‘Democracy on the line’: Brazil’s election and the Bolsonaro disinformation ecosystem

Brazilians will return to voting booths on October 30 to decide a heated presidential race, with polls showing that the right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has directed the country’s slide toward authoritarianism over his four-year tenure, is expected to be voted out.

The first round of voting, on October 2, saw neither presidential candidate—incumbent Bolsonaro or left-wing challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010—reach 50 percent of the vote.

Patrícia Campos Mello, a reporter-at-large and columnist at Folha de São Paulo newspaper and Tow research fellow, has had a front-row seat for Brazil’s tumultuous past four years.

Her reporting on WhatsApp, stretching back to 2014, revealed in 2018 that Bolsonaro was benefiting from the illegal exploitation of mass messaging to promote disinformation to voters, with WhatsApp in 2019 admitting to irregular use of its platform.

Campos Mello’s investigative reporting made her the target of direct attacks from Bolsonaro, who fabricated sexist allegations that she “tried to seduce” sources to aid her reporting, with misogyny being a key theme in the president’s persistent attacks on journalists. Campos Mello sued Bolsonaro and was awarded $3,800 in compensation earlier this year.

Having focused most recently on disinformation and covid in Brazil, Campos Mello has reported from fifty countries, covering wars in Syria and Afghanistan, Ebola in Sierra Leone, and the 9/11 attacks in New York. Her work has won a slew of awards, including the 2019 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Campos Mello’s reporting, at its best, is like an arrow flying steady and true to puncture the false, inflated narratives of the powerful.

I spoke to Campos Mello via video from her bustling newsroom in São Paulo, three days after Brazil’s first day of voting. We talked about democracy, disinformation, electronic voting machines, and coping with relentless attacks. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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JB: This has been called the most significant election since democracy returned to Brazil in the 1980s. Is democracy on the line whether Bolsonaro wins or loses?

PCM: Absolutely. If Bolsonaro is reelected, the first thing he’s going to do is increase the number of Supreme Court justices from eleven to fifteen. There’s already a constitutional amendment he is promoting to do that—which new legislators who are mostly aligned with him support—and the next president gets to pick two more justices, because two are retiring. That means Bolsonaro is going to have the majority of the Supreme Court. And we’ve seen in the US what happens. The Supreme Court has been the last of the checks and balances standing. So if he’s reelected he’ll have the Supreme Court, Congress—which saw a huge amount of votes to pro-gun legislators and evangelical fundamentalists. So yes, democracy is on the line.

 

JB: There have been many comparisons between Bolsonaro and Trump, particularly his attitude toward the 2020 election, such as declaring that any result other than winning would be “fraud.” In what ways has Bolsonaro laid the ground for the undermining of the election infrastructure?

PCM: It’s very similar to what Trump did. Trump was sowing doubts about mail voting and Bolsonaro is doing the same about electronic voting. We’ve had these electronic voting machines since 1996, and there’s never been any widespread fraud. He’s been saying that since the first day he was inaugurated, because he actually argues that he won in the first round in 2018 and that votes were stolen.

In order to undermine the electoral system, he does three things. First, he says unless there are paper receipts for the electronic voting machines, it’s impossible to audit, which is untrue—there are several other auditing mechanisms in place. He says the electoral authorities are biased toward left-wing candidates. And finally, spreading disinformation about the polls, saying mainstream polls were communist, or not accurate or fair.

 

JB: Most of the polls showed Bolsonaro was trailing Lula, but in the first round he defied those polls. How should we understand what’s happened here?

PCM: Excellent question. Basically, we spent the last few weeks trying to set the record straight and say, you know, all of this from Bolsonaro is disinformation about the mainstream polling institutes—and then it turns out that they were really wrong. They didn’t get votes for Lula wrong, but they underestimated votes for Bolsonaro by about 10 or 12 percentage points. In general they underestimated the votes of Bolsonaro supporters, which is very similar to what happened in the US in 2016. But instead of trying to understand what was wrong with the polling samples—why polling institutes are not reaching voters or why it’s not a faithful portrait of society—it’s just being dismissed, people saying polls are just a “snapshot in time.” Which doesn’t help. Almost all polls got everything wrong, and that actually boosted Bolsonaro’s narrative that the system is against him and there’s widespread fraud. They are now calling for a congressional hearing and investigation into the polling institutes.

 

JB: Do you think by spreading doubt about the polls, Bolsonaro’s fans might have refused to take part? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.

PCM: Yes, I do think that. I think one of the reasons is: if you keep delegitimizing polls for weeks, the Bolsonaro supporters will not answer pollsters. So that’s one of the explanations. But people are still trying to figure out what happened.

 

JB: Back in 2018, you reported on the prolific and illegal use of mass messaging on WhatsApp as an election tool that benefited Bolsonaro. What are we seeing this time around from pro-Bolsonaro use of social media?

PCM: Since 2019, after new legislation, WhatsApp realized they had a PR nightmare and started bringing lawsuits against the agencies offering mass-messaging services. This time, we have a full-blown Bolsonaro disinformation ecosystem. There’s a universe of junk news sites, sites that pretend to be regular news but are actually propaganda and disinformation. And these websites are being promoted by Bolsonaro’s supporters, allies, politicians, and ministers as the only trustworthy sources of information. The links and stories are circulated in WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Basically, there is political propaganda and advertising that should be declared to the electoral authorities, but it’s not being declared. Because these websites—which are essentially engaged in electoral campaigning, campaigning against Lula—we don’t even know who the owners are. They’re all anonymous. So it’s easy for Bolsonaro to distance himself. This is really effective. This way, he’s been able to erase the horrendous management of the pandemic and Brazil’s ongoing economic crisis.

 

JB: So characterizing Bolsonaro’s relationship with journalism and the media, is it fair to say he’s bypassing traditional avenues—speaking to voters directly through streaming, other platforms, and his own news ecosystem?

PCM: Absolutely, yes. Part of the strategy is that, for years, he’s been attacking journalists and media outlets. Saying you shouldn’t read the newspapers or watch TV and all the journalists are communists. Part of this is misogynistic: he’s always attacking female journalists. And what we’re seeing now is the result of four years of attacks against the press—he’s in a very good position to bypass the filter of traditional media.

 

JB: And I wanted to ask maybe a difficult question for you. For holding power to account as a reporter, you’ve been attacked by Bolsonaro personally, you and your family have been threatened by scores of his fans and supporters, you’ve had fake news stories written about you. If you’re comfortable talking about it, how has that abuse been at this election—when he’s not just a candidate, he’s in power—and how do you cope with such relentless attacks?

PCM: (Sighs) This election, every time we publish something that is investigative or against the government’s narrative, we have a wave of extreme right-wing YouTubers and bloggers attacking me or other reporters. So yes, every now and then I do have politicians or extreme right-wing journalists doing videos saying that I’m a communist, that I’m—I don’t even know the words they use. That happens. Bolsonaro himself has not said anything again against me. Actually, he has a new target in the last few weeks. A colleague of mine. She’s the anchor of our version of Meet the Press. She’s been attacked by him personally. And every time the president or his allies attack you, then you start getting online attacks. But it’s very sad to think that this is the new normal now. So I guess [relatively], it’s not been that bad [this election cycle]. It has been much worse in other periods.

 

JB: But you know, you say maybe it’s the new normal, but you’ve reported in war zones—Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan—but only in Brazil have you needed a bodyguard to be hired by your newspaper. How do you reflect on that, and how do you cope with those attacks?

PCM: It’s very sad to think about it. We’re supposedly in a democratic country and, yes, this is the only place where I actually needed someone with me for security reasons. And every time I was covering conflicts I never had a security person, just because it’s disrespectful to the people who are living in that country. You know, we come from a very privileged situation. I have a home and I can go back anytime I want. But then all of a sudden, you’re in your own country, just covering the elections or the covid pandemic, and you’re being targeted by your own government.

It’s like everything we learned in school or college about what you need to do to write a good story—check your sources, documents, try to be balanced—it’s like there’s one more thing you have to do: brace yourself. Where’s the attack going to come from? Are they going to threaten your son? Are they going to call me saying that they’re going to punch you in the face? I don’t think we self-censor before publishing. But I don’t know, it’s not easy.

 

JB: You’ve talked about these attacks on reporters—which are always most viciously targeted at women—as a kind of censorship, harking back to the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship before the 1980s. Could you elaborate on that?

PCM: Yeah, of course journalists today are not being imprisoned or tortured like in the military dictatorship. Actually, this is a part of history that Bolsonaro has been trying to erase and rewrite, as part of the population doesn’t believe that military rule was an actual dictatorship and that people were tortured and killed. But there is a more subtle, insidious kind of censorship.

First, you have what’s called censorship by noise. The amount of disinformation that is circulating on social media and on friendly TV stations is just overwhelming. People don’t know what to believe in. I’ve spoken to people who say, “I know information from WhatsApp isn’t really trustworthy, but the TV networks and newspapers are biased too.” So Bolsonaro has managed to drown out professional journalism. And then on the other hand, you have intimidation and attacks against journalists and specific media outlets. It’s very difficult. That is a new kind of censorship. And the result is, it’s much harder for people to access quality information.

 

JB: So if we fast-forward to the second round of the election and say Bolsonaro loses—having laid the groundwork by sowing distrust in the election infrastructure but also doing things like doubling private gun ownership in Brazil—how bad could this get? Is there a risk of further political violence, insurrection even?

PCM: There’s no way he’s going to accept the results if he loses. He’s made that clear. If he loses he’s going to dispute the results. Some foreign diplomats have said, Oh, well, do you think the military would really support a coup d’état? I think this is beside the point. Because you have a minority of the population that is so radicalized that they are going to resort to violence. You could have—and this is not a far-fetched situation—Bolsonaro or one of his allies doing a livestream saying, “These election workers are manipulating results, and you should go and confront them.” [If that happens] there is going to be violence. Brazil is a much younger democracy than the US. Until about thirty-five years ago we had a military dictatorship. So I’m not sure Bolsonaro would be successful in a coup attempt, but I am sure that, if he loses, he’s not going to accept the results. And he’s going to incite his supporters to go onto the streets. And we have one million more guns circulating since he was inaugurated—because it was made so much easier to purchase guns—that of course it’s a concern.

 

JB: There are two issues I want to ask you about if Bolsonaro defies the polls and wins. The economy has been a big issue in the election. Around thirty-three million people in Brazil are struggling to eat, inflation reached 10 percent earlier this year, growth is sluggish. If he wins a second term, how will those people struggling to put food on the table be affected?

PCM: On top of all the election disinformation, he’s been trying to buy votes. Bolsonaro changed electoral legislation and fiscal austerity legislation so that he could spend over fifty billion reais [$10 billion] handing out money two months before the election. He bypassed the usual process and got Congress to approve a constitutional amendment to do that. On the one hand, it’s good for the thirty-three million people who are starving. They really need the money. But on the other hand, on top of being illegal and trying to buy votes, there’s no guarantee that’s going to continue next year. He’s done all this extra spending out of the budget, so with next year’s fiscal situation it’s going to be really hard to maintain social programs. Because he just spent everything now.

 

JB: And The Guardian has been reporting the destruction of the Amazon has accelerated in recent months, with businesses profiting fearing a Bolsonaro defeat would make that harder. What would all this mean for the Amazon if he does win?

PCM: It’s a tragedy for the world. Because he’s going to continue the environmental policy—if you could call it that—of dismantling all the watchdogs, all the agencies combating deforestation from fires or illegal mining. He’s trying to get legislation approved to allow mining inside Indigenous territories. So it would be the same or even worse. One thing you can say is he’s not being dishonest about his plans. He thinks you have to develop the Amazon for agriculture or mining and that foreign powers just want to steal the Amazon’s resources, which is why they criticize his policies. It’s a tragedy.

 

JB: With a couple more weeks of this race, what will you and the newsroom behind you be doing to cover it?

PCM: One thing we’re doing is soul-searching about the polling, how to cover it. On top of that, it’s going to be a very tight race, so we have a few challenges. Not to amplify disinformation, even by accident, because they’re using traditional media to give a veneer of legitimacy to crazy claims. The other thing is: try to better understand the Bolsonaro voter. Just like [the Trump voter] in the US, maybe we have this very condescending view about these people who are extremely religious and very conservative—but maybe we’re missing the point and not understanding those voters. We have to work harder on that. And then finally, we’re all talking about what to do if Bolsonaro disputes the results.

 

JB: Do you mean like, as a newsroom, editors and reporters talking about if there is political violence, how are we going to cover that?

PCM: Yep. Editors have had that conversation: how to cover it, how not to amplify it. So if you have President Bolsonaro saying the votes are wrong, but the election authorities announcing the results, how are you going to cover these two things? Are you going to give them the same weight? Also, if there’s civil unrest, how are reporters going to cover that, when the media is directly targeted and gets yelled at and faces hostility at demonstrations?

 

JB: Wow.

PCM: And it’s a democracy.

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Jem Bartholomew is a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Economist, TIME, New York Magazine and others. In 2019, he was awarded Best Newcomer in the State Street press awards.

TOP IMAGE: Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro speaking in June. Photo: Alan Santos/PR/Wikimedia Commons