The story of how Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, weaponized the internet starts before he took office. Candidates in Brazil are allotted broadcasting airtime proportionally to the number of seats in Congress of the party or coalition behind them. In 2016, the fringe coalition supporting Bolsonaro earned him eight seconds — other candidates had up to five minutes. The future president attended a single TV debate, where his performance was seen as dismal, and his campaign stopped touring after an attack on his life left him hospitalized.
All the while, his digital campaign was blazing. Bolsonaro credits his son, Carlos Bolsonaro, with a winning strategy that communicated his message directly to voters. His campaign went viral, particularly on WhatsApp, where it bombarded users and group chats with disinformation. After journalist Patrícia Campos Mello reported on automated and bulk messaging in support of Bolsonaro carried out by an undisclosed agency, his opponents went to court to have him disqualified for digital abuse. The Superior Electoral Court dismissed the claims, citing a lack of evidence implicating the campaign itself but noted that disinformation in that contest was “a well-known fact.”
Once inaugurated, Bolsonaro’s son Carlos acted as an informal press secretary. People who had run the digital campaign strategy were appointed to senior aide positions, forming what would be described as “the hate cabinet.” Whenever he faced pressure, Bolsonaro responded by utilizing both his automated networks and his official social media presence. The president is active on Twitter (with over 7 million followers), Facebook (10 million), Instagram (19 million), and YouTube (3.5 million).
When the pandemic hit Brazil, Bolsonaro mirrored former U.S. President Trump’s approach in downplaying the seriousness of Covid-19. He used social media to dismiss social distancing and to promote “alternative treatments,” including hydroxychloroquine. This culminated in the first time platforms removed his content; the videos promoting hydroxychloroquine were taken down by Twitter and Facebook. A year later, YouTube took down a recording of the president’s weekly livestreaming sessions and, more recently, reported having deleted 15 other videos for coronavirus disinformation. For months, Bolsonaro insisted that he and his supporters were unfairly targeted by social media platforms.
In September 2021, Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure that was signed on the eve of Brazil’s Independence Day. The legislation was premised on the notion that platforms should not be able to take down any legal content. It prevented social networks from moderating content without “just cause” (a loosely defined list mostly limited to illegal content) and required them to abide by due process when acting, including by offering appeal options to users.
That legislation proved short-lived; just over a week later, the Supreme Court enjoined it, roughly at the same time Congress rejected the provisional measure without advancing it for review. Most commentators noted that the proposed law omitted any action to combat mis- and disinformation. They reacted to the president’s own record of undermining the response to the pandemic in social media, as well as to his repeated claims that voting machines were rigged, despite his having no evidence to back these claims up. The latter claims are particularly concerning, given that Brazil has general elections coming up in 2022, when Bolsonaro will be up for reelection. The parallels with Donald Trump are clear, and many worry Bolsonaro will attempt a reenactment of the January 6 events at the U.S. Capitol if he loses the vote, as polls suggest seems likely. A poll in September found that 50% of Brazilians believed the president could attempt a coup.
Desperation is driving political institutions to reach for any weapons they can find against President Bolsonaro’s use of social media and messaging apps to repeatedly threaten them and disseminate false information on the pandemic. It is hard not to see the irony in left-leaning parties going to court to defend the rights of corporations to do business unencumbered by regulation. Even former president Lula’s Workers’ Party insisted in pleadings before the Supreme Court that regulation could not interfere with how “owners of social media” operated platforms. That knee-jerk reaction contradicted the stance the opposition and civil society have been endorsing for a while. In fact, those same actors are themselves pushing for regulation, which the platforms have consistently insisted is too costly and disruptive to their operation. Yet, in fighting off another undemocratic advance, the resistance to the president saw itself advocating the companies’ talking points, turning to any ally they could find.
One major missing element of the current debate is how these developments impact freedom of expression. Bolsonaro’s legislation entrusted the executive with oversight and enforcement. Considering how vague and controversial the categories of content listed under the legislation were, it would effectively enable the government to co-opt social media. Faced with the prospect of drastic consequences for noncompliance — including an effective ban on operations in Brazil — platforms would have an incentive to stay on the government’s good side and heed its view on what should or should not be available on social media. It should be shocking that freedom of expression was hardly even mentioned in public debate, by the media, or before the court. This glaring omission is telling of how incipient freedom of expression is in Brazil, where just recently a woman who cursed at the president as he drove by was questioned by the police (under orders from Bolsonaro himself) and is likely to face charges.
Despite the president’s rhetoric that he was standing for users’ free-speech rights, the legislation is a disaster for freedom of expression — effectively handing control of social media to the executive. It is farcical for the president to present himself as a champion for free speech. He had his administration pursue criminal prosecution against his critics under defamation provisions in the now-repealed National Security Law. His government took action against two public university professors who spoke against his coronavirus policies in an official university event. He has threatened to shut down newspapers. He repeatedly insults reporters. And, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, he has blocked at least 176 users on social media, preventing them from commenting on his posts to express their disapproval as well as from accessing official announcements he makes through his accounts.
In response to the actions of Bolsonaro’s “hate cabinet” to coerce individuals and destabilize institutions, Congress is promoting its own slate of speech-restrictive laws. These measures include tripling sentences for online defamation. A report by a senate inquiry on the government response to the pandemic calls for criminalizing false information and for mandating that social media providers require national IDs from users. A major draft regulation on online misinformation, with support from the opposition, the “fake news bill,” mandates that any instant message that goes viral must be traceable to a single user, compromising end-to-end encryption.
These responses run counter to international human rights standards, as promulgated by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, in reports from 2015, 2016, and 2021, particularly because of how they enable abuse and present risks to minorities.
Brazil was once hailed as a model for democratic internet regulation, with its 2014 Civil Framework of the Internet standing out in the Latin American region. Today, pressured to act to protect institutions from the very real risks posed by the president, Brazil’s polity is responding with measures that may ultimately prove even more harmful to the democratic order.