For months, Brazil’s far-right has questioned the results of the election that gave Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva another presidential term. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, Brazilians and international observers alike have worried that cutbacks in moderation would add to the ranks of the country’s far-right. 

Eight experts from digital rights organizations and universities in Brazil and the United States told Rest of World they have heard anecdotal evidence of right-wing accounts purportedly seeing increases in followers as Lula prepares to take office on January 1. Artur Pericles, an associate research scholar at Yale Law School, and formerly the head of research and freedom of expression at InternetLab in São Paulo, believes that Musk’s arrival at Twitter may have acted as a dog whistle for the right. “[The increase in right-wing followings] might just be people taking a cue from Musk,” Pericles told Rest of World. “That now Musk is in charge, things will be better for them.”

Rest of World reached out to Twitter for comment on claims that there had been changes in the growth of certain profiles in Brazil in recent months, but received no answer.

Rest of World compiled and analyzed the growth over the second half of 2022 of 40 of some of Brazil’s most prominent Twitter handles in politics and media. These accounts were categorized as either right-wing, left-wing, or establishment center-left. In order to build a representative list, Rest of World consulted eight Brazilian statisticians and data experts while choosing, categorizing, and analyzing the prominent accounts. While this is not a comprehensive dataset, experts believe that for some of the most important handles in Brazilian politics and media, this list does suggest Musk’s acquisition of Twitter had a boosting effect for right-wing followings versus left-wing and liberal accounts.

Ideological distinctions were made on the basis of public approval for either former president Jair Bolsonaro (in the case of right-wing accounts) and Lula (for left-wing accounts). This is a simplification because Brazil’s politics are far more complex than a left-right division, Nina Santos, a researcher at the National Institute of Science and Technology in Digital Democracy, told Rest of World. “We have more than 40 political parties here,” she said. “They are a lot less ideologically aligned than in the United States.” 

The behavior of each category’s followings showed that right-wing media accounts experienced a surge in new followers in the immediate lead-up to, and aftermath of, Musk’s Twitter acquisition. They were followed by right-wing politicians. Voices on the Brazilian right, like Eduardo Matos de Alencar, a sociologist and Bolsonaro supporter, claimed to Rest of World that this was the result of the end of a “shadow ban” on them.

It’s worth noting that all four categories — political and media accounts from both the left and the right — experienced an uptick in Twitter followers in October 2022, before Musk took control of the company. This, believes Santos, had to do with the fact that Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter virtually coincided with the tight second-round presidential campaign during that month. “During [electoral] periods like this, people’s interest in politics tends to increase and makes them seek more information and follow more [social media] profiles to stay informed,” Santos said. 

However, Rest of World measured the followings of the same listed individuals on Instagram and YouTube. There was no detectable bump from October on these platforms, suggesting that growth was mainly limited to Twitter.

Followers for left-wing political figures also grew, though around 15% less than those for right-wing political accounts. The Brazilian liberal media (“‘liberal’ in the U.S. American sense of the term,” Letícia Cesarino, an anthropology professor at Brazil’s Federal University of Santa Catarina, told Rest of World) saw the least growth.

The pronounced growth of right-wing accounts in the final months of the year does seem to track with Musk’s acquisition, said Pericles. 

According to Cesarino, the Brazilian elections and Musk’s takeover were two important contributing factors that worked in tandem to help grow the followings of right-wing accounts. “Bolsonaro supporters are very dependent on the internet for their electoral campaigns,” she said. “Right-wing Brazilians don’t often have much visibility on more conventional Brazilian media channels, such as Globo, so they depend on these social media platforms to speak to their audiences.” 

Pericles believes this might explain why, even before the transaction to acquire Twitter was completed, the mere promise of Musk’s arrival — with his proposed moderation changes and vision for “freedom of speech” — could have sent the message that right-wing Brazilians were to be more welcome on the platform.

The nature of right-wing accounts’ growth in the immediate lead-up to the acquisition — as it became clear Musk would take control but during which time he had no control over the platform’s internal operations — appears to contradict claims made by Bolsonaro supporters that they had been subjected to a shadow ban that was lifted once Musk took Twitter private.

Looking towards the future, the potential threat to Brazil’s democratic institutions by the rise of a right-wing presence on Twitter worries Michele Prado, an independent researcher on the rise of the far-right in Brazil. “Elon Musk has rehabilitated profiles of highly harmful extremists,” she told Rest of World. “This legitimizes extremist content and ... in the short term, provides content that further radicalizes people on the extreme right — people who are joining demonstrations [in front of army barracks], calling for a military coup to break with the democratic order.”