The Role of Social Media in Bolsonaro’s Irresistible Ascent

By Jorge Elbaum on October 28, 2018

The role of social networks and direct message applications (basically WhatsApp) in the electoral campaign of Jair Messias Bolsonaro is one of the central themes of the new forms of political configuration in Latin America. False news, propaganda, the construction of uncritical common sense and the sowing of hatred are not innovative practices in either political history or war. The attempt to configure passive and malleable subjects has been studied for centuries as a substratum of ideological struggles aimed at capturing the collective social will and directing it for the benefit of corporate interests. What has changed is the vehicle of its propaganda, its directionality and the territory where the circulation of myths and convincing and sensationalized slogans become more effective.

Virality and interactivity have supplanted the historical verticality of political discourse. These have substituted the characteristic downward directionality of the contents proposed by the party, the program and the candidate. Bolsonaro’s campaign was sustained with brutal gestures and relied on mythologies present in the accumulated social fears, much more than on proposals and projects. For a large part of the Brazilian population, especially those with less critical capacity to evaluate content, the intrinsic complexity of public policies is perceived as a convoluted and incomprehensible fiction.

Brazilians have changed the forms of communicational interaction and access to information. The cell phone has become the priority recipient of news exchanges and its inhabitants have access to news from WhatsApp, which has 120 million young and adult users integrated in affinity networks that provide a significant appearance of reliability on what they send and receive. These users represent 80 percent of all Brazilian voters and Bolsonaro’s campaign was fundamentally effective through this way, added to the platform of four social networks; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

According to a report elaborated by the Latin American Strategic Center of Geopolitics (CELAG), the distribution between recipients of social networks of Bolsonaro, Haddad and Lula shows a clear preponderance of the first one over the other two, even in the sum of both petitioning leaders. The particularity of this data is that the target age of the followers is based on the youngest, the so-called millenials, who have limited exposure to TV, do not listen to radio frequency and the Internet and are informed only through networks segmented by interest groups.

Followers of Social Media networks (in millions of users) during the campaign

Bolsonaro Lula Haddad

Facebook                  7                   5             1

Twitter                   1,5                  0.5         .8

Instagram             4.5                 0.5          .5

Total                       13                  6            2.3

A large part of the campaign was configured by consultant experts in algorithms and audience analysis, capable of detecting the deepest emotional fears and rejections that permeate society. Several of these fears were previously inoculated with unusual persistence by hegemonic media, and then targeted at specific segments detected with demographic and statistical precision. The latter ended up constituting the central political activism of the army captain, exonerated in 1988, under the accusation of scheduling bombings at the Adutora del Guandu supply station, which provided drinking water to the municipality of Rio de Janeiro. The subsequent step consisted of using thousands of network influencers (previously detected for having a large number of followers) to geometrically multiply the threats, lies and occasional misrepresentations that could be maximized in the campaign. The final step included the use of robotic applications capable of analyzing the initial big data (provided by the reception trials), and willing to evaluate the success or failure of the fake-news. With that information, analysts were reoriented and repositioned precisely and tightly on the most pampered axes.

The viral circle predisposed to achieve a positive electoral wave to the interests of the Brazilian right was configured from seven agreed upon axes within the Bolsonaro campaign team, in which Steve Bannon, former chief advisor to Donald Trump, participates. Along with him were members of the Brazilian Army’s Electronic Warfare Communications Command (CComGEx), trained in sociology, anthropology, communication and statistics, knowledge available for Tactics and Operational Procedures (TTP), undoubted psychological warfare devices . According to analyst Rodrigo Lentz, Fernando Haddad was illegally monitored by teams led by General Sérgio Etchegoyen, currently a member of the institutional security ministry of the Brazilian presidency.

The chapters of fabricated communicational intoxication, chosen as a priority to delegitimize Fernando Haddad and the PT were the following (1) The existence of a supposed “gay kit”, oriented to sexualize girls and boys, that Haddad would have been distributed in public schools, while he was minister of education in Lula’s government. (2) Appealing to the Venezuelan crisis as the future potential of the direction of a PT government. The diffusion of empty gondolas with the sign of Chavismo was the central image that accompanied this viralization. (3) The spreading of an image of an old woman supposedly attacked by leftist militants (with her face deformed by the blows), when in reality it was a photograph of an actor who had had an accident. (4) Haddad’s alleged defense of incest, denounced by one of the extreme right-wing ideologues, Olavo Carvalho. (5) The alleged intention of the PT to legalize pedophilia. (6) The distribution of a photo of Dilma Rousseff as a member of a Cuban military battalion.

None of these viralizations would be effective if it were not directed specifically to those who have a less critical capacity to deny them or contrast them with reality. This is the role of robots that analyze big data and can orient more effective messages to each particular social segment. Historian Marc Bloch, shot by the Nazis for his status as a Jewish member of the French resistance on June 16, 1944, asked in a 1921 text: “False news, in all its forms, has been part of humanity. How are they born? (…) A falsehood only spreads and amplifies, it only comes to life on one condition, if it can find in the society in which it comes to life in a favorable breeding ground. Unconsciously it allows people to express their prejudices, their hatred, and their fears.” So fake-news is not new. It only demands subjects who accept to believe them in order to accommodate certain installed fears. The basic solution implies the development of critical citizens that are not affected by symbolic manipulations.

After the Second World War, Albert Camus published The Plague. In his last paragraph he stated: “For he knew that this happy crowd ignored what can be read in books, that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears, that it can sleep for decades in furniture, clothes, that it patiently waits in alcoves, cellars, suitcases, handkerchiefs and papers, and that a day may come when the plague, for the misfortune and teaching of men, wakes up its rats and sends them to die in a blissful city, for the misfortune and teaching of men,”. The plague has returned. His name is Bolsonaro; a Macri without marketing and without restraint.


Source: El Ciervo Herido, translated by Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau