Brazilian Black Mirror

Surfing a wave of disinformation, the rise of fascism in Brazil is already threatening human rights - and quietly signaling the international assault of the country’s natural resources. It’s just a matter of electing one of the dumbest conservatives ever

By Daniela Grimberg

Bolsonaro and his supporters during a rally [cc]

Ahead of its most difficult election, Brazil is completely divided. Half of the country is taken by hatred, the other is taken by fear. Drowned in recession, corruption scandals and increasing unemployment rates, polarization is fueled by disinformation and hate speech via social media and the instant message app WhatsApp.

While the far-right narrative tries to convince people this is (again) a matter of left versus right, what is at stack is the country's young wretch democracy and everything that has been relatively protected by it.

Democracy in Brazil is only in her 30's, born after two decades of a civil-military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985. Back in the day, hundreds of people were killed or disappeared, and detention and torture were a reality for many of those opposing the military forces.

Now, another "plot-twist" of the country's history might start, under the same ideological excuse as back in the 60's: the bloody leftists (a.k.a. artists, teachers, journalists, scientists, environmentalists and minority groups. The list also include pope Francisco, the UN and George Soros, of course).

In times of globalised fake news, Brazil is the perfect scenario for a sort of fascist revival, combining a complex political and economic crisis with massive levels of disinformation.

Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called “myth”, from the Social Liberal Party (PSL), is the face of this backsliding that thrives in the digital age. The retired captain of the armed forces is a far-right lawmaker who has been in congress for 28 years, with only two projects approved by the parliament. His role in politics has been basically focused on insulting minorities and his congress mates, as well as advocating for firearms and more flexible laws for the army and the police forces to “act”. For him, the biggest problem of the 60's dictatorship in Brazil was that many people were tortured instead of being killed straight away  (that seems evil, but is actually dumb. Isn't torture also a strategy to get information from people?)

On the other side of the narrative dispute, there is Fernando Haddad, candidate from the Workers’ Party. Known as PT, the Workers' Party is a traditional moderate-leftist group led by ex-president Lula da Silva (2003-2011), who has been imprisoned since April, allegedly for corruption. Two years ago, another PT president, Dilma Roussef, was impeached, which many consider the beginning of the "coup" the country would be facing. PT has historically provoked intense feelings among Brazilians, ranging from love and blind fidelity to absolute hatred.

With all these emotional vibes, smartphones are seriously interfering in the election polls, to the point that Bolsonaro is the response against a “communist menace”, "corruption levels never seen before" and "minorities being privileged". 

Post-truth times.


The myth

The far-right candidate adopts a Trump-like behavior, although apart from the irrational rhetoric don't have much in common. Their campaigns, though, have. Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategist, has a connection with Bolsonaro’s campaign

 and the lies, denials and attacks against the opponent are all there to legitimize the low level of the political debate in the country. Disinformation plays a key role here to make acceptable all the absurd things Bolsonaro has said throughout his political life.

He said he would not rape a congresswoman because she didn't "deserve it" for being "too ugly"; he would rather his son to be dead than gay; and that minorities “should bend to the majorities and adapt, or simply vanish”. What one day seemed craziness to many, was naturalized and reached the hearts of millions of people - and the market forces, who ended up realizing Bolsonaro became the only option to beat the moderate-left.


Bolsonaro argues with congresswoman Maria do Rosario (PT), who does not "deserve" to be raped, according to him.             [Agencia Brasil]
Bolsonaro has been campaigning among his followers since 2014, when the possibility of him running for president started to grow on social media. He did not draw too much attention in the past, when he was considered by many as a lunatic.  However, in these uncertain times, his seed has finally sprouted - quite similar to Hitler’s ascent. His campaign slogan is actually a literal translation of the Nazi one, “Deutschland Über Alles”: "Brasil acima de tudo" [Brazil above all]. Encouraging violence against minorities and targeting communism as “the enemy”, he found echoes of his ignorance in a desperation environment, exactly like nazi Germany. David Duke, former Grand Wizard of Ku Klux Klan, publicly endorsed Bolsonaro's candidacy saying that the candidate sounds like KKK members.

The surreal eminence of electing someone like Bolsonaro, when fascism seems to be getting back to many democratic countries, is dangerous.

That seems an odd recipe in a mixed-race society, but it works anyway: the simplistic ideas, the cruel business behind Brazilian evangelical churches, concentrated media ownership between a few millionaire groups and structural poverty and racism, educational issues.


T-shirts saying “Bolsomito”  [“Bolsomyth”] for sale at conservative rallies.
[Gabriela Etchart]
The novelty here, we know, is the amplification of bullshit via social media. Fact-checkers have been working hard to debunk false information, and Facebook and Google are deleting content, pages and users, amongst robots and humans. However, efforts to curb falsehood are ineffective when democratic institutions such as Supreme Courts are compliant with the situation.

As a result, following US example, Brazilians have been prepared to harass each other, and the country’s many social movements are explicitly painted as enemies. Bolsonaro has recently said he would not “allow activism”, labeling "terrorists" groups like MST (Landless Workers' Movement, that claims rural land reform) and MTST (Homeless Workers' Movement, similar to MST, but acting in the urban areas).  Like them, other groups like LGBT, indigenous, blacks and feminists became targets again. 

When fake is real 


During one of his rallies in September, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the stomach by a lunatic, who fake news tried to relate to PT straight away. That did not catch, but the attack actually helped increasing the captain's advantage on the polls.  The candidate’s medical conditions were used to justify his absence from television debates - something he is terrible at. Since then, Bolsonaro has been receiving selected news outlets at his house and recording videos to go viral - and although he does not go to debates for his "health issues", he's still going to supporters rallies.  Who needs mediation when you can say whatever your want to your fan base?

Finally, last week Bolsonaro was accused of having a criminal industry of fake news favouring his campaign on WhatsApp, funded by several entrepreneurs. Brazilian electoral legislation considers the practice illegal, since these donations are undeclared. According to newspaper Folha de São Paulo, digital marketing agencies would be illegally using client databases to address the messages. Bolsonaro’s supporter companies would be paying something around US$3 million each to flood WhatsApp groups with content.

Electoral Supreme Court and Federal Police accepted the case, but chances of Bolsonaro’s candidacy being stopped seem minimal.


The real ghosts

This dystopic scenario, now is a trend in many countries, is messing with people’s lives, on the streets and in the core of families and social groups. Again, the emotional strategy helps to distract from other types of interests, from natural resources exploitation to fading of workforce laws and the impulse to privatize state companies and basic services such as pension, health and education.

In a moment when the US brings up the possibility of a military intervention in Venezuela and northern Brazilian states receive an increasing flow of poor immigrants, Bolsonaro’s intentions are quite convenient for some international players. That was just a matter of time, anyway. Latin America holds one-fifth of the oil on earth, with Venezuela leading the world ranking of largest proven reserves. Brazil, second in the continent oil ranking, discovered off its Atlantic coast the world’s top offshore oil asset in 2007. Petrobras, the strongest estate company of the country, lost its exclusive right to operate in this deep-water area after the controversial impeachment of Dilma Roussef. Even with clean records, the former PT president was banned for an illegal "fiscal maneuver" - according to the same magistrates that now sleep while Bolsonaro does whatever he wants.

Former president Dilma Roussef (PT), impeached in 2016.
The Amazon rainforest in the north, and the Guarani Aquifer (world’s second largest aquifer system, beneath southern Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay), for example, are also valuable prizes for those who benefit from the country’s instability. Indigenous and forest communities are scared. We should all be scared.     

It adds to the fact that Bolsonaro has announced his intention to pull Brazil, the richest biodiverse nation, out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

What could go wrong, right?

The stock market is also excited with all that, responding through volatile currencies after every new election poll. Brazilian equity gauge Ibovespa surges whenever Bolsonaro appears on top.  

They are also certain Bolsonaro’s neoliberal plan (which he has no capacity to explain) will boost privatisation and affect the country’s many state companies.

The fact that Bolsonaro has largely defended state interventionism in the past doesn’t bother the market, of course, as the captain is now “a conservative regarding values, a liberal regarding economy”. Makes sense.


The transference

Whilst speculation market seems quite confident about Bolsonaro, this is not the message the United Nations and most of the international press have been sending to Brazil.

Two months ago, when Lula was banned from running this election (yes, he tried that, and he was leading all the poll simulations even from jail), the UN Human Rights Commission requested Brazilian government to take “all necessary measures to ensure that Lula can enjoy and exercise his political rights while in prison, as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections”, according to the specialist panel statement.

Bolsonaro, with his human-rights-for-the-right-humans mentality reacted calling UN “a reunion of communists, and threatened pulling Brazil out of the UN signatory countries' group. 

Back in reality, the Brazilian Supreme Court reduced UN’s request to the status of “recommendation”, refusing to liberate former president Lula, who remains confined and inaccessible for journalists until today.

For the good or for the bad, PT relied on Lula's legacy, and that's why Haddad, who started as Lula's vice-president candidate, is now officially running the election against Bolsonaro.


Fernando Haddad and Lula da Silva [centre], from the Workers' Party (PT)
[Paulo Pinto/Agencia PT]
Due to Lula’s uncertain eligibility until mid-September, Haddad's candidacy was only defined after all other candidates had already started their campaigns. Minister of Education during Lula’s government and ex-mayor of São Paulo, Haddad, a university lecturer, wasn’t really well-known all over the country. However, after PT's desperate attempts to quickly associate him with the image of Lula, Haddad grew quickly and became the main name to defeat Bolsonaro after the first round. At the same time, he also had to face a huge rejection because, again, the Workers’ Party has historically being a love-or-hate matter in Brazil. And social media could only reinforce that.

Haddad’s main challenge has been to convince those many who reject both Bolsonaro and the Workers’ Party, but still agree that democracy is the only reasonable choice.

The scenario seems hysterical. Two days ahead of the election and it is still hard to say if Brazil is screwed or ridiculously screwed.  

People matter

#EleNão/#NotHim rally [Antonio Cotrim/Lusa]

While Bolsonaro is still leading the polls, the tension too real on the streets.  

Largely despised by women voters for his misogynist comments, Bolsonaro is the target of the #NotHim (#EleNão) movement

Created by two girls, the Facebook group Women United Against Bolsonaro spread the hashtag a couple of months ago, and that quickly gained the status of movement all over Brazil. Not only women, but anyone that saw the danger posed by Bolsonaro embraced the cause. The more the  #EleNão campaign gained visibility, the more Bolsonaro's followers bullied opponents, virtual and physically. Numerous attacks (including deaths) for political reasons have been visibly targeting minorities and whoever disapprove the captain's candidacy.

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists (Abraji) stated that more than 130 attacks were performed against journalists in the country for political reasons in 2018. Censorship and self-censorship are also becoming a reality in newsrooms and universities

At this point, Brazil as we knew is already gone, regardless of who wins. Without a trustworthy Supreme Court, political and police forces, all citizens, including Bolsonaro voters, are being left on their own. The old recipe of pushing an anti-establishment hero that will save people from corruption and “communism”, once again, is fooling Brazilians. A reasonable debate is no longer possible. Pointing his fingers like guns, Bolsonaro has recently suggested that PT followers should be all shot.

However, there is a lot of discussion on the viability of Bolsonaro's administration. His lack of understanding about most of the country's issues and global dynamics may not allow him to conclude his mandate. That only makes the future even scarier, though: his running mate, Hamilton Mourao, is another ultra-conservative military. Although less ignorant than Bolsonaro, he still poses a threat to democracy in the country. 

It still seems unlikely that the generalized insanity and the neglect of democratic institutions will give Brazilians a second chance in the runoff, but news (real and fake) are changing perspectives every day.  

That might not be enough to change things, but some of the fear of repression has been turned into resistance. From #EleNao, massive rallies against Bolsonaro all over the country are desperately trying to impact on people's conscience. 

There are still voices out there, from human rights and environmental organizations to independent and even the international press, intellectuals, scientists and artists worldwide. Groups and parties in Brazil that historically diverged are also uniting forces.


Video: #EleNão in a rally at Lapa (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Whatever happens this Sunday, though, the already weak democratic principles in Brazil are in real danger, be the next president Bolsonaro or Haddad. May the world take another example of how globalized ignorance can lead things.