On Populist Brazil

Social Media and the Rise of Bolsonaro

Term Paper, 2020

14 Pages, Grade: 1.0



I. Introduction

II. From the Fringes to the Mainstream: The Online Dawn of the Brazilian Far-Right

III. Social Media as the People’s Voice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil: Populist Narratives and a Crisis of Authority

IV. Social Media as the People’s Rally in Bolsonaro’s Brazil: Filter-Bubbles, the Network Effect and Online Crowds

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Populism has become a central issue of focus for mainstream discourse. The past decade has seen a worldwide rise of populist movements, a phenomenon that has attracted much discussion. The role of the digital revolution in this process is an aspect that has generated particular interest. In “Social media and populism: an elective affinity?” (2018), Paolo Gerbaudo affirms the existence of an elective affinity between social media and populist movements. To develop his thesis, the author presents two different frameworks. First, he argues for social media as the people’s voice, where he points to a decline of the mainstream media (MSM), which has formed a vacuum for new online actors to emerge with an anti-establishment rhetoric coupled with a rebellious attitude that has characterised internet behaviour. Second, he argues for social media as the people’s rally, where he explores the mass networking capabilities of social media and their disposition to favor populist actors.

Gerbaudo cities many populist movements to exemplify his arguments, like the Brexit Referendum, the popularity of Bernie Sanders and the election of Donald Trump. There is another prominent case, however, of the successful use of social media by a populist leader: the case of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Bolsonaro began his life in politics as a city councilman in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1980’s, after having served in the army. Shortly thereafter, he was elected to the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, the country’s lower legislative house, where he spent 28 years. A career politician previously unknown to the general public, Bolsonaro began gaining wider recognition through social media in 2013, in parallel to the emergence of a multidimensional crisis that afflicted the country. His rise to national prominence was aided by the ascent of an online group of far-right influencers, who capitalized on the growing anti-Workers’ Party (PT) sentiment present in Brazilian society to gain popularity on YouTube and promote Bolsonaro’s presidential candidacy in 2018.

Divided into three main sections, this paper contends that the elective affinity between social media and populist rhetoric, described by Gerbaudo (2018), finds in Brazil a perfect example. First, there is an explanation as to how the contingent of Brazilian far-right youtubers emerged and how Bolsonaro benefitted from that phenomenon. Second, this text inserts Gerbaudo’s argument about social media functioning as the people’s voice in the context of Bolsonaro’s movement, analyzing how the crisis of authority of Brazilian MSM, added to the aspiringly transgressive attitude associated with online behaviour, helped its rise. Third, this paper applies Gerbaudo’s argument about social media operating as the people’s rally in Bolsonaro’s context, examining the aggregative capabilities of YouTube and the instrumentalization of social media’s function as a gathering space for online crowds.

II. From the Fringes to the Mainstream: The Online Dawn ofthe Brazilian Far-Right

In June of 2019, the New York Times (NYT) published a highly discussed article about the wide reach of right-wing extremists on YouTube (Roose 2019). Titled “The Making of a YouTube Radical”, it tells the story of Caleb Cain, a disillusioned college dropout who, in search for meaning, went down the rabbit hole of far-right content on YouTube. Cain, as the story points out, is far from being the only one to be seduced by the likes of Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian youtuber and leading figure in the alt-right milieu. Molyneux, a white nationalist most famous for his promotion of race science, holds an audience of almost a million subscribers on his YouTube channel. Though it still pales in comparison to Alex Jones’ 2,4 million subscribers prior to his ban in 2018, Molyneux’s numbers put him among the platform’s most popular political youtubers. He represents an extreme wing of a larger group of right-wing personalities who gained recognition online over the past few years, which financier Eric Weinstein dubbed the “intelectual dark web” (IDW), a label promptly adopted by its members, who include figures like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro (Weiss 2018) . It has been argued that this network of reactionary commentators often serves as a gateway to more overtly extremist content. A recent study showed how YouTube’s algorithm directs viewers of IDW or so-called “alt-lite” channels to openly white supremacist and neo-nazi youtubers (Ribeiro, Ottini, West, Almeida and Meira Jr. 2020). The new online far-right, popularized in the second half of the 2010’s, is mostly associated with North America, though similar dynamics have emerged to the south.

Another NYT article, released shortly after the Caleb Cain story, shed light upon an analogous phenomenon of far-right youtubers gaining popularity in Brazil (Fisher and Taub 2019) . One example is guitar teacher Nando Moura, who today holds an impressive audience of more than 3 million subscribers and became known for his paranoid rants against the PT and avid support for Jair Bolsonaro. Now a critic of Bolsonaro’s government from the right (he has repositioned himself as a supporter of former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro), Moura was nonetheless a precursor of a slew of far-right youtubers who began gaining wider recognition in 2015, during the political crisis of PT’s Dilma Rousseff's second term that ultimately led to her impeachment and transformed the country’s politics (Negri, Igreja and Pinto 2019). Many of them, like Moura, were disciples of self-proclaimed philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, who was popularized on YouTube through vulgar diatribes against the MSM and eccentric conspiracy theories about global communism. A former astrologist, Carvalho worked as an opinion writer for various MSM outlets in Brazil throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, often expressing his conservative views. In the early 2000’s, Carvalho founded his own website called “Unmasked Media” (Mldia sem Mascara) and moved to the United States. During this period, Carvalho gained a devoted following through his online philosophy course (Curso Online de Filosofia, COF) and articles denouncing leftist governments in Latin America, regularly citing an allegedly nefarious organization called the Sao Paulo Forum, or “Foro de Sao Paulo" (FSP), a yearly conference of left-wing parties in the region. Carvalho gained wider recognition with the best-selling “The Least You Need To Know Not To Be An Idiot" (O Mlnimo que você precisa saber para nao serum idiota) (2013), a compilation of articles organized by then Veja columnist Felipe Moura Brasil.

Self-identifying primarily as his “students”, his devout disciples, the so-called “olavistas", began following the steps of their master, by occupying social networks, and in particular YouTube, with their far-right and conspiracy-laced content, forming a sort of Brazilian (and more extreme) IDW (Fisher and Taub 2019). This group includes youtubers like Bernardo Küster and Diego Rox and websites like Terpa Livre and Senso Incomum. Today they represent the staunchest online supporters of President Bolsonaro, having been publicly endorsed by him as trusted news sources. To understand their rise to prominence, however, it is critical to analyze the political context of Brazil dating back to 2013. In June of that year, student demonstrations arose against a raise of bus fares in various municipalities. Quickly, the protests verged into a different, broader direction, becoming ideologically heterogenous and exposing deep dissatisfaction with the country's political elites. Known as the “June Journeys”, they were a turning point in the recent political history of Brazil, underscoring the increasing power of social media and the role it would it play in national politics, given that the large demonstrations were primarily organized via the internet. The events that followed 2013 would further reinforce the public’s disillusionment with the status quo\ the start of Operation Car Wash in 2014 (Lava-Jato), the economic downturn in 2015, Dilma Rousseff's ousting in 2016, the corruption scandals that hovered over Michel Temer’s government in 2017, former President Lula’s arrest in 2018, and the continuous rise in crime rates that permeated the period, among others. The newly awoken Right used these events as critical vectors to explore the growing anti-PT sentiment present in public opinion to revitalize its conservative agenda through social networks (Negri, Igreja and Pinto 2019). The landscape of right-wing digital media, however, was not homogenous. While some who gained fame were economically libertarian groups like Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre) and the Mises Institute, others were part of the far-right, “olavista” faction, who promoted Bolsonaro’s candidacy as far back as 2014.

In parallel to the upsurge of online political discourse, Bolsonaro was also gaining wider attention. Then an unknown figure to the mainstream, Bolsonaro first joined twitter in 2010, beginning his online activity by posting a series of tweets defending the legitimacy of the military coup of 1964 that installed a 20-year-long dictatorship in Brazil. He remained largely inactive, however, until 2013, when the federal deputy began engaging regularly with followers, often spreading homophobic conspiracy theories about “gender ideology" and alleged leftist indoctrination of children in public schools. Bolsonaro’s wild accusations, added to his bombastic appearances on network television, led him to be the most popular federal deputy of the state of Rio de Janeiro in the 2014 elections, with 464.572 votes, a result almost four times greater that the one he had had in the 2010 elections. Shortly after this period, Bolsonaro became a sensation among the still marginal far-right online community. Being an early supporter of Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, Bolsonaro also benefited from the strong anti-PT wave that characterized 2015. Because of his historically combative behaviour towards the Left, Bolsonaro quickly gained an online following that called him a “mito" (meaning “legend”) and promoted him through a number of memes and videos showcasing his perceived courage in combating mainstream narratives. Noting his popularity, the burgeoning online far-right, spearheaded by Olavo de Carvalho and his students-turned-youtubers, fully embraced Bolsonaro and began defending his presidential candidacy in 2018 (the “olavistas" became “bolsonaristas"). Originally dismissed by the MSM, Bolsonaro managed to become a viable candidate, favored by the political circumstances of 2018 (Lula’s arrest, Temer’s unpopularity, Bolsonaro’s stabbing, to name a few), and ultimately defeat Fernando Haddad, Lula’s anointed candidate from the PT with a fairly comfortable margin. His election sparked debates about the instrumentalization of social networks to encourage populist narratives and extremist political views.

III. Social Media as the People’s Voice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil: Populist Narratives and a Crisis of Authority

In “Social media and populism: an elective affinity?” (2018), Paolo Gerbaudo contends that the “underlying narrative and dominant value orientation” (2018: 752) of social networks favor populist tendencies because of their design as self-publishing platforms, free of intermediaries and thus providing a voice for those discontent with mainstream news. Gerbaudo also points out the importance of understanding the success of populist rhetoric on social media in the context of a crisis of the MSM (2018: 749). He borrows a term from Antonio Gramsci (1971) to describe a “crisis of authority” of MSM analogous to the loss of legitimacy by the Catholic Church in the 20th Century. In the United States, the distrust towards MSM harkens back to its perceived failure to hold authorities to account during the 2008 financial meltdown (Starkman 2014). In Brazil, the political crisis that arose in the past decade spilled over to the MSM as well. During the demonstrations demanding Dilma Rousseff's impeachment starting in 2015, the PT and former President Lula promptly accused the nation’s largest television network, Rede Globo, of actively promoting and incentivizing the protests against President Rousseff. The phrase “Globo golpista" (roughly translated as pro-coup Globo) became popular in left-wing circles, suggesting Globo’s support for what was perceived as a coup-d'etat in the form of an illegitimate impeachment process against Rousseff (and simultaneously making a sly reference to Globo’s support for the 1964 coup-d'etat). There has been ample debate about the role of the mainstream Brazilian press (not only Globo, but major newspapers like Folha and Estado de Sao Paulo) in shifting public opinion to favor Rousseff's ultimate demise (van Dijk 2017; Pozobon and Prates 2017; Rocha 2019). In 2017, the network began receiving online attacks from the far-right, who coined its own anti-G/obo hashtag (“#GloboLixo”), in response to an alleged socially progressive agenda in its daytime and primetime programming. Bolsonaro embraced the anti-Globo sentiment, prioritizing smaller broadcast networks and Globo’s direct competition (SBT, Record, Bandeirantes, for example) and in particular, the growing online far-right social media space. Throughout his presidential campaign and presidency, Bolsonaro always contended that the MSM was out-of-touch and that his candidacy, largely run based on the efficacy of its digital strategy, gave voice the real yearnings of the Brazilian people, who were previously silenced by the establishment MSM, a phenomenon that encapsulates Gerbaudo’s argument that social media is a fitting venue for populists’ rhetoric about “represent(ing) the unrepresented, providing a voice to a voiceless and unifying a dividedpeople” (2018: 746).

This is a key part of Gerbaudo’s thesis: the idea of social media as the people’s voice. “If social media has come to provide a suitable channel for populist appeals, it is first and foremost because of the way in which it has come to be understood as a platform for the voice of the people in opposition to the mainstream news media, accused of being in cahoots with the financial and political establishment", he explains (Gerbaudo 2018: 748). Gerbaudo indicates the apparent contradiction of characterizing social networks as anti-establishment, since they are owned by some of the world’s largest multinational corporations like Google and Facebook, but also acknowledges that social media does provide an unprecedented channel for previously peripheral social groups to express themselves without mediation (Gerbaudo 2018: 749). In addition to an anti-establishment attitude, Angela Nagle argues in her book “Kill all Normies” (2017) that the transgressive nature of the counter-cultural movements of 1960’s and 70’s, which has characterized internet behaviour, has been hijacked by the online alt-right as a way to weaponize it against the perceived left-wing establishment. This idea is explicit in British conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson’s popular statement that “conservatism is the new counter-culture”. The rebellious impulse of online discourse that Nagle points to, added to its unmediated quality, which leads to the perception of an anti-establishment environment, perfectly fit the mold for populist narratives. Gerbaudo explains this largely through the context of the United States, but the dynamics he describes are also prevalent in Brazil. The “bolsonaristas" regard themselves as counter-cultural agents, fighting against a left-wing establishment, which in their view comprises, among others, the judicial system, international organizations and most notably, the MSM.

In attempting to explain Brazil’s illiberal backlash, Wendy Hunter and Timothy J. Power (2019) describe a multidimensional crisis with four facets: an economic crisis intensified by 2015’s recession, a political crisis of rising polarization and lack of confidence in traditional parties, a corruption crisis unveiled by Operation Car-Wash, and a public security crisis, with violent crime on the rise. In addition to this important contextual scenario, the climate of untrustworthiness towards the political elites created by the MSM (Santos and Silva 2018; Davis and Straubhaar 2019) turned against itself, generating attacks from the political Left and the political Right that allowed alternative news sources to flourish with such ease. “The crisis of authority of mainstream news media provides an opening for new actors to enter the space of news and opinion-making", Gerbaudo points out (2018: 749). Gerbaudo cites Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News as a prime example of rising alternative news sources in the American context. In Brazil, the formation of a prototypical IDW, the network of Olavo de Carvalho’s enthusiastic followers and Bolsonaro’s most fervent supporters, as indicated before, took center stage in the nation’s political media landscape leading up to 2018. Boosted by YouTube’s recommendation algorithm (Fisher and Taub 2019), political influencers like Nando Moura, Bernardo Küster and Diego Rox embraced the vulgarity-infused and aggressively-toned style of their intellectual master, fully embodying the purposeful transgressiveness described by Nagle (2017). Websites like Terqa Livre and Senso Incomum, who currently have a close relationship to the high ranks of Brazil’s government, incorporated the Breitbart-style model of incendiary (and often false) headlines, positioning themselves as anti-establishment actors offering an alternative to MSM. Embedded in populist rhetoric, these new political actors presented themselves as true representatives of the Brazilian people, the majority of whom they deemed “Christian and conservative”, appealing to a political community against common enemies through what Ernesto Laclau (2005) calls “empty signifiers”, like anti-corruption politics, social reactionarism and a plea for stronger anti-crime measures. Actively promoting Bolsonaro’s candidacy as a solution to Brazil’s problems, the cadre of “bolsonaristas" gradually “set the psychological conditions forthe ensuing electoral mobilisation” (Gerbaudo 2018: 750).

The self-characterization of the newly awoken Brazilian far-right as anti-establishment, a label adopted by Bolsonaro himself, found reinforcement in the MSM’s criticism of the then candidate. “If anything, these attacks seem to have provided such politicians with a reputation as valiant anti-establishment mavericks", Gerbaudo explains (2018: 749). Here it is important to underline, however, that Brazil is a complicated case of the media’s treatment of a far-right populist candidate. Differently from the United States, where the MSM as a whole was overwhelmingly sympathetic to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and constantly pointed to authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump in 2016, the Brazilian media was less assertive in its condemnation of Jair Bolsonaro. Perhaps because of its historic antipathy towards the PT and favorable view of the neoliberal economic project of Paulo Guedes, the MSM often drew equivalences between the two final candidates of 2018’s presidential election, Bolsonaro and Haddad, suggesting both represented a threat to Brazilian democracy (a position best exemplified by Estadao’s infamous editorial lamenting a “very difficult choice”). At the same time, it can be said that Bolsonaro was generally portrayed in an negative light, often being confronted for his praise of dictatorships and highly reactionary social views. Research shows that framing of Bolsonaro by the Brazilian MSM incorporated many of the categories that authors characterize as forming a populist leader, like anti-elitism, moralism and anti-pluralism (Araujo and Prior 2020). The international press was much tougher on him, identifying the authoritarian threat his candidacy represented for Brazil (The Economist’s cover calling him “Latin America’s latest menace” generated much discussion). Bolsonaro’s movement, like other populist movements internationally, used attacks to his campaign as fuel to energine his supporters, further strengthening its anti-establishment credentials and identifying the media as an enemy by exploring its crisis of authority. The multidimensional crisis of Brazilian institutions, combined with a decade-long project of gradual right-wing online dominance, presented a perfect storm for the country’s far-right, ultimately translated in Bolsonaro’s electoral success.

IV. Social Media as the People’s Rally in Bolsonaro’s Brazil: Filter-Bubbles, the Network Effect and Online Crowds

Having analyzed Gerbaudo’s argument that social media is an obvious vessel for populist movements because of its ability to give a voice to the voiceless, it is critical to understand the author’s second main assertion justifying an elective affinity between social media and populism: the idea of social media as the people’s rally. Here, Gerbaudo focuses on two aspects that validate social media’s function as a virtual assembly for populist causes. First, he affirms that “social media has favoured the rise of populist movements also because of the aggregation logic embedded in its algorithms and the way it can focus the attention of an otherwise dispersed people" (2018: 750). Second, he argues that “social media discussions have provided gathering spaces where the ‘lonely crowds’ produced by the hyperindividualism of neoliberal society could coalesce, where the atoms of the dispersed social networks could be re-forged into a new political community, into an ‘online crowd’ of partisan supporters" (2018: 750). Recent studies have explored the international phenomenon of right-wing radicalization processes on YouTube aided by the network’s artificial intelligence system that learns from user behaviour and generates video recommendations (Covington, Adams and Sargin 2016; Ottini et al. 2018; Ribeiro et al.

2020) . In Brazil, “YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels" (Fisher and Taub 2019). Gerbaudo’s argument about social media serving as a congregation of disgruntled individuals with extremist views proves to be correct in Brazil’s case, as mobilisation processes through far-right content have undoubtedly advanced the populist narratives of Bolosonaro’s movement.

The formation of online crowds is facilitated through the aggregative capabilities of social media, the most notable being the filter-bubble effect (Pariser 2011). The filter-bubble tends to direct people’s attention to online content that reinforces their interests, as understood by the network’s algorithm. YouTube is a major perpetrator of filter-bubbles, as its success depends upon maximizing the user’s watch-time, thereby incentivizing the user to keep watching related videos through its recommendation system (Bartlett 2018). The upgrading of YouTube’s algorithm, however, has led to criticism for the way its encouragement of filter-bubbles guides viewers towards extremist content (Nicas 2018). Zeynep Tufekci (2018) points out the societal danger represented by online radicalization, calling YouTube “the great radicalizer”. Gerbaudo acknowledges the tendency for filter-bubbles to cause starker social divisions through reaffirming individuals’ previously held beliefs, and points out that this is an advantage for populist movements, because of the potential mobilising effect derived from the radicalization filter-bubbles create (2018: 750).

Gerbaudo’s argument fits perfectly with the example of Bolsonaro’s movement. The “filter-by-interest dynamic and the ‘economy of attention’ associated with it" that Gerbaudo (2018: 750) refers to played a key role in in the process of radicalization through political youtube videos in Brazil. The network’s recommendation system formed what anthropologist Débora Diniz called an “ecosystem of hate” (Fisher and Taub 2019), composed by ardent “bolsonaristas". Often also commenting on popular culture and other mainstream issues, content creators like Nando Moura managed to attract millions of young subscribers, only to constantly advocate for a highly conservative social agenda personified in the candidacy of Bolsonaro, whom the youtuber personally interviewed on more than one occasion. Moura also had the practice of recommending other pro-Bolsonaro youtubers in his channel, like Küster and Rox, which the algorithm followed. Considering Bolsonaro was an insignificant player in national politics prior to the widespread use of social media, the mobilising effect of Brazilian YouTube’s “bolsonarista" filter-bubble is evident in his rise to prominence and subsequent election victory.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


On Populist Brazil
Social Media and the Rise of Bolsonaro
Free University of Berlin
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
populist, brazil, social, media, rise, bolsonaro
Quote paper
Maximilian Weiss (Author), 2020, On Populist Brazil, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/914633


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