It’s as if Jair Messias Bolsonaro has set up a world vileness championship and declares himself winner every week. Now he’s got his own regime to award him the Indigenous Merit Medal “for his efforts to protect Indigenous communities”. And this just after a legislative investigative committee found that his government has committed crimes of extermination and crimes against humanity by, inter alia, trying to ensure that the Indigenous population was generally and systematically exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Moreover, it’s widely known—and here’s the split between knowledge and recognition—if not openly pronounced, that the armed forces (now more numerous than in the military dictatorships), have been doing the regime’s dirty work in riding roughshod over policies to protect Indigenous peoples and their land, using impoverished wildcat miners working more than 2,000 illegally licenced sites, and ravaging the Amazon with roads, dams, logging, fires, clearing, monocropping, etcetera, in the interests of global agribusiness.
The horrible paradox is that, though Bolsonaro’s “Protector of Indigenous Communities” is a grotesque taunt, his Merit Medal still performs (the operative word) a very effective kind of political communication or, better said, propaganda. This kind of fake news provides a cover of white noise that’s so stupefying it’s impossible to see behind it. Nevertheless, if it’s difficult to produce direct evidence that the Bolsonaro government is committing a whole range of heinous crimes, we can state that the militia gangs that have been associated with the Bolsonaro family for years are engaged in drug trafficking, arms deals, and assassinations, creating a climate of fear which, duly disseminated, is the perfect medium in which such a regime can operate, especially with help from the new “digital militia”.
Bolsonaro’s murderous antics are more than diversionary tactics from the real business of his shambles of a regime dominated by the interests of the bullet-beef-and-bible lobby, which is all about agribusiness (read: razing the Amazon), “family values” (read: extreme homophobia and hatred of all sexual and reproductive rights), and trigger-happy paramilitaries (read: narco-militia), a foul mix of drug traffickers, paramilitary forces, and neo-Pentecostal churches waging a holy war, some under an Israeli flag and with a copy of the Torah, against rival criminal groups and Afro-Brazilian religions. It’s not just about a bunch of Brazilian fanatics. No corner of the Earth is free of the politics of hate and fear which pervades almost all aspects of social life. Everyone’s affected, one way or another. In the case of Brazil, Bolsonaro and his henchmen present themselves as patriotic heroes when they’re blatantly committing lese-patria at the service of local racketeers and international corporations. This atrocious mix of ecocide, genocide, religion justifying deadly intolerance, and drug trafficking, all dressed up as “government”, does one’s head in when trying to understand the connections, the twists in the lies, or how a man like Bolsonaro can get away with political spectacles that as well as being morally repugnant are insulting to the intelligence. At this point we’d like to cite the whole of Guy Debord’s prescient The Society of the Spectacle (1967) but a few lines will have to suffice:
“The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. […]
Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the present mode of production. It is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestation—news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment—the spectacle is the model of the prevailing way of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle is also the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the modern production process.”
The internationalising of hate was clear enough when, on 16 February, Bolsonaro visited Putin in Moscow to express his solidarity (which he also bestowed on Viktor Orbán a day later), after which he revelled in the strong rebukeissued by the US State Department. It’s not just that Putin strokes Bolsonaro’s virile ego by praising his good pandemic management (657,000 deaths and counting) and his “best qualities of manhood”, or that Bolsonaro supposedly (seizing on the war against Ukraine) wanted to talk oil, gas, and agriculture. There’s also the matter of the presence of his son Carlos (Carluxo), Rio de Janeiro city councillor, head of the “digital militia” and the infamous Gabinete de Odio (Hate Office, hotbed of bots and fake accounts which is linked to the Office of the Presidency), who’s been chosen to lead the digital strategy of his father’s re-election campaign. Carluxo had a bit of practice, together with Russian friends, when the Hate Office openly tried to assist Trump in the 2020 US presidential election. It’s claimed that neither the Brazilian government nor the Rio de Janeiro council paid for Carluxo’s trip with his daddy and, in the sea of fake news, it’s hard to find much speculation as to its reasons. However, some observers, worried about the possibility of Russia interfering in this year’s Brazilian elections are now asking for explanations.
Their concern would seem well-founded. Gearing up for the elections in October this year, when it will be especially useful to know the ideas, plans, and embarrassing secrets of allies and rivals, there have been other tripschecking out technologies for electronic manipulation of hearts and minds, hacking into computers and phones, and interference in databases and social networks. Since there’s no way of detecting where these attacks originate, the spying dodges the requirement of judicial authorisation. Felipe Santa Cruz, president of the Brazilian Bar Association, described the situation as, “a continuation of the Bolsonaro family’s struggle to break the institutional fabric of the country […] and privatisation of the state under the control of a single family”. This insight is further backed up by a visit to Israel in 2019, days before the Knesset election, ostensibly supporting Netanyahu but also negotiating with the cyber-arms group NSO a Pegasus spyware deal that would give the Bolsonaro family its very own intelligence agencywhich could secretly track all information and activities of chosen targets, capturing everything from bank accounts to the contents of social networks and emails, eavesdropping on and recording conversations, and accessing all information in Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, Capta, and Telegram. Dubai was another shopping stop-off for the Office of Hate, this time to buy more spy programmes from the company DarkMatter in Abu Dhabi.
In the case of Russia, the cyber alliance wouldn’t happen if it didn’t promote perceived national interests, which are more about bringing governments to heel through election cheating than profitable trade in computer programmes. And if pragmatic Putin is “saving” Ukraine from neo-Nazis, he’s practising elective amnesia because, in 2004, congressman Bolsonaro wrote to neo-Nazi websites saying, “you guys are the reason I am in politics”. The relationship is further complicated by neo-Nazi groups in Brazil, which have grown by 270% since Bolsonaro took office. The journalist Brian Mier writes that there are some 530 neo-Nazi cells operating in Brazil and, since 2012, they are forging ever closer ties with likeminded Ukrainian organizations. Some Bolsonaristas have been with Azov in Donbas gaining combat experience and want to “Ukrainize Brazil”. In 2016, when police were investigating planned violent attacks against Afro-Brazilians, Jews, and LGBTI+ individuals and groups, they discovered that the Ukrainian Misanthropic Division was recruiting Brazilian neo-Nazis. Mier cites Porto Alegre city councillor Leonel Radde:
“We see clearly that the majority of Nazi groups here use Ukrainian design elements. They are using the same symbols—mainly the black sun—and they all use this discourse of Ukrainizing Brazil. They also talk among themselves about adapting Ukrainian tactics for setting up camps and occupying public squares and things like that. They are definitely trying to copy what happened in Ukraine in 2014.”
Ukrainian neo-Nazi indoctrination and training, plus Russian digital skills and Pegasus are sure to be factors in this year’s elections.
Some former allies of Bolsonaro have named names and shed some light on how the Hate Office works. After Carluxo, the three main members are Matheus Sales and Tercio Arnaud Tomaz, special advisors to the Presidency of the Republic, and Mateus Matos Diniz, advisor to the Secretariat of Social Communication, all of them working from the presidential palace and through regional collaborators most of whom are advisors of federal and state parliamentarians. These advisors manage social media pages through which they disseminate their noxious posts, always guided by Bolsonaro’s IT hotshots. The use of bots is clear in the simultaneous dissemination from the different federal states of identical often misspelled texts. But, in this world of distorting mirrors, the Bolsonaro camarilla is the victim of such foul play. According to Felipe G. Martins, special adviser to the Presidency for international affairs, “One of the biggest reputation assassination campaigns ever promoted in Brazil was precisely the one that consisted of spreading the idea that a few people are responsible for everything that is said in favour of the government and for everything that is said against its critics and detractors.” Carluxo calls the reports about the Office of Hate “fake news”.
Scientific American identifies three key components of hate speech in the United States but it’s a rule of thumb for other places too, and they clearly apply in Brazil. The first is “othering”, which makes people thus labelled so different from “us” that there’s no way “we” can understand them. The second part, aversion, makes them not only different but repugnant. And the third, “moralisation”, makes them reprehensible in the eyes of the righteous. This is especially clear with the family-value homophobic pronouncements by Bolsonaro and his abettors, which are so ubiquitous that they are barely noticed. One example that sums up the three components is his claim that “homosexual fundamentalists” are indoctrinating innocent children so they can “satisfy them sexually in the future”. He also mocked his staff for wearing protective masks, saying that this was “for fairies”, thus making them doubly vulnerable, either to COVID-19 or to being beaten up as homosexuals. His hate targets also include women, Black and Indigenous people, and refugees. He has nostalgia for the South American dictatorships with which he claims to represent continuity, and he has publicly lauded the self-confessed torturer (of Dilma Rousseff among others), Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me: the old adage is way too innocent for the IT-dominated present because words are lethal in the fiefdom of hate politics. In 2020, at least 224 Brazilian LGBT people were killed in violent attacks and, between January and June 2020 the ombudsman’s office received 1,134 complaints of violence, discrimination and other homophobic abuses. In general, loathing of gay people, feminism, women’s rights, women themselves, and of Indigenous and Quilombola communities, constitute a far-reaching attack on democracy and human rights, which are also detested. Contempt for human life has also materialised in the form of a shadow cabinet in opposition to the Ministry of Health, acting as another office beaming out killer messages. It campaigned against usage of masks, and for ingestion of the quack medicines of its “kit-COVID” including chloroquine, ivermectin, and azithromycin. At the same time, “experts” were saying that protecting health would hinder the goal of “preserving Brazil’s economy” so they placed barriers against the production and distribution of vaccines. Apart from the “herd immunity” experiment with Indigenous peoples, the investigative committee also found that an experiment with 630 mainly elderly patients using the kit-COVID was “atrocious”. The committee, which can’t press charges itself but only recommend that they should go ahead, concluded that, in COVID-mismanagement alone, President Bolsonaro would have committed seven crimes defined in the Brazilian Criminal Code, and three crimes against humanity.
One of the reasons why Bolsonaro and his supporters can act with such impunity is that disinformation and misinformation spread like wildfire in Brazil where 97% of Internet users access the web with smartphones, relying on easily shared images and short videos for information. WhatsApp is said to be responsible for spreading 73% of falsehoods about the pandemic. Gilberto Scofield Jr., from the fact-checking agency Lupa sums it up, “Every time there is a big occurrence, the number of fake news stories increases. Everything becomes a war of narratives … There are people making money producing and sharing fake news, defending or attacking points of view, messing with reputations or discrediting a group.” Since there is almost no independent press beyond São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasília, the country is fertile ground for fake news. Politicians use Telegram to communicate with supporters because it allows groups of up to 200,000 people, it has fewer controls, and anyone can comment anonymously on posts that typically include the bait, “what you won’t find out from the press”. It’s expected that Telegram, where Bolsonaro has 45 million followers and is safe from direct confrontation, will have a huge influence in the 2022 elections, just as WhatsApp unquestionably contributed to his victory in 2018.
Since 2018 the far right has been hard at work constructing a plexus of propaganda and defamation disseminated by social media algorithms. Apart from surveillance and malware functions, these messages, repeated over and over, awaken and exploit pernicious, divisive emotions like hatred, fear, envy, and sexual anxiety. This system of communication, in Brazil and elsewhere in the world overrides and attacks the traditional media. In the case of the Bolsonaro government, the various media outlets—deferring to the economic and political interests of media bosses rather than upholding truth and human rights—act with craven tractability and pusillanimity, tolerating perversion of language and the most blatant lies as if they’re “normal”. The result is a society attacked in its general social rights, one where the social contract has been broken by means of this assault on the right to quality information.
There’s some resistance as independent organisations have taken on a watchdog role during the pandemic. Lupa, for example, offers a free newsletter for health offices and professionals, and it also works with international fact-checking networks, like Latam Chequea, which connects platforms from twenty Latin American countries. In the favelas, too, people are organising to combat misinformation, for example with Voz da Comunidade, a publication of Rio de Janeiro favela communities which has launched an app in partnership with the US consulate to share verified content (though this US content should also be checked). The podcast Em Quarentena offers short daily episodes refuting fake news and sharing COVID-19 prevention information on WhatsApp and Spotify to low-income communities of São Paulo. In other words, with no official guidance, and with the government’s downright intent to addle and deceive, citizens are taking information about the pandemic into their own hands.
It’s to be hoped that this election year, such anti-fake-news initiatives will grow to combat the hate being spewed out from the presidential palace. But even if Lula wins, as the polls suggest, one of the first and main challenges he will have to deal with is a viciously fragmented country. Now, even his famed negotiating skills are under attack from both holier-than-thou left and venomous right but, somehow, he will have to come up with a truly representative government, policies to tackle poverty, inequality, and intolerance, and to do better than South Africa did with Desmond Tutu’s dream of “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”. Just as fake news isn’t confined to national borders, the hope Lula’s election bid represents for human and environmental rights is a kind of light in dark times everywhere. The question is how can writers, analysts, speakers, and people of goodwill, in and beyond Brazil, combat all the hate and help to make the light brighter?