Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity in election polls is declining month by month. But that didn’t stop the Brazilian president from putting on an eloquent show of strength online a few weeks ago when he won Time magazine’s Person of the Year reader poll. Tesla founder Elon Musk has been named the most influential person of 2021 by Time himself. Bolsonaro won a quarter of the nine million votes cast online, comfortably beating former US President Donald Trump, whom he greatly admires. Thanks to the mobilization of his supporters, the right-wing politician conveniently reminds us that he maintains his numerical power.
The campaign to anoint Bolsonaro by Time was forged on Telegram, the new digital platform of choice for the Brazilian president and other right-wing leaders eroding democracy around the world. This is the space where they seek refuge from the measures against misinformation and fake news adopted by Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube.
The half-truths and lies circulating on social media played a prominent role in the last elections in Brazil: the internet was crucial for Bolsonaro’s victory. As the October elections approach, electoral authorities are particularly concerned about Telegram, which is rapidly accumulating users and with which they have not yet been able to establish any dialogue.
A few days after Bolsonaro became one of the Time‘s people of the year, the president of the Superior Electoral Court, Luís Roberto Barroso, wrote to the founder and CEO of Telegram, Pavel Durov, 37, born in Russia. The Brazilian magistrate asked Durov to cooperate with efforts to combat disinformation. He provided two facts in support of his petition: the app is downloaded on half of all cell phones in Brazil and “at the moment conspiracy theories and false information about the electronic voting system are being spread on Telegram,” her email reads. The Russian Zuckerberg did not respond and his company, headquartered in Dubai, has no representative in Brazil.
Bolsonarism (and Trumpism) landed on Telegram almost exactly a year ago, following the 2021 attack on the United States Capitol, when Twitter suspended Trump’s account for initiating the violent protest. The world’s so far most powerful politician has been left without his main speaker and Bolsonaro has taken notice. “Sign up for my official Telegram account,” he urged his followers. So began the campaign to take refuge in a space with fewer restrictions on the digital strategy that catapulted Bolsonaro to power. And it worked. The retired military officer has a million followers, more than any other world leader. He is followed by Trump (who has an unofficial account) and the presidents of Turkey, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia and Mexico, according to a report by Núcleo Jornalismo, a Brazilian site dedicated to analyzing the impact of social networks on people’s lives.
The last election was the most polarizing in Brazilian history. The next will also be dogfighting and foul play will likely abound. Brazil is a breeding ground for disinformation, explained data verifier Cristina Tardáguila in a recent edition of the Quarterly Americas Podcast. She supported this claim for three reasons: the news landscape beyond São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília is a wasteland because there is no independent press; 80% of Brazilians get most of their news from WhatsApp and there is a lack of fact checkers.
In addition, the Brazilian population is addicted to the Internet like few others, there is widespread distrust of institutions and the country is led by a president who denies science, who has cast doubt on the voting process – a cocktail that has great potential to infect the election campaign with disinformation, with the added fear that Bolsonaro will refuse to acknowledge the results if he loses.
“Telegram has become an important tool for politicians to talk to their grassroots supporters because it has fewer moderation controls and offers more broadcast resources,” the Núcleo Jornalismo report says. Bolsonaro’s account is Propaganda 2.0, a flood of information about government achievements with the added appeal that anyone can comment on posts anonymously. Phrases like “what you won’t find out in the press” are the typical hook.
Telegram was created by Durov in 2013. It has been downloaded over a billion times worldwide and as a measure of its growing success, it added 70 million new users in a single day last October. At first glance, it looks like WhatsApp, even its appearance is similar, but the moderation rules are considerably looser. Incitement to violence or terrorism and pornography are prohibited, but they offer carte blanche to those who wish to grossly distort the facts or lie unscrupulously. That’s a huge plus for a politician like Bolsonaro, who has been censored by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for disinformation. The Trump precedent weighs heavily.
Telegram also allows groups of 200,000 people, as opposed to the 256 limit on WhatsApp, which was put in place to prevent fake news from going viral, which prevailed during the last election campaign in Brazil. On Telegram, anyone can join a group, without an invitation.
If WhatsApp was the protagonist in the 2018 election, the stage is set for Telegram to have a similar influence in 2022. Bolsonaro’s children, like-minded members of Congress and leading pro-Bolsonaro figures – like fugitive blogger Allan dos Santos, who has been investigated for spreading fake news and blocked other social media sites — followed the president into this new digital territory. For Bolsonaro loyalists, Dos Santos is a martyr of free speech and Supreme Court justices mere censors of critical voices.
As part of its strategy to root out misinformation, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court successfully got Google to implement new requirements for campaign advertising and publicly report who pays for ads. The top election authority is also in negotiations with other big tech companies to ensure the elections are clean.
Bolsonaro despises the mainstream press. Since taking office, he has launched a frontal assault on the major media. He much prefers the world of social networks, where he has amassed 45 million followers. For Bolsonaro, Telegram is a platform more geared towards “interaction with the people” – without, of course, the downside of being held accountable or having to respond to too much criticism. It’s her comfort zone because she’s become freezing beyond the confines of the digital sphere. It is increasingly common for the president to be the subject of mockery during his carefully controlled public appearances and there are constant criticisms of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, inflation and unemployment.
Since Lula da Silva’s political rights were restored, the former president has boosted his social media presence, but he remains light years ahead of Bolsonaro’s numbers. On Telegram, Da Silva has 46,000 followers and on Twitter, three million, but the habitat where the former trade unionist really feels at home is in the analog world of rallies and hugs from supporters. Although the pandemic has prevented Da Silva from fully re-entering the fray, he has comfortably led Bolsonaro in the polls for months.