When Facebook and its sister social media sites were hit by an outage in October, Jair Bolsonaro seized his chance to act. On Twitter, Brazil’s populist president rejected the platforms’ “constant instability” and urged fans to follow him instead on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
It was a strategy that was squarely focused on his re-election campaign this year. The hard-right leader, who is seen as Brazil’s first “social media president”, used WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter dramatically to win the vote in 2018.
But thanks to his outspoken rhetoric – and what opponents call his frequent use of fabricated news – Bolsonaro has harmed both the Big Tech groups and Brazil’s top courts, indicating that they will take a stern stance on any misinformation before the October polls. .
Just weeks after the president urged his followers to abandon Facebook, the platform deleted one of its live broadcasts in which he speculated that the Covid-19 vaccine could cause AIDS. WhatsApp – used by almost all Brazilians – has also suppressed the dissemination of misinformation, placed restrictions on the size of chat groups and the number of times messages can be forwarded.
These moves have raised the possibility that Bolsonaro, who kept followers informed last week during a two-day hospital stay to treat abdominal pain, could be permanently banned from Meta-owned platforms – such as his populist mentor Donald Trump. Media analysts say the threat is causing a shift to platforms with looser regulation, including Telegram and new alt-right sites like Gettr.
“WhatsApp worked as an ecosystem [where Bolsonaro’s supporters] producing and distributing their news, which is basically fake news. But because WhatsApp worked to delay incorrect information, they then migrated to Telegram, ”said David Nemer, a Brazilian professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.
Industry estimates indicate that more than 50 percent of Brazilians have installed Telegram on their cell phones. Bolsonaro self has already accumulated more than 1 million followers. His closest allies, including his sons, promote the application at every opportunity.
Unlike WhatsApp, which places a limit of 256 people on group chats, Telegram groups can contain hundreds of thousands of users. It also has channels where selected users can send messages to millions of followers, says a feature that eliminates any form of debate.
“You can have these massive channels and only post a few people, so there is no room for debate. The radicalization aspect [of social media] becomes stronger because there is no fighting back, ”Nemer said, noting that Telegram groups have“ tons ”of extremist content.
The Dubai-based group did not respond to a request for comment. Critics say it is almost impossible for Brazilian authorities to hold Telegram accountable because it has no legal representation in the country.
“For Brazil, it is very worrying. They [Telegram] do not respond to any communications or even subpoenas from the Electoral Court or the Supreme Court, ”said Patricia Campos Mello, a social network researcher at Columbia University.
Campos Mello said Bolsonaro’s supporters have built a “parallel information ecosystem” in which sympathetic news is generated by seemingly mainstream websites and then shared in Telegram or WhatsApp to reinforce – or legitimize – the president’s views. Government officials then promote the news sites, which in turn are monetized by Google ads.
The situation has been complicated by the proliferation of all-right platforms with little or no content regulation. Gettr, a Twitter-like platform run by a former Trump assistant, which was launched in Brazil in September. Bolsonaro quickly attracted nearly 500,000 followers.
“The country has always been one of the top markets for competitive social platforms,” said Gettr CEO Jason Miller. “The difference here is that the Big Tech platforms regularly censor political speech for Brazilians, leading to a greater demand for a platform like Gettr that allows people to really speak their minds within the bounds of the law.”
Experts say that while these platforms are unlikely to “burst” bubbles from the far right, they serve as repositories to share posts or videos that have been blocked by traditional Big Tech groups.
“[Gettr] is not just another place to publish content, it is a place that changes the way disinformation campaigns work on other networks, ”says João Bastos dos Santos, a social media specialist at Brazil’s National Institute of Science and Technology in Digital Democracy.
For many, the impact of new social media platforms will be on this year’s poll determined by Brazil’s Supreme Court. Following the uproar over hoax news in the 2018 election, the court known as the STF has taken a noticeably stricter direction.
Judge Alexandre de Moraes, one of Bolsonaro’s most vocal opponents, warned in October that if there was widespread use of fake news during the campaign, those responsible would be charged and “jailed for attacking the elections and democracy”. That same month, Moraes ordered the expulsion of a prominent pro-Bolsonaro blogger, Allan dos Santos, from the U.S. for allegedly spreading false news.
Luís Roberto Barroso, president of the High Electoral Court, said the court had “learned a lot since the 2018 presidential election in dealing with disinformation campaigns”, adding that it had partnered with technology platforms and fact-checking groups to remove fraudulent content.
Bolsonaro’s ability to use social media in the campaign is also likely to be curtailed due to his alienation from several interest groups that supported him in 2018.
“In 2018, it was a coalition between several groups that did not always band together: the anti-corruption group, anti-communism, evangelical groups, ultra-libertarian groups, all gathered around Bolsonaro,” Bastos dos Santos said.
“But a few weeks after he was elected in January, several groups were already quite empty. They did not identify enough to continue there. “
Additional Reporting By Carolina Ingizza