The series of events that transpired in Brazil at the beginning of 2023 reveals the challenges facing the new government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On the one hand, the change in government is the result of a choice made by the Brazilian people after four years of constant attacks on democracy and its institutions. On the other hand, the events of 8 January, which amount to an attempted coup, prove that the fascist threat is far from overcome. In order to understand what led to the current situation and to gauge the challenges the new government will encounter in its endeavour to reconstruct Brazilian democracy, we need to take a look at the current state of the media and communications in the country.
Helena Martins is the author of Comunicações em tempos de crise, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in collaboration with Expressão Popular, and an editor at revista Eptic.
Translated by Charlotte Thießen and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Lula’s third mandate started informally before the inauguration on 1 January. Lula’s transition team took up work as early as November of the previous year, gathering hundreds of people — party activists, specialists, and members of social movements — to assess the policies developed by Jair Bolsonaro and formulate proposals for the new government. No longer in opposition, the progressive camp found itself in a new position, triggering struggles over political narratives. The period was marked by the announcement that the disastrous social and environmental policies of the previous government would be dismantled, and by promises that the secret decrees Bolsonaro had enacted during his presidency would be made public.
This culminated in the official inauguration ceremony, attended by approximately 300 000 people in the federal capital of Brasilia. Even corporate media outlets, which had been under constant attack by the former president, succumbed to the hopes of a return to democratic normality and restrained their criticisms of Lula’s economic agenda.
Yet the social divisions that traverse the history of Brazil and were exacerbated in recent years were made starkly evident in the events of 8 January, when thousands of Bolsonaristas invaded and vandalized the Three Powers Plaza (the Supreme Federal Court, the National Congress, and the Planalto Presidential Palace). They had the support of some institutions, notably within the military, in the hopes that they would stage a coup d’état. The following day, whilst hundreds were being arrested in Brasilia, Bolsonaro supporters damaged transmission towers in at least three states (São Paulo, Paraná, and Rondônia). At the end of the month, a man died after setting himself on fire in a protest against the Supreme Federal Court.
Even if a possible coup was prevented, the vandalizing of buildings and the act of self-immolation in front of the STF are indicative of the deterioration of these institutions, which were consistently targeted by the former president during his mandate. According to the fact-checking agency Aos Fatos, in his 1,459 days in office, Bolsonaro made 6,685 false or distorted claims. The three most common false claims were: “What government corruption are you talking about? There is none, there are only vague, baseless accusations”, “I was stripped of my authority by the Supreme Federal Court (during the COVID-19 pandemic)”, and “I always said that we have to combat the virus, but we also have to combat unemployment in our country.”
The latter two explain the disastrous handling of the pandemic and led to the STF being held accountable for it, including the pandemic’s economic impact. The images of the Supreme Court under attack remind us that discourse also shapes reality.
In an Atlas study conducted online in the immediate aftermath of the riots, 75.8 percent of the 2,200 online respondents disapproved of the rioters’ actions, and 53 percent considered the action to be completely unjustified. Datafolha also found that 93 percent of respondents condemned the attacks. Despite the general disapproval of the riots, images of which circulated widely in the media, the same Atlas study also found that 36 percent of Brazilians were in favour of a military intervention that would nullify the electoral results, while 54 percent opposed a coup. Following the events of 8 January, Datafolha conducted a survey to establish whether public opinion of Jair Bolsonaro had shifted: 80 percent responded that their opinion remained the same, while only 11 percent said it had worsened.
Analysing these figures, political scientist Leonardo Avritzer points out that a rejection of these actions does not necessarily translate into a rejection of a possible military coup or even of Jair Bolsonaro. For him, “the future of Brazil’s democracy rests on the capacity of public opinion to transition from a condemnation of particular antidemocratic actions to the removal of those responsible for the culture that provoked these attacks”. Everything indicates that the extreme Right has succeeded in taking root in Brazilian society, that it has a strong popular character, and that it will keep exerting pressure on and destabilizing the new government.
The First Month of Lula’s Government
Lula’s government is working to produce such a shift, combining critical discourses with the presentation of a positive — albeit at this point mostly symbolic — political agenda regarding the material living conditions of the majority of the population.
After the Three Powers Plaza attacks, it temporarily removed the Governor of the Federal District of Brasília from office, taking over control of security while ramping up its demands for the prosecution of the participants. At the same time, the new government put forward a number of significant initiatives for the country that distinguish the government from its predecessor. These include respect for indigenous peoples, signalled with a visit to the Yanomami, and Latin American integration, with Brazil re-entering the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which the country had quit under Bolsonaro.
In the sphere of public communications, however, its response to date has been timid and contradictory. In order to broaden his support base in the National Congress, the Lula government handed the Ministry of Communication to União Brasil, a right-wing party that supported Bolsonaro. The ministry is responsible for policy pertaining to the communications sector, and therefore no structural changes are to be expected in this area — just as there were none under previous Workers’ Party (PT) governments for that matter.
These socio-political changes are occurring at a moment in which communication itself is undergoing a transformation, with the increasing centrality of the internet as the new structure of social mediation.
The PT heads the government’s Department of Social Communication (Secom), which has ministerial status and is responsible for developing the government’s communications strategy. After the change in government, and with the current political context in mind, the department proposed new institutions and policies aimed at the struggles over political narratives on social networks. Secom will be in charge of proposing policies for the digital realm, such as combatting disinformation. These initiatives are still in their developmental stages, whilst the communication mechanisms developed by the PT during its campaign such as support groups and fact checking groups have lost steam.
Looking to proactively combat disinformation, the Attorney General’s Office created the National Prosecutor’s Office for the Defence of Democracy on the government’s second day in office. The office’s aim is to defend democracy and combat disinformation that is used as a political weapon against public actions.
After 8 January, the government announced that it would take measures to combat disinformation and hold those involved responsible. This response to the situation was presented to Congress by the Ministry of Justice in a punitive tone. Yet the proposal was met with serious reservations, as Brazil still lacks a legal definition of disinformation that safeguards transparency and due process for content moderation as well as a body to regulate the sector, and the government was forced to retreat.
Besides the problems regarding policies in the sector and the lack of clear solutions, it is also worth considering the role played by social networks. On the one hand, every inauguration speech — whether that of Lula or of the Presidents of the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate — expressed concern about the situation. On the other hand, in his first interview after the attacks, with Globo News, Lula claimed that people were surprised by the events. Yet not only were groups gathering and camping out in front of military barracks, particularly in the federal capital, there was also a vast amount of information on social media that antidemocratic actions were being organized — which suggests that either this information did not reach the president or that the call was not taken seriously.
From Operation Car Wash to the Bolsonaro Presidency
The roots of conservative thought are to be found in the long tradition of authoritarianism in Brazil — the last country to abolish slavery in the Americas. The country gave amnesty to those in the military that imposed a dictatorship between 1964 and 1985, and has never confronted this legacy, including in terms of the Armed Forces from which Jair Bolsonaro would later emerge.
After two decades as a member of parliament, Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 with the support of fundamentalist evangelicals, the ultra-liberal bourgeoisie, and the military. It is worth noting that Brazil has seen an increase in the number of evangelicals in the last few years. They now make up more than 30 percent of the population (65 million people). They have gained influence through various means, including the media in particular, with a strong presence in broadcasting and on the internet.
Throughout the entirety of the Bolsonaro government, these sectors worked to expand their presence in Brazilian society. They benefited massively from the instrumentalizing of state apparatuses and policies, and in turn lent their support to Bolsonaristas, including during the elections.
Bolsonarismo is supported by the traditional Right, but is not identical to it. It is not driven by Brazil’s traditional right-wing families. Rather, it is a far-right movement that has gained popular traction in the context of a social and economic crisis, to which the Left was unable to provide answers.
Part of the popular outcry that drove people onto the streets of Brazil in 2013, in events resembling those of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement in Spain and US, was captured by the far Right, which positioned itself as being “against everything there is”. Meanwhile, the media was able to manipulate anti-corruption sentiment after Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) which was launched in March 2014 as an investigation into a money laundering and embezzlement scheme involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras, large contracting firms, and politicians. The links between Lava Jato and the hegemonic mass media groups (that would come to light years later with the leaking of conversations between the main representatives of these institutions) was able to drive a negative agenda against the Left, in particular against the PT, which was in government at the time.
Efforts to push an agenda against politics in general, and the Left in particular, find fertile ground in Brazilian society. This was also the case before the 1964 military coup, when the members of what was known as the Democracy Network, formed in 1963 by the newspaper companies O Globo, Jornal do Brasil, and Diários Associados, positioned themselves as representatives of public opinion, and reported disparagingly on traditional institutions such as political parties, unions, and even the National Congress. At the same time, they developed a positive image of the press, which was presented as a representative of the “traditional values of Brazilian society anchored in the defence of freedom and private property”, as historian and political scientist Aluysio Castelo de Carvalho puts it. The network was led by João Calmon, who was federal deputy at the time and chair of the Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters — still the main broadcasters’ association today.
The Bolsonaro family started building up an entourage of people who seem to be living in a state of cognitive dissonance reinforced by the mechanisms of social networks, which keep them imprisoned in algorithmic bubbles without any exposure to opposing viewpoints and in a kind of discussion where everything is possible — except dialogue.
The dictatorship saw the establishment of a very concentrated, privately owned media landscape tied to the interests of the bourgeoisie, and therefore closed off to public debate and democratic participation. Even with the return to democracy in the 1980s, the media continued to develop a discourse that was critical of democratic institutions, which found expression in the permanent criticism of politics and politicians.
In more recent years, the media has behaved similarly, with rare exceptions — such as the government of Fernando Henrique, during which the press adopted a posture of complacency toward the federal government and its neoliberal project. By contrast, the governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff received very different treatment.
Rousseff’s impeachment was justified to the public through the selective disclosure of accusations, especially the corruption allegations, the praising of and calling for protests demanding the removal of the president, and by selectively reinforcing arguments through repetition and the omission of contradictions. Rousseff’s impeachment paved the way for the implementation of an ultra-liberal agenda that would not be confirmed at the ballot box. Yet at the time, people did not expect that the ruins left by austerity policies and social fragmentation would produce a group of actors who did not keep to traditional agreements and who would go on to attack the traditional press outlets, seeking to overcome it in its function as a vehicle of social mediation.
These socio-political changes are occurring at a moment in which communication itself is undergoing a transformation, with the increasing centrality of the internet as the new structure of social mediation. The 2010s saw the proliferation of mobile phones and social media, accompanied by the increasing rates of access in Brazilian society.
According to TIC Domicílios, 81 percent of the Brazilian population had access to the internet in 2021, yet the criteria of what is considered access also needs to be taken into account. Internet access in Brazil is generally precarious, being predominantly via mobile devices and with limited browsing capacities due to low-volume data packages, in addition to widespread zero rating practices (deals that make users predominantly use social networks, as the data does not count toward their allowance).
The new digital environments further contributed to the replacement of political parties and other traditional liberal democratic institutions and facilitated a stronger involvement of parts of the population that had historically been excluded from public debate. From 2013 onwards, groups of people started to use these mechanisms to call for and spread protests, as well as to struggle over the direction that social dissatisfaction would take.
Disinformation as Political Strategy
Even if lies, decontextualization, and the omission of facts have always been part of the historical struggle over information, disinformation and fake news have started to be deliberately used as a central political strategy with the aim of obtaining political and financial gains. Following and appropriating the experiences developed by movements in other countries, mainly in the US, Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right movement built a complex communication system dedicated to the dissemination of disinformation. There are websites, YouTube channels with hundreds of thousands of followers, social media pages, and organized groups in messaging apps (primarily WhatsApp, but also Telegram) dedicated to attacking democratic institutions and the Left and to building up a political culture centred around conservative values.
Bolsonaro himself and his sons are central to the organization of these narratives, as they adopted a strategy of direct digital communication that runs according to a logic that breaks with the mediating institutions constituted by the democratic rule of law. They undermine other political institutions such as the traditional mass media and the STF to bolster their own legitimacy and ensure that their vision of the world is embraced by the receivers of this disinformation.
This development was not very apparent to the progressive sectors in 2018, who were therefore taken by surprise by Bolsonaro’s victory. It is worth noting that at that time, a candidate’s presence in broadcasting was considered a central factor in their degree of success. In Brazil, broadcasting time is distributed unequally to first-round candidates. Bolsonaro, who also had no support from the traditional parties, was given only 8 seconds. Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate, had two minutes and 23 seconds. At the time, rumours about corruption and a so-called “gay-kit”, which Haddad had allegedly distributed while Minister of Education, were gaining traction.
Once in government, Bolsonaro started setting up what became known as the “cabinet of hate”, which promoted disinformation from the heart of the federal government, while attacking the media and the fragile public communications system, and starting to use it to his own advantage. During his time as president, Bolsonaro maintained direct communication with the population, primarily through Twitter and live videos on YouTube. His group also had a strong presence on TikTok (which was still little used by progressives) and even on less well-known platforms such as Twitch. It could also count on the support of certain media outlets such as the television networks Record and SBT and the radio network Jovem Pan.
Brazil cannot remain oblivious to this situation.
The Bolsonaro family started building up an entourage of people who seem to be living in a state of cognitive dissonance reinforced by the mechanisms of social networks, which keep them imprisoned in algorithmic bubbles without any exposure to opposing viewpoints and in a kind of discussion where everything is possible — except dialogue. This set up furthers the distinction, characteristic of fascism and heavily utilized by Bolsonaro, between “us” and “them”. “Us” in this case designates the patriots, defenders of family values and liberty, while “they” are corrupt leftists with libertine tendencies. This division was instrumental to the building of a group of supporters that remained loyal to Bolsonaro despite the denialist policies that caused thousands of deaths during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Disinformation strategies were also relied upon in the 2022 elections, even if parts of the population were now more aware of them. During the first round, the Bolsonaro camp focused on spreading accusations of corruption and claims that the electronic voting machines were open to fraud. But the Bolsonaristas struggled to create a unified national narrative, with internal discord making the Right, and even the Bolsonaro camp itself, appear more dispersed in the elections.
In the second round, however, the disinformation strategy around Bolsonaro became more unified and gained traction. Apart from the issue of corruption, media content about values and religion were also disseminated more broadly.
The Left, which had already progressively been taking over Twitter, also gained followers on other social networks. The Election Observatory monitored several moments during the elections and registered a growing presence on Instagram and Facebook — even if it should be noted that the latter is considered obsolete by parts of the Left, despite being one of the main sources of political information for Brazilians. The Left also frequently falls behind on YouTube, despite efforts to produce independent journalism on the platform.
In the second round against Lula, the Right managed to establish a more cohesive communications strategy. But the Left, led by federal representative André Janones on the issue, also made efforts to unify its discourse and challenge the public agenda. Janones became Lula’s main public communications strategist. He oversaw the development of dissemination channels capable of setting the tone of the debates on social media. Janones also introduced aggressive narratives accusing Bolsonaro of corruption in sensationalist tones, which kept him busy giving answers and limiting his ability to attack.
Confronting Right-Wing Media
All signs point towards an electoral term in which the PT government will have to confront the Right both inside the National Congress and in society at large. It will have to defend democracy and, on a deeper level, develop a project for society that is able to face up to the Right with answers that are not only symbolic but that have a real impact on the material lives of the Brazilian population.
In terms of communications, we urgently need to tackle the concentration of media ownership in Brazil, as well as the lack of pluralism and diversity in public channels, which remain relevant and which are widely occupied by fundamentalist discourses and content that promotes positions hostile to human rights and the Left. We have reached this point very much thanks to the current communications scenario in Brazil. Tackling these old challenges is paramount.
As to the new challenges, the disinformation currently circulating on the internet is tied to how it is currently organized, driven as it is by the capitalist interests of digital platforms and a business model based on data usage, the dissemination of any content whatsoever (in the absence of any ethical or political considerations), with visibility being linked to revenue. In this scenario, the platforms benefit from keeping people hooked on content as part of the struggle for the attention of the population, which leads to the promotion of extreme content that generates comments and shares, even if it is false.
It is necessary to go far beyond what was done in the communications sector during the first PT governments in order to tackle the issue on a structural level. The transition report pointed out various ways of doing so, starting with a much-needed democratic debate about platform regulation across different sectors, including about their converging institutional arrangements.
Several civil society organizations such as the Rights in the Network Coalition, which bring together dozens of different groups, are calling for the approval of a project that would establish transparency mechanisms and due process on the internet, which is currently being processed in Congress. In this sense we have seen initiatives that follow the example of those being developed in the European Union, which has recently passed two laws dealing with the organization of digital markets and services.
Brazil cannot remain oblivious to this situation. It has the means and the urgent need to develop its own perspective and propose democratic regulation that is able to deal with the deterioration of public debate and the manipulation of networks for fascist politics.