As Brazil cracks down on fake news, Bolsonaro’s new move is straight out of Trump’s playbook
After Donald Trump’s failed 2020 re-election bid, some supporters claimed the media and social media had been unfair to the former president – a narrative that continues to resonate among his base today .
Similar claims now echo thousands of miles south in Brazil, where right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies claimed he was a ‘victim’ even before the October 30 ballot for the presidency began – offering a glimpse of how Bolsonaro could challenge a possible victory for his rival, former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.
« Bolsonaro is the victim of the greatest electoral fraud ever, » Bolsonaro’s son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, tweeted on Wednesday.
Right-wing Senator Lasier Martins meanwhile called for the election to be postponed – a chilling suggestion in a country that still bears the scars of military dictatorship.
Both were reacting to a decision by Brazil’s electoral authority on Wednesday to dismiss a complaint that Bolsonaro’s ads had received less airtime than those of Lula da Silva, in an alleged violation of campaign laws.
Late Wednesday night, Bolsonaro called a last-minute press conference in Brasilia where he made the same allegations of airtime violations, and vowed to appeal the decision.
« Tens of thousands of ads for the other side, and for our side we haven’t seen, on the radio we’ve seen almost none, » he said.
« We know it’s at the last minute, the elections are approaching (…) but that’s why the urgency and why we are appealing, » Bolsonaro added, perhaps aware of the optics of desperation.
Alexandre de Moraes, chief justice of the Supreme Electoral Court, defended the ruling, saying it is not the role of the court to monitor political ad placements – and even called for an investigation into Bolsonaro’s campaign to allegedly attempting to muddy the waters of the election by submitting a baseless complaint so close to election day.
Brazilian authorities have aggressively stepped up a crackdown on disinformation ahead of Sunday’s runoff between the two political titans – a move that has drawn overbroad criticism.
Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court saw complaints of online false information increase by 1,600% during the 2020 election. Bolsonaro and da Silva both filed complaints about their opponents’ attack ads during this electoral cycle. The ads linked Bolsonaro to cannibalism and pedophilia, and da Silva to satanic cults and organized crime.
To deal with the avalanche, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a ruling on Tuesday that allows its electoral authority to order the removal of specific posts and videos containing false information within an hour of their publication.
On Friday, with the new ruling already in effect, Moraes ordered the removal of 135 posts deemed disinformation and the closure of two Telegram channels that carried messages of political violence, CNN Brasil reported.
But Bolsonaro’s supporters argue that the crackdown itself constitutes unfair interference – and that if his campaign was allowed to continue to speak freely, it would win the election.
His opponents fear a similar argument will be taken up by Bolsonaro himself after Election Day; if he loses, he could focus his anger on the claim that election officials “blocked” him from spreading information.
Bolsonaro pledged Friday to respect the election result, saying after a televised debate with Lula da Silva that « that’s democracy, whoever has the most votes wins. »
Even so, it did little to reassure his detractors.
Whether the right-wing incumbent wins or loses the election, a Trump-like strategy could still prevail; by the end of this electoral cycle, Bolsonaro will have introduced into Brazilian democracy the idea that democratic institutions – even those established to protect the fairness of elections – are not to be trusted.
If today’s rhetoric in America, two years after the 2020 election, is any indication, Brazil should be bracing for deeper division for some time to come.