News | Authoritarianism Lurching to the Right Online

Authoritarian rule increasingly utilizes a medium once regarded as a democracy machine



Kim Schröther,

Bolsonaro in WhatsApp
"He lies in WhatsApp": protest sign at a demonstration against Bolsonaro's presidential candidacy in Sao Paulo on 20 October 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Introducing himself as the “Consul of the European Consulate”, Claudio Machado promised that Europe would “invest ten times as much in Brazil” if the right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonora won the presidency. The message circulated over WhatsApp, the messenger with more than 120 million active users in the South American country—over half the population.

The only problem? There is no “European Consulate” in Brazil. The message belonged to the veritable flood of lies that many believe played a decisive role in the October 2018 election. According to numbers from the Agência Lupa, an organization that fact-checks online content, only four of the 50 most-shared posts in the Brazilian election campaign could be verified as “completely true”. Media reveal that many companies who sought to prevent a victory of the Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, were behind the misleading messages. Millions flowed into the operation.

Fabrício Benevenuto from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte describes the vote as a “WhatsApp election”: dishonest campaigns, targeted disinformation, attempts to undermine the competition’s trustworthiness, conspiracy theories, emotionalization—and not only on WhatsApp. According to the polling institute Datafolha, 81 percent of Bolsonaro’s supporters had a social media account. The figure was only 59 percent among supporters of the left-wing challenger, Haddad.

 “Studies show that a majority of Brazilians get their political news exclusively via WhatsApp”, says Brazil expert Niklas Franzen. Moreover, “WhatsApp has become the Right’s most important weapon”. When fake news or manipulation emerges, the responsible regulating authorities are usually overwhelmed, as Tai Nalon, an expert from the Brazilian fact-checking platform Aos Fatos, confirms.

WhatsApp is particularly well-suited because public trust in the traditional media and political institutions in Brazil has suffered immensely. Information forwarded by relatives or friends in chat groups thus appears more trustworthy and relevant. The tendency to surround oneself with like-minded people in social networks has accelerated the fragmentation of the public sphere, forming political echo chambers.

Brazil is by no means alone in this development. The election there in 2018 is exemplary for a global trend that means no less than the total reversal of previous hopes that the Internet and social networks were instruments of democratization, not least thanks to their role in the protests, uprisings, and revolutions beginning in late 2010 in the Arab world. Participation, discourse, and information were not only to become more accessible, but people initially even believed that technology would put pressure on authoritarian regimes.

“Social media are no longer only used by one side”, argue Niklas Kossow and Ilyas Saliba when criticizing the myth of the internet as a democracy machine. “They are not a pure catalyst for revolutionary movements, but rather in the meantime can just as easily be instrumentalized as a tool of security agencies and state propaganda”.

Authoritarian regimes such as the one in Turkey still resort to internet shutdowns. In other places, like China, certain networks are not accessible in the first place. The dominant mode, however, no longer consists of control and blocking, but rather in utilizing technology for authoritarian or populist potentials. One example of this is Donald Trump, and it is no coincidence that he must confront accusations that his campaign was supported by the Russians.

Another facet points beyond Brazil as an isolated case: the rise of new, authoritarian political forms has been supported by “fake news” everywhere. A growing number of protagonists indulged in “alternative truths”, played with emotions and attention-grabbing effects. This helped to strengthen already-existing scepticism of democratic institutions—with the intent of fuelling the appeal of authoritarian, nationalist, and racist “solutions”.

Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign is exemplary of this trend: “It is driven exclusively by emotions and subjective perceptions instead of facts or arguments”, Franzen argued in an analysis for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Truth is defined in a radically subjective manner, aesthetics have overwhelmed ethics, substance does not count any more, but only the way in which something is said.

This article first appeared in maldekstra #4. Translation by Loren Balhorn.

Editors' Note:
Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp has responded to criticism in the meantime and tightened up their terms of service: “Our products are not intended for bulk or automated messaging, both of which have always been a violation of our Terms of Service.“ According to the messenger service, beginning in December such violations will also be subject to criminal prosecution. Accounts sending mass messages will be closed: “In addition, beginning on December 7, 2019, WhatsApp will take legal action against those we determine are engaged in or assisting others in abuse that violates our Terms of Service, such as automated or bulk messaging, or non-personal use, even if that determination is based on information solely available to us off our platform.“