We may want to believe there is something fundamentally twisted or evil about a person who storms a seat of power in insurrection (and, honestly, there is). But any Brazilian with family and friends who have been radicalized over the past years know the deeply uncomfortable and more likely scenario is this: the supporters of Jair Bolsonaro who stormed Three Powers Square in Brazil on Jan. 8, 2022, were motivated by the same North Star that guides lower-case “d” democrats: a call to protect Brazilian democracy. That call was underpinned, in large part, by lies, hyper-partisanship, and hate. What may have started with conservatism and indignation at corruption and economic stagnation, evolved into radicalism and destruction. It did so because of a “quintessential effect of pervasive disinformation”—alternate realities.
Understanding that Brazil’s right-wing insurrectionists, like those in other countries, see reality through the lens of an entirely different telescope means understanding that we cannot only arrest or punish the perpetrators of the Jan. 8 crimes. We need to dismantle the telescope entirely. In Brazil’s case, this means addressing distrust, the cycle of borderless uncontested communication and master disinformation narratives, and the very business models of large social media companies that exacerbate the spread of disinformation by influencers that peddle lies and toxicity.
Disinformation is a symptom and byproduct of a broader crisis of trust. This crisis is underpinned by a swath of societal trends, including a shift away from consumption of reputable, traditional journalism, changing media consumption trends, and an oversaturation of irreputable, hyper-partisan “news” and content creators in online spaces that reward sensationalism and simple solutions to complex problems. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has certainly exacerbated an information ecosystem where disinformation thrives.
According to our work at Equis Research, most people do not believe everything they see online. Many are not sure whether false narratives are true or false. As noted in a survey that we conducted with 2,400 Latinos in the United States, those that do most often see and believe false information are the more politically engaged, partisan, affluent, and college-educated.
In effect, distrust must be tackled for the needle to move in any consequential way. A multi-country, multi-stakeholder, ecosystemic approach is necessary to combat uncontested communication circulating between countries. The violent attacks on Brazil’s National Congress, presidential palace and Supreme Federal Court did not happen in isolation—the disinformation that fomented these attacks are borderless, cyclical.
Today, members of these radical movements are talking to each other more than ever on social media. Following the riots on Jan. 8, some prominent right-wing actors and influencers in the U.S., in both English and Spanish, supported the actions and downplayed or justified them by spreading false claims of the Brazilian election being rigged or stolen. Tucker Carlson dedicated his recent opening monologue to the “defense of pro-Bolsonaro rioters.” The far-right news outlet, Gateway Pundit, which was a prominent spreader of 2020 election lies, put out multiple stories that claim the election in Brazil was stolen. Spanish-language influencers and accounts, many of which Equis tracks regularly, likewise hailed the rioters and their “fight against the communist mafia.”
Per Equis’ monitoring of false and misleading narratives circulating online, for months before the insurrection, Fox News segments also got co-opted and translated into Portuguese and spread on YouTube by Brazilian influencers; quotes from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni were used to justify the Brazilian brand of conservatism on Instagram; U.S. accounts celebrated Brazilian rioters immediately following the Oct. election, and Brazilians indignantly echoed “the Big Lie” to justify a false narrative about “communists” having stolen the 2022 election from under Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazilians who today reject the mainstream news in large part because of Bolsonaro’s influence get their news and information from places where uncontested communication lives in an echo-chamber. These places include YouTube, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, and TikTok. The content they see there circulates in right-wing spaces between the platforms, meaning localized action is not enough to make a difference.
A system based on regulation-forcing risk assessments that look at a range of online harms against a company’s business model, akin to what we are seeing in the European Union, is key. For years, information integrity scholars have looked at what drives some people to believe in lies and misleading narratives. While influence is anything but black and white, one thing is certain: The very business model of large social media companies rewards controversial infotainment, and the algorithms that underpin these models take people on rollercoaster rides of often false or highly misleading content.
Inconsistent applications of terms of service between countries and between content in different languages means non-English-language content at times stays up far longer than the English counterparts. Likewise, repeat offenders who post outright lies on social media often have arbitrary and inconsistent action taken against them, with very few being significantly or permanently punished. Malign actors are consequently adapting their tactics and tools to get around weak implementation. Self-regulation is no longer enough.
False and misleading information circulating in Brazilian spaces online are not solely to blame for the violent acts of destruction we saw playing out in Brazil this week. But they were a huge part of the groundswell that drove hundreds to lay siege on Brazil’s democratic institutions.
Many of the Bolsonaristas who lay ruin to Brazil’s highest democratic institutional buildings so deeply believed in a stolen election that no amount of name-calling, fact-checking, or even threat of legal punishment could deter. To them, President Lula was the criminal, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes was the censor, and the new administration was taking away their freedoms. Judging by their social media posts and online conversations, they saw themselves the patriots on a mission to save their country, and no amount of evidence to disprove “the steal” could convince them Brazil was not already under attack by socialist agitators.
What happens now in Brazil needs to be thoughtful and precise. Brazilian authorities must not only arrest the perpetrators, but focus on addressing the key factors that led to these events. This will not require a brand-new strategy—Brazil should take lessons learned from the U.S. experience with its Jan. 6 insurrection and work to address discontent and distrust, focus on uncontested communications, and look toward regulating problematic tech business models that still allow harmful content to circulate faster than it can be acted against.
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