Since Brazilians went to the polling stations on Oct 7 and massively vote for an extreme-right, military presidential candidate, the world has turned its attention to the man that became next president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly expressed misogynistic, homophobic, racist and militaristic views. His campaign was largely run in the social media by his fans, who are not shy of sharing fake news via WhatsApp, which turned out to be the go-to political weapon and is used by 120 million people in the country. His election strategy was centred on the lack of debate and the incentive of violence and incendiary speech, proved by more than 70 politically motivated violent attacks committed by Bolsonaro supporters in the past three weeks. Families and friends are divided and the online wars intensified in the days leading up to the presidential runoff on October 28th.
The "meme war" and fake news is again shaping the results of a presidential election. Everywhere, fake news attracts more attention on social networks than accurate information (a study from MIT found that false stories receive 70% more shares on Twitter than real ones). Deceitful posts on WhatsApp are sharing thousands of times and most of the people do not bother to check or care whether if those materials are true before re-sharing them. That was the case in Mexico and Sri Lanka recent elections, which were plagued with false claims widely shared on Facebook and WhatsApp. In Brazil, WhatsApp is the most accessible mode of communication, since mobile phone plans are very expensive (some companies offer data plans exclusively for social media). WhatsApp is adopted by business, news media and political campaign, making it even more popular and highly infiltrated within users social networks.
The high penetration of social networks and the rapid spread of rumours in WhatsApp, turned it into the perfect vehicle for Bolsonaro electoral campaign to disseminate their hate agenda. Incentives of acts of violence against opponents, intolerance against gays and other non-evangelical religions, misogyny and false claims against the opposition permeate the conversation in WhatsApp. There were more than 1500 pro-Bolsonaro groups on WhatsApp, against 147 groups pro-Haddad. For Bolsonaro's campaign, the formula was successful. The activism in the networks includes distorted speeches excluded from the formal political debate, and that quickly formed a militancy that every day reproduces deceitful material in the public and private groups in WhatsApp.
The chaos caused by the mix of lies and truths, fiction against reality is fed by the extreme right-wing candidate, as his campaign depends on this lack of debate to help to spread misinformation. A clear evidence of the lack of debate is that Bolsonaro refused to attend debates, probably because a debate would expose what the actually thinks. In the first round, he already said he would not take part in debate that would “damage” his campaign. He ended up missing debates because he suffered a knife attack, a consequence of the hate and violence him himself disseminates. This attack revealed the very ugly side of the presidential campaign – the intolerance and political violence. As he started to feel better and was discharged from hospital, he started giving exclusive hour-long interviews in news channels that openly support his campaign, such as Rede Record. Haddad invited Bolsonaro for debates several times but he refuse alleging it was against medical advice. Ultimately, Bolsonaro declared that he is not attending debates as part of his "strategy".
It is not mandatory for Brazilian presidential election candidates to participate in debates, but the 2018 elections has been marked by a lack of debate around the next president most controversial proposals, such as long-distance learning from all students in public school to curb "Marxist ideals, the opening of military schools, to allow citizens to carry weapons, lowering of the age of criminal responsibility, among other proposals that make little sense in terms of reducing criminality and expand social rights. It is not clear how those proposal would be implement, but the Bolsonaro has no interest in explaining them to those who would like to understand. Nevertheless, some of his fans are already behaving as if Bolsonaro already won, scaring minorities, telling students to spy on teachers, creating a sense that barbarism is on its way.
On the other hand, Haddad's campaign worked to expand the range of support to consolidate democracy. In comparison with Bolsonaro, his campaigning was more transparent, focused on the sharing of his proposals and the combat to fake news. Yet, misinformation flows free and fast and stop the spread of faking news has proved nearly impossible. Many voluntary groups, such as Comprova (Prove it) check the facts and publish their findings, but this new information not always reached voters on time, while more deceitful material is constantly produced and shared.
On October 18 the newspaper “Folha de Sao Paulo” reported that at least four companies paid to Massive Shoot messages at WhatsApp in support of Jair Bolsonaro and criticizing PT. The scale of the intervention of private companies is striking: according to the newspaper, the packages of mass messages reached the individual value of 12 million reais to send hundreds of millions of messages. Bolsonaro officially declared an expense of R $ 1.2 million (around U$D 3,2 Million) to the TSE in the entire campaign of the first round. The ceiling was $ 70 million per candidate in the first round. This no declared political campaign expenses are against the Brazilian electoral, which only allows for private business donations to electoral campaign and does not permit the use of third-party data for political campaign. Meanwhile TSE (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral) and the federal policy are investigating the allegations by Folha de Sao Paulo, Whatsapp has banned over 100,000 accounts associated with electoral spam. If the main elements of the report are confirmed, it means that several electoral irregularities were confirmed and that Bolsonaro’s candidacy may be removed from the electoral ballot. The results of this federal investigation may unfold in the next few weeks.
In many circles, Brazil used to be seen as a young but strong democracy, a "racial democracy", the birthplace of democratic innovations (such as participatory budget) and once the economic giant among the world's biggest economies. Bolsonaro nearly won the election in the first round and Haddad’s campaign was able to get 45% of the voters in the second rounds. As Bolsonaro big win was announced, Bolsonaro hardcore fans went to the streets to celebrate the president they say will “fix” Brazil. Meanwhile, Haddad’s voters went to social networks, such as Twitter, to share their fears and talk about the future resistance and opposition to Bolsonaro. It is not the first time that democracy is under threat in Brazil. The preoccupation with Brazil future is not an exaggeration: the consequences of Bolsonaro’s likely authoritarian government represents serious risks to human rights, environment and political freedoms.