The fake-news kingpin of Brazil

April 13, 2022
Blogger Allan dos Santos in the city of Brasilia. Photo: Mateus Bonomi / AGIF (via AP)

In 2014, Allan dos Santos, a former seminarian from Rio de Janeiro, started a blog. He had given up his religious vocation and discovered a new career path in blogging while traveling the United States. He chose its name, Terça Livre (or Free Tuesday), as an attempt to rebrand the initials of liberation theology, a form of Catholicism prevalent in Latin America that emphasizes the religious imperative to liberate the oppressed.

Dos Santos initially published a video every Tuesday, in a sort of unscripted talk show in which he attacked opponents—left-wing politicians and traditional media—and expressed ultra-conservative views against a supposed cultural threat seeking to destroy families. He saw global conspiracies in everything. Part of his inspiration came from Church Militant, a subscription-based blog with positions against social-welfare programs, immigration, and abortion.

He sought to emulate Olavo de Carvalho, a former astrologist, newspaper columnist, and self-described philosopher who, with increasingly far-right positions, came to be known as “Jair Bolsonaro’s guru.” Though he’s based in Virginia, through his use of social networks, Carvalho has captivated many young people dissatisfied with the Brazilian political system. 

Dos Santos approached Bolsonaro, who had announced he would run for president, and his family in 2016. Despite his posturing as an outsider, Bolsonaro was no stranger to politics; with nearly three decades in Congress, the former army captain and chronic party-switcher had won seven parliamentary elections by the time he decided to run. 

Early on, he seized on a digital-forward campaign strategy. In September 2018, a month before the presidential elections, Bolsonaro posted a short video on social media. In it, WhatsApp groups flood his cellphone with countless notifications. The noise of successive notifications grows to a burst; the speed of the incoming messages makes it impossible to read anything. “I’ll get back to you,” a smiling Bolsonaro says.

When Bolsonaro assumed the presidency, on January 1, 2019, dozens of journalists said that they were denied access to the rooms related to the inauguration (among other restrictions, like being prevented from using the restrooms) in favor of influencers close to the new government. “They lie blatantly,” dos Santos said in a video on his social media, referring to the journalists’ complaints. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Still hardly known at the time, dos Santos, who is now thirty-eight, marked the rise of a government that despised the traditional media and used fake news as a communication tool. He helped start a new chapter in the war of narratives that would challenge the country’s institutions, going on to become a key figure in the domination of fake news in Brazil.

Throughout the 2018 presidential campaign, Brazilians were drowned in a “sea of lies.”

WhatsApp is the leading social network in Brazil; it also “became a public service in the country,” said David Nemer, a professor of media studies and Latin American studies at the University of Virginia. “Phone companies offer access to WhatsApp at no cost.” In other words, there is less incentive to read the news on an actual news site when, on WhatsApp, consumers can read headlines for free. “Although many see this as digital inclusion,” Nemer said, “it’s actually digital colonialism.”

At the same time, changes in platforms like Facebook altered the way information was disseminated by favoring more radical rhetoric, Marlos Apyus, a journalist and content analyst, said. “It’s not that these people were always saying the same absurd things and over time they were listened to. They were radicalizing the tone, they were adapting their discourse for that new moment, and in that new climate, they won.”

In his book Technology of the Oppressed (2022), Nemer shows how the inhabitants of a favela use technology to free themselves from day-to-day violence. In part, that led to the popularity of disinformation campaigns that appeared on those same technologies. 

Until recently, a typical presidential election in Brazil, which embraced democracy in 1985, relied on two indispensable tools: a national party engine and TV airtime. Bolsonaro had neither. His campaign of homemade videos and radical discourse was not taken seriously by many—even when he was leading the polls. But ultimately, he won. 

As early as 2014 and 2015, Nemer said, people were added to WhatsApp groups filled with messages like “Communism was not Christian, or to launch messages in favor of Bolsonaro and against the Workers’ Party.” People joined the groups because they saw friends’ numbers, he said. “But in reality, they were groups made to promote Bolsonaro.”

“Bolsonaro and his family understood, very early on, the importance of a digital campaign,” said Patrícia Campos Mello, one of Brazil’s best-known journalists. “They had formed WhatsApp groups, and in those groups there was a brutal circulation of fake news, mainly against the opposition candidate,” said Campos Mello, a reporter for Folha de S. Paulo, the most widely circulated newspaper in the country.

Bolsonaro’s campaign relied on mass messaging on WhatsApp—and in some cases, according to Campos Mello’s reporting, it did so illegally. “They hired marketing agencies, bought data banks of voters with specific profiles, and sent messages massively with software that automated the process.” 

“Bolsonaro boasted of having run the cheapest campaign in the history of Brazil,” Nemer said. “All the dirty money that was used to promote disinformation on social networks and WhatsApp was not accounted for.”

The result was that throughout the 2018 presidential campaign, Brazilians were drowned in what Campos Mello called a “sea of lies.” Two out of three people claimed to have received fake news via WhatsApp during the campaign, according to a survey by Idea Big Data. The campaign sowed distrust about the electoral system, as Bolsonaro claimed the ballot boxes were fraudulent, even after he won. Other lies tended to the absurd—like claims that the Workers’ Party had distributed baby bottles with penis-shaped nipples to daycare centers. Even so, they were far-reaching and effective. Without most people realizing, the way not only to conduct a successful political campaign, but also to consume even basic information in Brazil, had completely changed.

The most relevant thing about this period was the consolidation of a kind of disinformation engine at the institutional level.

Since Bolsonaro’s election, Terça Livre has grown prolifically in staff and content; dos Santos is now a leading contributor to the omnipresence of fake news in Brazil. His posts, promoted by the Bolsonaro family, whom he interviewed frequently, abounded in claims of an alleged communist conspiracy and attacked the media, government figures, and politicians from other parties. 

When covid-19 hit Brazil in March 2020, the fake-news phenomenon entered a new dimension. “It became something that killed people,” Apyus said. The virus brought the Brazilian health system to its knees as Bolsonaro maintained that the coronavirus did not exist or was nothing more than “a little flu”—claims dos Santos would repeat on his networks. (Dos Santos did not respond to requests for comment.)

But it seems that what motivates dos Santos is not ideology. It’s the chance to make money, according to interviews. With the support of the Bolsonaro family and others in the government, he reached thousands of followers on his social networks, where he monetized the reproductions of his videos, asked for donations, and sold courses on journalism and philosophy. 

There are strong suspicions that the financial structure behind Terça Livre did not depend exclusively on his followers. According to two investigations authorized by Brazil’s Supreme Court, dos Santos is suspected of receiving public money from government officials to promote falsehoods about political figures and Brazilian democracy. 

In the crosshairs of the investigations, dos Santos left Brazil in July 2020 and settled in the United States. He said in a recent video that he now lives in Orlando. Successive court orders froze his bank accounts and closed his accounts on Twitter and YouTube. A Supreme Court judge issued an extradition order that was formalized last year, even though, according to local media reports, members of the government have tried to sabotage the extradition process.  

Banned from other platforms and in the midst of the judicial fight, dos Santos migrated to Telegram, where he disseminated dozens of texts and videos each day in which he attacked authorities of public power, politicians, journalists, and former allies. His channel, where he described himself as “persecuted,” grew to more than 122,000 followers. Dos Santos would ask for donations and economic support to send some belongings to the United States and sell subscriptions for exclusive material.

In addition to defaming political personalities, journalists, former allies, and representatives of public authorities, he would question the efficacy of covid-19 vaccines, attack the Chinese government, and promote “anti-censorship manuals” to try to circumvent apps’ moderation mechanisms.

Many believe that Telegram will be a crucial site of Brazil’s upcoming electoral battle, Sergio Spagnuolo, a director of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, said. 

“First it became an alternative to WhatsApp, and after what happened on January 6, 2021, in the United States, with a stronger moderation of platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, which began to remove messages that questioned the outcome of the US elections, many radicalized Brazilian groups feared losing their voice and sought another space to disseminate their messages,” Spagnuolo said. “This is the case for Allan dos Santos himself.”

According to Spagnuolo, with more than one million followers on his official channel, Bolsonaro has the most subscribers on Telegram of any verified head of state.

“It is much less used than WhatsApp in Brazil, but it became an excellent disinformation tool because it has no office in the country,” Apyus said. “Thus, local authorities fail to contain the spread of disinformation there.” 

Apyus envisions another campaign marked by misinformation this year, albeit with some challenges. In February, Telegram banned dos Santos’s channel. He opened another account, only to be shuttered again.

In March, after Telegram ignored court orders related to curbing misinformation, the Brazilian Supreme Court banned Telegram altogether. The ban was lifted two days later, after Telegram’s CEO agreed to comply with demands to attempt to stanch the spread of misinformation. (Telegram claimed it missed the court’s emails.) 

Spagnuolo believes that political contenders will change their tactics for this year’s campaign. The former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva “recently participated in a podcast with more than 320,000 people watching in real time. His campaign is already being different from what it used to be—they are seeing the power this has, especially with the younger audience.”

But Nemer warns that in the fight for attention, fake news has the upper hand. “The far right plays with fake news and content that generates negative connotations, and those are the ones that generate more interaction. It’s human nature.”

“The most relevant thing about this period was the consolidation of a kind of disinformation engine at the institutional level,” said Tai Nalon, who founded the fact-checking site Aos Fatos. “Personally, it is very frustrating,” she said. Journalists are fatigued from their information environment, on top of the pandemic. “It worries me that we arrive so exhausted to an election.

“We are not in a common situation. This is not a common election. In these elections there is an adversary that is against the democratic system, journalism, and social consensus.” Nalon added that it’s unclear whether other platforms will take action against disinformation.

Meanwhile, dos Santos, now from a distance, continues to reaffirm his support for Bolsonaro. 

But the president—who will likely run for reelection against da Silva, the most popular politician in Brazil’s contemporary history and Bolsonaro’s archrival—does not seem to be returning dos Santos’s attention. Fábio Faria, Bolsonaro’s minister of communication, said he would not have attended a recent meeting where dos Santos was present, had he known the blogger—who previously enjoyed unlimited access to the cabinet—would be there.

“As a matter of survival, all these groups will end up supporting Bolsonaro. But not with the same commitment that was seen in 2018,” Apyus said. “For 2022, Bolsonaro has been betting more on the power of the presidential pen, distributing funds through parliamentary amendments, federal works, and social programs.”

Regardless, some in the media worry that the damage and challenges of the fake-news era that Bolsonaro ushered in have yet to be faced. 

“We didn’t manage to find a way to cover a digital populist leader like Bolsonaro without becoming his megaphone,” Campos Mello said. “I don’t know if we are prepared for what happened in the United States, an organic mobilization of people questioning the integrity of the vote and inciting violence. How is the press going to cover this without legitimizing a violent movement? We are more aware, but I think we still don’t know clearly how to do it.”

Paula Ramón is a Venezuelan journalist who has lived and worked in China, the United States, Brazil, and Uruguay. She is currently a West Coast correspondent for Agence France-Press based in Los Angeles. She has written and reported for The New York Times, National Geographic, and Piauí Magazine, among other outlets.