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Brazil and the United States: How Far-Right Social Media Rhetoric Incites Democratic Backsliding

Image via Nacho Doce/Reuters

On January 8, thousands of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters rioted in Brasília to protest what they falsely claimed was a stolen election. They broke into and vandalized three major government buildings, setting fires and stealing weapons, in what the Washington Post called “the most significant assault on the country’s democratic institutions since a military coup in 1964.” Many have drawn comparisons to the January 6 insurrection two years ago, when a mob of former President Trump’s supporters broke into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. In both cases, online groups, chats, and social media platforms were a central space for organizing the events. The nature of the Brazilian riots shares several characteristics with the brand of populist conservatism exemplified by the supporters of former US President Donald Trump. This suggests that the United States, which is currently facing challenges arising from its own anti-democratic movement, is beginning to inspire members of the far right in other regions historically marked by political instability.

In both Brazil and the United States, the internet was used to incite anger and organize far-right groups prior to the riots. In the days leading up to January 6, far-right extremists mobilized people on conservative social media apps like Parler, an alternative platform associated with conservatives. These organizers also used the app throughout the siege to coordinate their actions, discussing which tools could forcibly open doors, whether to bring weapons into Congress, and best strategies to avoid the police. Other “alt-right” social media platforms popularized preceding and following January 6 have included Rumble (a YouTube alternative for conservatives) and Truth Social (created by Trump himself after he was ousted from Twitter).

However, besides social media specifically catered to the alt-right, Facebook in particular was used to mobilize people for the January 6 riots. Users spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, and extremist groups instrumentalized the platform to organize and coordinate their actions leading up to the event. In addition to Facebook, other traditional social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube were used to share information about the location and timing of the attacks, as well as to coordinate transportation and lodging for those planning to attend.

Alt-right propaganda on social media surged after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, spurring outrage among those who supported the outgoing president. Many, including Trump himself, notoriously declared that the election was “rigged” or that the election’s results were stolen and corrupted to Biden’s favor. The outrage culminated in the events of January 6 and made glaringly apparent the power of social media to mobilize people to participate in dangerous and illegal activities. 

Brazil’s January 8 protestors were inspired by similar extremist ideas and conspiracy theories. They too were radicalized online. Michele Prado, an independent researcher who studies digital movements and the Brazilian far right, explained to the New York Times that “digital platforms were fundamental not only in the extreme right-wing domestic terrorism on Sunday, but also in the entire long process of online radicalization over the last 10 years in Brazil.” In fact, online far-right extremism was so pervasive that, even prior to January 8, many thought a violent insurrection was likely. In the months leading up to the election, social media platforms were rife with disinformation about the election and calls for a military coup in the instance that Bolsonaro lost the election. Popular posts featured language blatantly taken from the January 6 rioters, such as the slogan “Stop the Steal.”

Prado and other misinformation researchers have singled out Twitter and Telegram, a popular platform among Brazil’s far right, as the two primary spaces for protest organization. One image on Telegram urged “patriots” to mobilize in Brasília on January 8 to “mark a new day of independence.” This message was posted to more than a dozen Telegram channels. Organizers on Telegram posted dates, times, and routes for “Liberty Caravans” that would pick people up and ferry them to the riot in at least six Brazilian states, according to the Washington Post. Another post stated: “Attention Patriots! We are organizing for a thousand buses. We need 2 million people in Brasília.” While Telegram and Twitter were flooded with right-wing content, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok added to the commotion: “[Instagram and Facebook] directed thousands of users who plugged in basic search terms about the election toward groups questioning the integrity of the vote.” Additionally, on TikTok, reportedly five out of eight of the top search results for the word “ballots” linked to videos with phrases such as “rigged ballots” and “ballots being manipulated.”

In the months since Elon Musk took over Twitter, far-right figures in Brazil have been able to have their accounts reinstated as a “general amnesty unless they violated rules again.” This helped extremists who had previously been banned from the platform play a role in inciting the protests, widely spreading the hashtag #FestadaSelma. “Festa” is the Portuguese word for “party” and “selva” means “war-cry.” The hashtag alters the word “selva” by substituting an “m” for the “v” in order to better avoid apprehension from Brazilian authorities. 

Notably, anti-democratic acts are a crime in Brazil. Thus, Bolsonaro supporters and rioters have avoided drawing too many comparisons between their actions and the US January 6 insurrection out of fear of arrest. Regardless, Viktor Chagas, a professor at Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro, claimed that the riot was “a clear attempt to emulate the invasion of the US Capitol, as a reproduction of Trumpist movements and a symbolic signal of strength and transnational connections from the global far right.” 

While there are similarities between the two events, the situation in Brazil highlights the fragility of democracy in less stable regions of the world and raises concerns about whether the United States, which is also under assault from its own anti-democratic movement, is beginning to resemble these regions. While Bolsonaro did not explicitly provoke the gathering of protesters like Trump did, his behavior of sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the election and refusing to concede his loss is not an outlier in a nation where democracy is perpetually fragile. Brazil’s democratic institutions, like those of the United States two years ago, have held firm so far. But the implications of Bolsonaro’s election denial have raised concerns within the Biden administration, which has put threats to global democracy at the center of its foreign policy. The recent violence in Brazil serves as a flashing warning sign that the health and survival of free elections anywhere cannot be taken for granted.

The events of January 6, 2021 in the United States and January 8, 2023 in Brazil provide useful insights into disinformation and its role in shaping public opinion. These events, while occurring in different parts of the world, both involved the use of social media and misinformation to sow discord and incite violence. In both instances, political leaders who lost elections refused to concede and instead amplified false claims of election fraud. This, in turn, fed into a larger narrative that fueled the insurrections. Furthermore, disinformation campaigns were utilized to undermine trust in democratic institutions and create a sense of chaos and instability. While these events occurred on different continents, they highlight the global spread of disinformation and suggest that political instability in the United States may be fueling a global trend of democratic backsliding.