularly in chats populated by people that have little familiarity with internet tools.
Bolsonaro did not spend much time participating in debates or campaigning with supporters, rather, his candidacy ran its own course by delivering simple, punching messages like ‘let’s clean up this mess’ and responding to critics against him with the argument that ‘it is simply not true’ or the author ‘does not know what he/she is talking about’. WhatsApp was a central channel for the dissemination of Bolsonaro’s campaign: user databases were used to pop up group chats and it was later proven that supporter owned companies paid for mass distribution of messages. In addition, an army of fake social media profiles, as known as bots, commented extensively in defense of Bolsonaro even in unrelated posts.
Women were key actors against the sexist comments spread by Bolsonaro. They used social media as an ally, gathering more than 3 million members in a single Facebook group to discuss protests, news, share their stories, frustrations and how they convinced others not to vote in Bolsonaro. The latter generated the “turning votes” movement, where ordinary people became activists and tried diverse strategies to approach the undecided voters and talk to them about Fernando Haddad’s proposals, despite the corruption charges that stains any association with his Workers Party.
What’s what? Firehosing and the simple man of the people
This year’s presidential election differed drastically from the one only four years ago. This difference can in large part be attributed to technological development and increased internet access for the population: most Brazilian mobile operators offer unlimited social media usage free of charge for prepaid and monthly plan subscribers.
The exponential growth of internet access and novelties has bypassed formal regulations and ethical standards for communications. The outcome of the Brazilian election was then a “war of memes” between the supporters of the most voted candidates, topped by discussions about the corruption charges of the Workers Party versus the empty, violent and conservative discourse of Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro’s statements before and after becoming president-elect have always been controversial, but a pattern that was observed since his campaign has been identified as firehosing. Firehosing is a propaganda approach that consists in oversharing content with partial truths that, like the metaphor of the name indicates, prevents the audience to recognize what is real or not due to the high volume of information coming from all around.
The recent concept appeared in 2016 in the article The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model, conducted by the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corporation, a US nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. It describes how Soviet techniques used in the Cold War have been adapted to the new technologies and other means of communication to influence political scenarios not only in Russia, but also during the campaign for Trump, the Brexit, and more recently, Duterte’s propaganda in the Philippines.
A severe consequence is that Bolsonaro’s voters believe less and less in the conventional media or anyone that does not share their views, no matter if they are specialists, intellectuals, or celebrities. When international papers or artists expressed that they were against Bolsonaro being president, his supporters allegedly said that foreigners are not aware of the country’s reality, since they don’t live there and don’t share Brazil’s everyday struggles.
Bolsonaro’s proximity to the masses is another well-used strategy to create a strong sense of identity and belonging. His campaign was shot from his home, shared as a Facebook Live transmission, as well as his first press conference – where big news agencies were not allowed to participate. The casual, homemade environment provides an unprecedented presidential simplicity that matches the hopes of those who voted for him against corruption above all things. However, as the newly announced ministers are taking office, many already find themselves responding to serious corruption charges. It is, perhaps, an early indication of the controversies and contradictions that will be found in the pillars holding the ‘new’ presidential era.
As time goes by, questions and dilemmas grow with the challenges of the new technologies and how the internet has been used to both educate and confuse. In Europe, the implementation of the GDPR is a start concerning the privacy of data, but due to the recent social media impact in the political happenings, there is an avalanche of factors that deserve urgent attention. Still, how to approach such a global and broad cause? How can governments, institutions, organizations and society work together to improve the ways we use and regulate the internet? Moreover, from a Brazilian perspective, when or where does it start to be illegal to take advantage of databases to influence the public? How to communicate under ethical terms instead of spreading cognitive dystopia? It’s complicated to be aware of the truth when the internet is a firehose itself.