In Brazil, memes are akin to a second language: The humorous and sociable traits of Brazilian culture flow especially smoothly into the digital environment. In recent years, private and public institutions, including universities and government agencies, have adopted memes as a form of communication. Memes also helped bring President Jair Bolsonaro to power. The mass circulation of populist memes from Bolsonaro and his supporters, especially on WhatsApp and Twitter, helped shape a favorable image of the candidate during the 2018 presidential elections and paved the way for his ascension. But now, as Brazil sinks deeper into multiple crises, politicized memes are being turned against the president.

BolsoFlix, an online platform created at the beginning of this year, aggregates meme-style videos to showcase “the disaster that this government is,” an anonymous spokesperson told Rest of World. The group works anonymously as a security precaution, as critics of Bolsonaro’s government are often harassed. According to the group, satirical memes are a “less intimidating” way of talking about political problems with “a significant portion of the population,” especially non-politicized youth and undecided voters.

Memes enable millions of Brazilians to share opinions about political issues on a daily basis. On TikTok, there has recently been an explosion of meme videos with citizens showing their satirical impressions on the rising prices of food and fuel in the country. One, for example, shows a man at a gas station paying 10 reais ($1.81) to refuel his motorcycle and, in turn, getting the equivalent of a small syringe of gasoline. 

Two characteristics make Brazil one of the leading countries in meme production: the popular use of images for communication and the active use of social media, said Daniela Garrossini, technopolitics researcher and professor in the design department at the Arts Institute at University of Brasília. Research shows that Brazilian internet users spend almost four hours on social media daily. Combined, these elements “make room for voices that aren’t usually heard” in politics, Garrossini added. 

A series of meme-style videos satirizing the current economic crisis in the country, created anonymously, have been circulating widely across the Brazilian media under #BolsoCaro (caro means “expensive” in Portuguese). This hashtag was used at least 68,000 times on Twitter until last March, and one of the most watched videos, which criticizes the price of cooking gas among other financial issues in Brazil, received a total of 1.5 million views on the platform. One video was shared by celebrities like Anitta, the famous Brazilian singer, who alone influenced nearly 695,000 people to watch it. And a wall poster version hit the streets of São Paulo.

Brazilians are also using memes to counter fake news and antidemocratic discourse. This is particularly important for the citizens, as it’s estimated that Bolsonaro gave 1,682 false or misleading statements in 2020 alone. According to the latest report from V-Dem Institute, over the past decade, Brazil has slid toward autocracy at a rate surpassed by only three other countries.

Currently, Bolsonaro’s popularity on the internet, which was high in 2018, is in a downward spiral. His government is now rejected by around 53% of the population and approved by only 22%, the worst result since polls began. The mass circulation of memes satirizing or criticizing Bolsonaro probably wasn’t the determining factor but may have influenced this drop in popularity , said Fábio Goveia, professor in the social communication department and coordinator of the Laboratory of Image and Cyberculture Studies at Federal University of Espírito Santo.

However, there’s a dilemma. While memes may help deconstruct the image and narratives used by Bolsonaro, they can also end up reinforcing stereotypes and antidemocratic ideas, said Viktor Chagas, professor of media and cultural studies at Fluminense Federal University. “We normally treat the action of sharing a meme as something banal, unimportant, when it’s actually full of meaning,” he said. 

Garrossini warned that although memes are adding multiple voices and ideologies to the political debate in Brazil, this may not necessarily result in real democracy. In addition, because of memes’ capacity to go viral and spread misinformation, they can have unpredictable and potentially harmful consequences. 

Goveia said that memes are more likely to go viral when they critique the status quo. That’s essentially how memes helped boost Bolsonaro’s popularity in 2018, when he was the “opposition” candidate. However, memes may not work favorably for the incumbent president’s re-election next year, especially in view of the current scenario in which “tragedy is not only symbolic” in the country.

Brazil’s surpass of 600,000 deaths from Covid-19, plus the 19 million Brazilians facing hunger and nearly 10% annual inflation — among other issues that are shocking the country — are likely more potent than any meme depicting Bolsonaro as an extraordinary or popular leader. This time it looks like the Bolsonaro government will lose the meme battle.