Bolsonaro crafts new social media strategy ahead of Brazil election

When Facebook and its sister social media sites suffered outages in October, Jair Bolsonaro took his chance to act. Via Twitter, the populist Brazilian president denounced the platforms’ “persistent instability” and urged supporters to follow him on encrypted messaging app Telegram instead.

It was a strategy aimed squarely at his campaign for re-election this year. As Brazil’s first social media president, the far-right leader used WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to great effect to win the vote in 2018.

But thanks to his outspoken rhetoric – and what opponents call his frequent use of fake news – Bolsonaro has erred in both Big Tech groups and Brazil’s top courts, which have signaled they will take a tough stance on any misinformation ahead of the October elections. .

Just weeks after the president urged his followers to abandon Facebook, the platform deleted a live broadcast in which he speculated that a Covid-19 vaccine could cause AIDS. WhatsApp – which almost all Brazilians use – has cracked down on the spread of misinformation, placing limits on the size of chat groups and the number of times messages can be forwarded.

The moves have raised the possibility that Bolsonaro, who kept his followers updated last week during a two-day hospital stay for abdominal pain, could be permanently banned from Meta-owned platforms — like his populist mentor Donald Trump. Media analysts say the threat is spurring a shift to platforms with looser regulation, including Telegram and new alt-right sites like Gettr.

WhatsApp works as an ecosystem [where Bolsonaro’s supporters] They produce and distribute their news, which is basically fake news. “Because WhatsApp was slowing down disinformation, they then migrated to Telegram,” said David Nemer, a Brazilian professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

Industry estimates suggest that more than 50 percent of Brazilians have Telegram installed on their mobile phone. Bolsonaro himself has already amassed over a million followers. His closest allies, including his sons, are promoting the app at every opportunity.

It is estimated that more than half of Brazilians have Telegram on their mobile phones © Adriano Machado / Reuters

Unlike WhatsApp, which places a limit of 256 people for group chats, Telegram groups can accommodate hundreds of thousands of users. It also has channels, where select users can send messages to its millions of followers, a feature that experts say eliminates any form of discussion.

“You can have these huge channels and only a few people can post, so there is no space for discussion. The side of extremism [of social media] It gets stronger because there is no response,” Nimr said, noting that Telegram groups have “tons” of extremist content.

The Dubai-based group did not respond to a request for comment. Critics say it is almost impossible for the Brazilian authorities to hold Telegram accountable because it has no legal representation in the country.

“For Brazil, it is very worrying. They [Telegram] “She does not respond to any communications or even subpoenas from the Electoral Court or the Supreme Court,” said Patricia Campos Melo, a researcher at Columbia University who focuses on social networks.

Campos Melo said Bolsonaro supporters have created a “parallel information ecosystem” in which sympathetic news is generated from ostensibly mainstream websites and then shared on Telegram or WhatsApp to promote – or legitimize – the president’s views. Government officials then promote the news sites, which are monetized through Google ads.

The situation was complicated by the proliferation of alt-right platforms with little or no regulation of content. Gettr, a Twitter-like platform headed by a former Trump aide, launched in Brazil in September. Bolsonaro quickly attracted nearly 500,000 followers.

“The country has always been one of the best markets for competing social platforms,” said Jason Miller, CEO of Gettr. “The difference here is that Big Tech platforms routinely monitor the political discourse of Brazilians, which leads to increased demand for a platform like Gettr that allows people to truly express their opinions within the limits of the law.”

Experts say that while these platforms are unlikely to burst from the alt-right “bubbles,” they act as repositories for sharing posts or videos blocked by traditional big tech groups.

“[Gettr] “It is not just another place to disseminate content, it is a place that is changing the way disinformation campaigns operate on other networks,” said Joao Bastos dos Santos, a social media specialist at Brazil’s National Institute for Science and Technology in Digital Democracy.

For many, Brazil’s Supreme Court will determine the impact of new social media platforms on this year’s survey. After the uproar over fake news in the 2018 election, the court known as the STF has taken a significantly tougher stance.

Judge Alexandre de Moraes, one of Bolsonaro’s most vocal opponents, warned in October that if there was widespread use of fake news during the election campaign, officials would be held accountable and “go to prison for attacking elections and democracy.” That same month, Moraes ordered the extradition of prominent pro-Bolsonaro blogger, Alan dos Santos, from the United States, for allegedly spreading false news.

Luis Roberto Barroso, president of the Supreme Electoral Court, said the court has “learned a lot since the 2018 presidential election in dealing with disinformation campaigns,” adding that it has partnered with technology platforms and fact-checking groups to remove fraudulent content.

It is also possible that Bolsonaro’s ability to use social media in the campaign has been limited by the alienation of the various interest groups that supported him in 2018.

“In 2018, it was an alliance of several groups that didn’t always cooperate: the anti-corruption group, the anti-communist, the evangelical groups, the ultra-liberal groups all came together around Bolsonaro,” Bastos dos Santos said.

But a few weeks after his election in January, several groups were already empty. They haven’t determined enough to continue there.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingiza

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