In the closing weeks of Brazil’s presidential election last year, a vicious rumor about leftist candidate Fernando Haddad spread from the fever swamps of social media into the national conversation. Suddenly, people across Brazil came to believe, falsely, that Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo and the last bulwark against the rise of far-right authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro, had endorsed gay pedophilia.
It was a piece of misinformation so blatant but so pervasive that eventually, legitimate media sources and even Haddad’s campaign had to forcefully reject it.
Facebook famously helped bolster Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 by serving as a force multiplier for wild rumors about Hillary Clinton’s health and phony ties to uranium purchases in Russia. But in Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, there was a different culprit (with the same corporate parent): WhatsApp.
The messaging service is a relative afterthought in the United States’ crowded social media landscape, used by only about one-fifth of the country nationwide ― and even then, primarily only for text messaging. It is a different phenomenon in Brazil, where an estimated 120 million people ― more than half of the nation’s population ― use WhatsApp for nearly everything: massive group chats and disseminating and receiving community, national and even global news.
WhatsApp allows users to join massive groups, sometimes hundreds of members strong, which gives it a special power in Brazil. And in a country with highly concentrated mainstream media, it became an organizing tool and an easy way to maneuver around traditional news structures.
During the election, it became a potent tool for the spread of misinformation and fake news, especially for supporters of Bolsonaro.
Now, eight months into Bolsonaro’s presidency, WhatsApp is still serving as a largely hidden platform for the radicalization of right-wing Brazilians, even as Bolsonaro’s once-united base has splintered into separate, and often competing, factions. And Brazil is feeling its effects.
How WhatsApp Bolstered Bolsonaro
I began monitoring pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups in March 2018, at the outset of the election the social media app eventually helped Bolsonaro win. I found that fake news spread in typical fashion, through a structure of groups that resembled a pyramid, as I detailed for The Guardian last year.
Small groups of “influencers” sat at the top of the pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp ecosystem. They actively manipulated news stories and created misinformation meant to go viral.
The influencers then pushed that misinformation down into larger groups made up of Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters, who served as his troll army. Unified in their support of the right-winger, they pushed the influencers’ fake news to virality.
From there, the fake news spread into even larger groups of ordinary Brazilians, who used WhatsApp to go around traditional media outlets and receive news that reinforced their inclination to vote for Bolsonaro in discussions that acted as echo chambers for the cause.
WhatsApp’s assistance to Bolsonaro’s campaign became an international story after the election as the messaging service was revealed to be yet another disruptive social media force in a world where Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Gab served as incubators for conspiracy theories and misinformation that helped push the far-right to power across the globe.
But after Bolsonaro won the election, attention on WhatsApp faded, and many members left the groups they had participated in during the campaign. Their main goal had been accomplished; they had made Bolsonaro president.
Those who have remained perpetually logged on have done so for one of the main reasons they joined in the first place: They want to stay informed about Bolsonaro’s government through WhatsApp because they no longer trust the mainstream media to deliver the truth. WhatsApp, for them, is now their primary source of news.
Eight months into Bolsonaro’s presidency, WhatsApp is still serving as a largely hidden platform for the radicalization of right-wing Brazilians.
But where they were united behind Bolsonaro during his campaign, serving and thriving off of each other, many of the main WhatsApp groups now disagree on the president’s decisions and approach to governance. Bolsonaro’s attempts to appease certain planks of the soft coalition of military men, so-called “anti-globalists,” social conservatives and economic elites that pushed him to power, along with his haphazard and unfocused governing style, have left the groups fighting among themselves about their expectations of ― and disappointments in ― Bolsonaro’s eight-month-old presidency.
The four groups I originally monitored splintered into loose coalitions and have now split into a total of 10 groups, each of which has continued to radicalize largely out of the sight of Brazilian regulators, politicians, the media, and even WhatsApp itself, which has limited access to the actual content that is spread within the groups it hosts.
The current groups can be split into three broad coalitions.
Two of them largely support Bolsonaro: one by pushing government propaganda and cries of fake news to convince Brazil that what is happening under Bolsonaro isn’t actually happening; the other by amplifying his socially conservative, far-right views ― including his rampant homophobia, racism and sexism. Members of the third coalition have become something of an insurgency on the far right ― a group of Brazilians who feel Bolsonaro has betrayed their cause and have become his fiercest and most radical opponents.
The propagandist coalition is most similar to the WhatsApp groups that formed before Bolsonaro’s election and is still made up of an assortment of the influencers, ardent supporters and ordinary Brazilians who propelled him to victory.
These groups of supporters have become even more extreme. Where they once tolerated some debate, they now shut down any opposition to ― or even mild questioning of ― the president’s acts. But instead of consuming, sharing and producing fake news about opposing candidates, as they did before the election, their misinformation now mainly focuses on government propaganda that works to delegitimize traditional news venues that have been reporting the wrongdoings of the government.
Nowhere is this more evident, perhaps, than in their efforts to discredit domestic and international reporting about the rapid escalation in deforestation of the Amazon rainforest that has occurred under Bolsonaro ― a development that has drawn international outrage.
These groups have mobilized against journalists and media outlets who have reported on Amazonian destruction. They have even pushed back against government officials ― like Ricardo Galvão, the former head of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, who was fired in August after Bolsonaro openly disagreed with his assertion that rainforest destruction was accelerating.
One message, for instance, attempts to discredit André Trigueiro, a journalist from Brazil’s Globo news outlet: “André Trigueiro keeps saying that Bolsonaro will kill the Amazon... we can’t expect anything different from someone who works for Globo Garbage! Communist Press!”
“Ricardo Galvão,” another message said, “lied about deforestation data, another fake news! We have to stick together for the nation!”
Such messages are typical, and they quickly spread to forums like Twitter and Facebook, where the propagandists can directly target journalists and other users with cries of “fake news” and challenges to prove that their reporting is true.
The Social Supremacists
The second coalition ― the social supremacists ― is primarily focused on aligning themselves with the far-right views of the president and his son Eduardo, a congressman from São Paulo, to amplify those causes. Members of these groups are not interested in the daily political acts of the government. As long as Bolsonaro continues to pursue a socially conservative agenda, they’re assuaged and supportive.
They share content that is pro-gun, racist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitic and opposed to Brazil’s Northeast, a region that is among the poorest and blackest parts of Brazil (and has become a target of the president). Nazi propaganda, pedophilic content and favorite symbols of the American white nationalist movement, including Pepe the Frog, are commonly spread through memes and videos, while they often manipulate photos of Brazilian leftists to suggest they are Communists or anti-Christian.
But they are not siloed. They often push new members to other, more radical channels of discussion, including Dogolachan and 55Chan. Other forums, meanwhile, share similarities with the U.S. incel ― or involuntary celibate ― movement, and pedophilic, racist, and anti-Semitic content is heavily shared and celebrated.
Brazil has already suffered from the growth of these groups: In March, two men who had been active on some of these more fringe forums opened fire at a school in Suzano, Brazil, killing 10 people and injuring 17 more. And in the aftermath, these groups provided a forum for a response to gun violence that mimicked the way conservative movements and the gun lobby answer school shootings in the United States.
There has also been a proliferation of radical WhatsApp groups made up of members who once supported Bolsonaro but have now become some of his fiercest critics ― not because they have become less radical, but because they believe the president isn’t radical enough.
These groups have strong nationalistic sentiment and believe that Bolsonaro betrayed the nation, primarily because his economic minister has sought to privatize or sell Brazil’s state-owned companies to foreign investors. They also claim that Bolsonaro has not kept his promises to “cleanse” the government of its corrupt political establishment, and although he has appointed more generals to his Cabinet than any president elected since Brazil’s military dictatorship ended three decades ago, they are angry that he hasn’t fully stocked the government with members of the armed forces.
In their view, the only way to save Brazil is to do what Bolsonaro hasn’t: Organize an armed insurgency to completely cleanse the legislative and judicial branches of government of its past ills.
These insurgents, almost all of whom once belonged to pro-Bolsonaro groups before the election, have ironically exposed some of the dirtiest practices that occurred via WhatsApp during the campaign. Many of them have alleged that they were compensated ― in amounts between $100 to $250 per week ― to disseminate content to benefit Bolsonaro. And in doing so, they have pointed the finger at influential groups of businessmen who they said financed the network, and suggested that virtual militias ― known as the Virtual Activist Movement ― were paid to infiltrate WhatsApp groups and spread misinformation.
They haven’t directly implicated Bolsonaro’s campaign team, though they have said that at least one person who is currently an adviser in Bolsonaro’s government was among those paid to feed fake news to his supporters.
These groups, too, have made their voices heard outside of WhatsApp. They have been instrumental forces behind protests that have called on Bolsonaro to shutter Brazilian Congress, shut down the country’s judiciary and even return to military rule ― an indication of how radical Brazilian discourse has become under a president who himself has long celebrated the country’s deadly and oppressive military dictatorship.
Only a tiny fraction of Brazilians belong to these groups, and they are not representative of all Bolsonaro’s constituents. But they all reveal ways that people are becoming radicalized on messaging apps like WhatsApp.
As Google, Facebook and Twitter have cracked down more firmly on violent and potentially dangerous speech, consumers of that content have flocked to apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, another messaging service popular in Brazil, in search of safe spaces to find “inspiration” and become radicalized.
In Brazil, that means strident turns against many of the traits and qualities that the country is internationally known for, including the celebration of ethnic diversity, higher rates of LGBTQ tolerance than other parts of socially conservative Latin America, the practice of African religions, and anti-gun politics. And though Bolsonaro has posed his own threats to Brazil’s environment, its most marginalized communities and even its democracy, these groups have not just bolstered him but, at times, acted on their own in dangerous and anti-democratic fashion.
The solution to this issue requires a multifaceted response. Law enforcement and courts have to impose the law ― in many countries, including Brazil, violent hate speech is criminalized. Radicalization can also start at an early age; thus, parents need to pay attention to what their children are doing on the internet and be ready to intervene.
Tech companies also have to continue to deplatform these radicalizing spaces and figures. Deplatforming has worked at times: Facebook and Twitter have banned figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, limiting their influence. But they still have thousands of followers on Telegram.
A spokesperson for WhatsApp told HuffPost in a statement: “In the run up to last year’s Brazil elections, we placed a label on forwarded messages and piloted a limit on how they can be sent. We also banned hundreds of thousands of accounts for spam and are constantly working to improve our ability to detect and ban automated accounts. Additionally, WhatsApp worked to raise awareness about misinformation through a broad education campaign on the radio, in print and online. We helped bring Project Comprova onto WhatsApp as one of several organizations conducting fact checking via WhatsApp. We will continue to expand on these efforts and work with others across society to help address the challenges posed by misinformation.”
Though WhatsApp has made changes in response to the election, it still serves as a unique platform for the spread of dangerous misinformation in Brazil and elsewhere. Radicalization happens at high speed ― combating it requires an even faster response.
David Nemer is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who has studied the influence of social media in Brazil’s elections. He is the author of “Favela Digital: The Other Side of Technology,” a book about the use of technology in Brazil’s informal neighborhoods. Find him on Twitter @davidnemer.