The latest far right attack in Brazil resonates with similar (and ongoing) attacks on US institutions: least of all because both anti-democratic movements are fortified by unchecked alternative social media.
On January 8, thousands of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the far right past president of Brazil who flew to Florida days before the end of his term in office, stormed Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace in the capital, Brasilia. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) condemned these attacks as the work of fanatical Nazis, Stalinists, and fascists, and promised that those who had attacked and ransacked these spaces would be brought to justice. Over 300 were detained by police on Sunday.
Bolsonaro, who never conceded defeat in the October election and spent months prior to the election sowing claims of corruption in the electoral process, offered no comment during the first few hours of the attack. Only after Lula’s imputation that his actions had encouraged this rioting did he announce on Twitter that he is against the pillaging of public buildings. Bolsonaro faces a number of investigations from actions taken during his time in office, which has led US politicians to question the safe harbor he currently enjoys on US soil.
Comparisons to the January 6, 2021 US Capitol riot are both inevitable and indicative of a broader problem for global democracy, which has faced serious problems due in part to unchecked social media platforms. While Facebook and YouTube are currently cracking down on anti-democratic, pro-government-ransack posts on their respective applications, the far right extremists who support Bolsonaro were organizing for this attack on Twitter and Telegram.
Telegram was founded in 2013 by Russian-born Pavel Durov, and is headquartered in Dubai. The massive surge of far right Brazilian interest in Telegram began around the January 6 riots, when past president Donald Trump’s Twitter account was suspended. It was at that juncture that Bolsonaro asked his own followers to join him on the alternative social media platform, which presents itself as a bastion of free speech. Recent Pew research into a variety of alt-news platforms (Gab, Rumble, Truth Social, Gettr, Parler, BitChute, and Telegram) not only found that two-thirds of users for such services lean or identify as Republican, but also that Telegram is rated far lower for friendly discourse than the other alternative media platforms.
Last year, Luís Roberto Barroso, Justice of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, wrote to CEO Durov with concerns about conspiratorial and fake news via the platform, especially as half of all Brazilians with cell phones have downloaded the app. The company’s failure to respond raised the question of whether the government would have to ban the application in the country, which also struggles for want of an independent press. (80 percent of Brazilians get most of their news from WhatsApp, an everyday communications platform similar in design to Telegram, and with only a little more regulatory oversight.)
But of greatest concern at the moment is the fact that far right organizing on Twitter and Telegram was happening for over two weeks before Sunday’s riots, but security forces in Brasilia were still slow to take action when the confrontation finally came to pass. Bolsonaro’s military background is considered to have made him an easy ally to Brazilian military and police services. Lula has promised to investigate whether “incompetence or bad faith” informed state officials’ failure to act, and to punish those responsible for allowing the rioters easy access to these government sites.
On January 6, Twitter reinstated the account of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser turned conspiracy theorist who actively promoted overturning results of the 2020 US presidential election. Just today, the US Supreme Court had to formally reject hearing a suit to oust 400 members of Congress for certifying the results of that same election, and to remove US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris from office.
In Portuguese there’s an expression, “o mundo é um lenço” (in Spanish: El mundo es un pañuelo). It loosely translates to “the world is a handkerchief”, the Latino version of saying “it’s a small world”. But the handkerchief is a more evocative metaphor, because if one part of the handkerchief is dirty, you have a dirty handkerchief.
Our digital age has brought us many technological gifts, but current social media platforms, and the concentrating forces of corporate monopolies and billionaire businessmen, have also been abundantly leveraged in recent years to destabilize our democracies. The sociopolitical harm befalling Brazil and the US today (among many other precarious nation-states) is strongly interwoven. The solutions we pursue need to be tied together, too.