Photo: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, source: Wikipedia

JI-Brasilia, As Brazilians prepare to head to the polls soon to vote in the first round of their country’s election, mis-, dis-, and mal-information (MDM) is ubiquitous, including baseless claims of widespread electoral fraud. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is running for reelection, appears to be taking a page from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook by laying the groundwork for claims of a stolen election and a contestation of the results, should he lose. A similar phenomenon played out during Brazil’s 2018 election, when MDM proliferated across social media, including WhatsApp, where disinformation purveyors spread lies to hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp phone numbers. These included false narratives surrounding gender identity, LGBT issues, and other hot-button social topics. Election authorities responded by banning the use of mass messaging for political purposes and threatened to disqualify any candidates found to be in violation of the new regulations.

Approaching the upcoming election, where Brazilian voters will go to the polls to elect a president, 27 state governors, and representatives at the state and federal levels, false election narratives have been dominant, suggesting that Brazil may soon have to grapple with its own version of ‘the Big Lie,’ the falsehood that Trump won the 2020 election. Incredibly, Trump continues to peddle that lie, as do many of his supporters, including lawmakers and other elected officials in the United States. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has emulated Trump by suggesting that the elections were rigged, electronic voting machines were prone to fraud, and that polls showing his opponent in the lead were falsified and could not be trusted. Bolsonaro, who has been advised by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, has also mimicked Trump’s policies and political style, dismissing the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and launching personal attacks against his political rivals, labeling them “thieves” and making unfounded accusations about corruption and bribery. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has also downplayed the threat of climate change, accelerating the deforestation of the Amazon. Further, Bolsonaro has captured the imagination and political momentum of many Brazilian evangelicals, with him and his allies working to transform fast-growing evangelical churches into the bedrock of his base. Capitalizing on deeply contentious issues, such as abortion, and invoking religious language in his speeches, Bolsonaro has courted many evangelical leaders, as Trump did in the US. Influential ministers have called for their congregants to attend protests against democratic institutions and have spread false information, such as rumors that Bolsonaro’s opponent will close Christian churches. With the deluge of religious imagery from the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection in the US still fresh in memory, what role these influential leaders and their base play in the aftermath of the election – and potentially contested results – could be significant.

There are growing concerns about the aftermath of the election, should Bolsonaro lose to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, with fears Brazil could be engulfed with violence similar to that seen in the United States. There have already been numerous documented cases of violence against poll and election workers. A Brazilian Supreme Court judge has warned about the prospects for even more political violence, as a surge in gun ownership has led many to fear about the possible escalation of violent protests. In a letter to U.S. President Joseph Biden, 39 lawmakers, including Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), wrote: “President Bolsonaro’s reckless and dangerous rhetoric about electoral fraud raise serious fears that he will potentially impede a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.” The letter went on to say, “Having personally experienced the horrors of the January 6 insurrection, we know all too well the consequences.”

While social media companies have made modest improvements in combating disinformation in the lead-up to the election, overall, the results have been disappointing. MDM continues to run rampant on YouTube, Telegram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter, while also being shared widely on more fringe platforms such as Gettr and PatriaBook. On Telegram, members of the far-right are calling openly for a military coup in the wake of a Bolsonaro loss. Reinforcing these threats, Bolsonaro himself has vowed to “go to war” and urged his supporters to do the same if he fails to triumph in the election. The prospect of a military coup conjures up painful memories of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled the country between 1964-1985. Brazil could soon be on the verge of facing the most significant test to its democracy in nearly four decades, as its institutions brace for a potential torrent of disinformation and political violence. Ironically, the United States, historically known for exporting democracy, is now associated with developing the playbook for dictators and strongmen to use to sow doubt about democratic elections, while simultaneously offering a blueprint for authoritarian leaders to seize power by force.

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