Election Disinformation and the Violence in Brazil

Justin Hendrix / Jan 14, 2023

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

To learn more about the events on January 8th, 2023, when supporters of former far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the country's capital, and the connection between U.S. and Brazilian election disinformation, I spoke with a prominent Brazilian journalist who has been covering these issues for years: Patrícia Campos Mello,a reporter at large and columnist at the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. We discussed the role of social media in Brazilian politics, as well as the possibility that the attacks may spur new regulations.

What follows is a lightly edit transcript of the discussion.

Justin Hendrix:

Patricia, just for my listeners, can you give them a little canned history of your career there in Brazil? I've met you in the context of your work at Columbia University where you've been in the year or so leading up to this current Brazilian election. But just give folks a little sense of some of the hot water you've got yourself into down there.

Patrícia Campos Mello:

When we met, I was working on a research project at Columbia University at the Tow Center about political disinformation and basically about everything that was going on since Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated in Brazil in terms of influence operations and disinformation campaigns. And I have been covering disinformation and the use of technology to sort of manipulate public opinion since 2014 when I started covering elections in several countries and mainly in India, the US and Brazil. And I started to see there were so many similar strategies that these populist leaders were using in terms of using personal data of the voters and social media.

And then in Brazil in 2018, we actually investigated the use of mass messaging, bulk messaging in the WhatsApp messaging app with disinformation and propaganda during the campaign for the 2018 presidential election. And at that time, we just thought everything was organic, and then we just found out that there were actually… how can I say that? It was not troll factories, but it was assembly lines in marketing agencies, just mass messaging voters, micro-targeting the messages and spreading all kinds of disinformation and negative campaigning and all that stuff.

And because of that, I started being a target. I myself, as many other journalists in the US and in Brazil, of disinformation campaigns, including by the president. And it was very crazy to think, I mean, before covering disinformation, I used to be a foreign correspondent, a war correspondent. So I've been covering conflicts in Syria and Libya and Iraq and you name it. And I never felt what I felt when I was here in my own country, democratic country, covering the elections because they were targeting people personally, sending bad threats to my family and to many other journalists, mainly women in Brazil.

So having said that, I kept on covering influence operations in the Brazilian government, and after Bolsonaro was inaugurated it just became very professional and very sophisticated. And most of all, it's a copy, I can't say it's a copy, but it is, it's not even creative to what Donald Trump was doing in the US. I mean, he would follow all the steps that Trump took in the US.

Justin Hendrix:

So let's talk about what's happened here most recently, of course, Jair Bolsonaro was defeated and has left the country and is apparently hanging out perhaps not too far from Donald Trump in Florida. But his supporters of course chose to storm government facilities in Brasilia on January 8th, just two years after a similar event occurred in the United States. Can you just give a brief update for my American and European listeners, what is happening now? What's the sort of latest on the ground there with regard to the attack?

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Sure. I just wanted to start by saying that this is the result of four years, or actually two years of sowing doubts about the integrity of the electoral process. A few days after January 6th, 2021, so a few days after the capital invasion, Jair Bolsonaro said, "If we don't change the electoral system in Brazil, something very similar is going to happen in Brazil." So I mean, he warned… it's not like he did something he didn't say he was going to do. So what we had on Sunday the 8th– January 8th, 2023– in Brazil's capital was basically January 6th, the capital invasion, let's say times three or times four.

On the one hand, there were no deaths, no one died because of the storming of the Congress and the presidential palace and the Supreme Court in Brazil, like in the US where you had people who died. But that happened because policemen and security forces actually were taking selfies with the protestors, the violent protestors. They actually supported the protestors and they didn't try to prevent them from breaking into all the places and stealing everything they stole and doing all that.

Trespassers on the ramp of the Congress Palace, Brasilia, Brazil, January 8, 2023. Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil CC by 4.0

So we had on Sunday thousands of people invading, breaking into Congress, the presidential palace, the Supreme Court. They destroyed a huge part of all the furniture and the art. I mean, all the art they had there. For instance, they ripped a very famous painting that is worth 7 million reals, which is basically $1 million. And this is just one artwork that they destroyed. They also stole or destroyed almost 1,000 computers. They literally defecated on the top of tables. They peed everywhere, you name it. So they did all that.

Justin Hendrix:

This has been referred to in some media reports I've seen almost as a kind of tantrum, that this attack could have served in no way to stop the transfer of power, which has already occurred. What are the theories that were driving this activity? Was this just an expression of anger? What are the underlying concerns that these individuals are expressing, and what was the redress, what did they think could possibly happen?

Patrícia Campos Mello:

That's what's most ridiculous about it, because January 6th in the US had a meaning. It was the day that Congress was going to certify the election results. So in Brazil, January 8th has no meaning because it's already done. Lula is the president and there's no way to reverse. But what they were actually expecting is armed forces to join efforts to help them to basically have a coup d'etat. So there's two things. One thing, they have this very distorted interpretation of the Brazilian constitution that the armed forces supposedly have the power to mediate in unstable situations in the country, which is a distorted interpretation. So they are calling on the armed forces and other security forces to help them overthrow the elected president.

But yes, it was sort of a tantrum because, I mean, there's very little hope that that would ever happen. However, that's what's very interesting. Jair Bolsonaro literally fled the country. He said he was on a vacation, but he left on January 30th so that he wouldn't have to be in the inauguration ceremony, just like Trump did. And the secretary of security for the district where Brazil is based also left the country two days before January 8th. So both of them were not in the country and they were using the QAnon, signals in his postings and publications on social media. So it's never obvious. It's always enough to incite his supporters to violence or to invade, but also not enough to criminalize him. It's the plausible deniability thing. He always does that and some other people do that.

So while he was doing this, he's using all these signals and Qanon sorts of things to keep the base, his supporters, inflamed or mobilized. At the same time, there's one point where these leaders– and Bolsonaro included and I think maybe Trump– don't have entire control over the mob, so I understand because it's really very bad to Bolsonaro politically what happened on January 8th. There's nothing good that can come out of it. And still it happened and it's sort of, okay, so he needs to keep his radical base mobilized, but at some point it just gets out of control and you have all these people invading Congress and the presidential palace.

Justin Hendrix:

So you've mentioned this sort of dog whistles, as we might refer to them, to the base to keep them mobilized even in his absence. And you've mentioned the disinformation about the role of the military, which by the way there were a lot of those types of ideas circulating among the January 6th protestors as well in the US. What else, what are the other key theories being spread? I understand that the dominion voting systems conspiracy theory that was popularized in the US has also made its way there. Are there other threads and brands that are peculiar to Brazil or similar?

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Okay, so the things that are very similar, in the US, it started with the mail in voting. And I mean, Trump tried to sabotage or prevented from getting easier for people to vote. And in Brazil, the whole thing was about, okay, so you cannot trust electronic voting machines because they don't have a print receipt. But we've had this electronic voting machines since 1996, and there was never any evidence of widespread fraud. So first was this, so without the print receipt of your vote, it's going to be fraudulent.

Then there's also that the electoral authorities were actually siding with left-wing politicians. So electoral authorities were manipulating, and there was an algorithm, and this was spread I think even in Steve Bannon's radio show, he mentioned that in the beginning, the vote count seemed to suggest that Bolsonaro was going to win, and then it changed. And this is very obvious because as we know, and in the US as well, it depends on where you're counting in each state. But they use this to say that somehow there was an algorithm that proved that there was fraud. They just changed the vote counting midway. So this is the other thing.

Now, what's happening now is after they stormed Brasilia and after all the violence, now of course they have two narratives. One is that left wing agitators were infiltrated. So basically the people who committed all the violent acts were not the Bolsonaristas or patriots as they call themselves, but it was Workers Party supporters and left-wing people disguised as patriots. So this is everywhere, we are monitoring public WhatsApp groups and Telegram groups and channels, and you have all kinds of pictures, manipulated pictures showing, oh, you see this guy is the same guy who's here next to President Lula, or this guy. So you have all these manipulations.

And the second thing is over a thousand people were arrested after the violence on Sunday. And now they're saying that these people are being held in inhumane conditions, and the word they use is concentration camps. And even the Jewish organizations here in Brazil already protested saying this is very offensive to Jewish people. So they're saying, "Okay, so we are all in these concentration camps and people are being killed." And then they have disinformation of people who supposedly died in custody. And one of them is this one old lady. Her picture was in the… how do you say, when you buy pictures from a data bank.

Justin Hendrix:

She was a stock photo.

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Yes, a stock photo. So they took this picture and coincidentally she passed away three months ago. So this was the picture that was going viral, all messaging groups, and they were sharing this picture, "Oh, this poor old lady, she died in the concentration camp. She was a patriot." Well, turns out she had passed away three months ago and her granddaughter was denouncing all this. So yeah, we have these narratives spreading at this point.

Justin Hendrix:

I mean, as an observer from the US, on some level you don't want to overstate the similarities between what happened here and what happened in Brazil. And yet hearing you talk about this, the similarities are so striking. And of course it's the case that reporters including yourself are looking at the role of individuals like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump himself, former advisors like Jason Miller, who's now running the platform Gettr and has visited Brazil in advance of the election. There appears to be a real nexus with the right wing in the US and a back and forth or a sieve, if you will, of messaging between right wing interests here in the United States and there in Brazil.

Tell me, how is that being looked at? I understand there's a group of Brazilian lawmakers who've been in touch with lawmakers in the US including Bennie Thompson who was the chairman of the January 6th committee. There's a real effort to kind of look at this nexus.

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Yeah, I mean, there were several conspiracy theories that in fact Steve Bannon and his allies were financing all the Bolsonarista groups in Brazil and all the disinformation campaigns. All those theories started to circulate three years ago. But what is not a conspiracy theory is that they are emulating what was done in the US and they are communicating often, very frequently with Steve Bannon, with Jason Miller, and with other Trump allies about strategies, communication strategies.

So if you followed, and we did, Steve Bannon's radio show, and also some appearances by some reporters who used to be with Project Veritas, they were just saying everything and describing, "So this is what's happening." And you have people who are protesting. I mean, they were contributing to the narrative and basically giving, it's not giving guidelines, but reinforcing this narrative. And of course there were several meetings.

One was actually right after the election or before the election, not sure now. I mean, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who's one of President Bolsonaro's sons, and he's also the guy who represents the CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee here in Brazil. He holds an annual CPAC meeting here. And he had over Jason Miller, I mean so many other people from the Trump movement. And they meet often with all these advisors. Jason Miller has been several times to Brazil. And of course they are sharing experiences. They're sharing strategies. So that's not a conspiracy theory, it's the reality. You can see how they reinforce each other all the time, and how the Brazilians, the extreme right in Brazil is basically emulating and gaining strength from the extreme right in the US.

Now you have legislators in the US... Well, some of them are asking for Bolsonaro's visa to be revoked because basically he entered the country on a diplomatic visa, a chief of state visa, which he no longer is a chief of state. And the other is for him to be investigated by the FBI. That's the latest.

And the other thing is also that they're cooperating with [former members of] the January 6th Commission, the Congressional commission, to help us to investigate this. Because the one thing that has to happen is accountability. And one of the things the legislators here, actually the law enforcement officials here in Brazil are dealing with is how do you link years, months, weeks of disinformation campaigns and people, actually political leaders inciting supporters to commit violent acts not to accept election results, to them being guilty of what happened on January 8th. How do you do this link? How do you make this link, right? This is a challenge.

Justin Hendrix:

That's a challenge, of course, not just in Brazil, but around the world when these types of events have resulted in large groups of people engaging in violent acts. Let me ask you about the response so far from the mainstream platforms. Of course in the United States after January 6th, there were immediate moves to de-platform Donald Trump. There was a purge of accounts related to QAnon on multiple platforms. There was an extraordinary focus on extremism and incitement to violence and trying to limit the spread of messages that might inflame further violence, certainly at least until the transition occurred on January 20th. What has been the response of the major platforms in Brazil? Do you feel they have a presence?

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Well, in the beginning of the year, while I was at Columbia, I did a report comparing everything, all the moderation policy changes the platforms had made in the US for the 2020 presidential election and the campaign, and we know that was not enough, and what they were doing in Brazil. And it was really, really ridiculous.

I mean, in Brazil, they couldn't care less. Basically some of them like TikTok simply translated the moderation, the civic integrity policy saying, "You cannot lie about mail in voting. We don't have mail in voting in Brazil." Or YouTube had rules about, okay, they were going to remove or downgrade videos that had false allegations about the US elections or the German presidential election, 2021 presidential elections, but not the Brazilian elections, the 2014 and 2018, which were being used as part of the narrative saying, "Okay, so these were already rigged," so they weren't doing anything.

Also Google. Google had the transparency report that they have, it's like the ad library, the Facebook ad library in so many countries, but not in Brazil. So we could not follow, okay, so who's spending money on ads? Who's paying for those ads? So they started having the transparency report in Brazil all with details and complete in June, 2022. I mean, in the middle of the campaign. So the civil society and electoral authorities put pressure on them, and it got a little better. YouTube finally in August started removing content and videos with false allegations about fraud in the 2018 and 2014 elections. And then Meta finally I think right after the, yes, in the beginning of November, right after the second round, Meta started to remove allegations... I mean, people calling for a coup d'etat or military intervention. So they were removing this. YouTube was not doing that.

So unless you had a very obvious call for violence, you can have all your videos up saying, "Yeah, it was not fair, and now we need the military." If you log into YouTube, it's all there. So far as a direct consequence of January 8th, what has happened is Meta has started to remove publications about inciting violence or related to January 8th or any sort of call for a coup d'etat. YouTube did not change its policy at all. I mean, last time they changed its policy officially I think was in August, 2022 when they finally started to remove false allegations about the 2014 elections. And now, I mean of course, since we have official results of the 2022, false allegations about the 2022 elections are also removed, but they're not doing anything about all this content that is circulating, asking for instance for new protests or for people... People are now calling the hardcore Bolsonaro supporters for a general strike in Brazil. Stop everything, so the truck drivers stop, and this is circulating social media, and this is not being dealt with.

I mean, the social media, the platforms are not doing anything about it. And the other thing is they just destroyed or damaged power transmission towers. This also– they're not doing anything about this. Or fuel refineries, they're also not doing anything about this. The only thing that they had to do, electoral authorities in Brazil have had a very hard line, how can I say that? They've been very... It's controversial. On the one hand, people feel that were it not for the electoral authorities forcing platforms to remove certain content, the elections would be absolutely like a horrible festival of disinformation, would be a case study for the world of how you can distort an election with disinformation.

On the other hand, there are abuses by the electoral authorities and they are being authoritarian in several cases. So one of the things that they issued orders is to block several Telegram groups, Telegram channels, and WhatsApp public groups. And they are doing this, and Telegram and WhatsApp, they are blocking those after January 8th. So basically, yeah, I think it's pretty much Meta and TikTok did not announce anything. And TikTok, they have their civic integrity policy, but we don't know anything about enforcement. And what we do know is that all the videos that were not supposed to be there calling for violence, they're still there. Yeah. And I hear there's another one that is Kway, you spell K-W-A-Y, that is hugely popular with the very low income people. Most of them use Kway, also Kway and TikTok, and also, I mean, enforcement, there's no transparency. We don't know what they're doing, what they're not doing.

Justin Hendrix:

I understand there are already some stirrings of potential tech and social media reform measures in response to January 8th or in part inspired by the events of that day. What's on the table? What's likely to happen? Is there a chance that the government will overreact?

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Oh yes, there is a chance that the government will overreact. Congress has been trying to approve legislation that is called, the nickname is the “fake news bill,” since February 2020 or March 2020. It got stuck in the Senate. They couldn't approve it. Legislation had a few very positive aspects and a few very negative aspects. Among them, it would give immunity to office holders to moderation policy, was a bit similar to the Florida and the Texas legislation that you guys have.

So now the new government has a very different view. I mean, the Bolsonaro government, the extreme right, and the PT government, center left, they all think that there has to be regulation. There's no “no regulation” view, that used to be the right wing view. So the new government, they're doing several things at the same time. One, they have a new secretary for digital policies that is going to suggest policy changes, reforms. And I understand they're going to work together with Congress to propose new legislation. Because as it is, we do not have legislation.

I mean, the only thing we have is our Marco Civil, the civil mark of the internet from 2014, which is partly inspired by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It doesn't have the Good Samaritan part, but that's the only thing. So as in the US, we are discussing how to increase the liability of the internet platforms. So one of the things they're discussing is legislation inspired in the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, which would be a very good thing because it's something that is being tested and not something that they're just creating out of nothing like the previous legislation, which there was a big danger that we would end up with Singapore and Malaysia laws that actually criminalize regular people using the internet.

So if they do indeed get inspired and get some guidance from the European legislation, which is the same thing as they did with our privacy legislation, they got lots of stuff from the GDPR. So I am positive that we are going to have regulation this year. And I think the platforms and people I speak to, the policy people, they know. You can't avoid regulation anymore. So now the thing is what kind of regulation? And there's this danger that among the public pressure and public opinion that against those hooligans and violence, you might end up with a dangerous piece of regulation, I think. I hope not.

Justin Hendrix:

Something that limits free expression unduly or kind of puts, I don't know, requirements on the platforms that potentially force them into an untenable position with regard to what content they can host.

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Yes. Exactly.

Justin Hendrix:

How will you continue to cover this? What's next for you?

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Well, I'm going to be covering regulation. I have been covering the negotiations for the fake news bill since 2020. This is something I'm going to keep on doing. And now that there's this specific secretary, part of government that is going to be dealing with this, with regulation and with enforcement of moderation policy, I'm also going to be covering this. And from all sides, civil society, the platforms, the users to see what kind of legislation we end up with. I think we are more in the European momentum for regulation than the US, which I'm not the specialist you are, but I'm not sure what kind of regulation if any regulation you guys are going to have because it takes forever, right? I mean the freedom of expression thing, it's very strong, which is good, but still. So I think we are definitely going to have regulation.

I'm going to be covering this and I'm also going to be covering, there's one thing that is very depressing. If I was just looking at an analysis today of social media movements and who's posting and what's gaining traction, the extreme right is so much stronger than the rest of the ecosystem. So right after what happened on Sunday 8th, you would expect people protesting or criticizing all the violence. No. What you have on social media is either people saying the current president is to blame, there were left-wing infiltrators, or right-wing narratives. This is what's dominating social media. So left wing, and in this case reality is definitely losing because they're not dominating the social media ecosystem.

Justin Hendrix:

In many ways feels like another close call for a major democracy. Incredible to think– hundreds of millions of people in these nations and real chaos at the seat of government. I hope we won't see anything like that in Brazil or certainly in the United States anytime again in the future. But unfortunately it seems likely we'll see it in some other democracy.

Patrícia Campos Mello:

I know, it's very, very sad. I mean, I would never expect that neither the US or Brazil would be going through something like that. And what's even scarier is that after everything that happened on Sunday 8th, people were saying that the people who destroyed Congress and Presidential Palace, they are the victims and they are now in concentration camps. And this is the narrative that dominates social media. I mean, to what extent can you distort reality? That's very scary.

Justin Hendrix:

Patricia, thank you so much for speaking to me about this today.

Patrícia Campos Mello:

Thank you. Thank you.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...