Behind the Musk/GOP Lying Campaign Against Brazil’s Judiciary

Estela Aranha, former Secretary of Digital Rights in the Brazilian Justice Ministry.

On April 3, Michael Shellenberger tweeted a series of excerpts from emails by X executives dubbed, “Twitter Files Brazil”, which alleged to expose crimes by Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. Moraes, he claimed, had pressed criminal charges against Twitter Brasil’s lawyer for its refusal to turn over personal information on political enemies. Elon Musk quickly shared the tweets and they viralized and were embraced by the international far right, to the joy of former President Bolsonaro and his supporters. A week later, Estela Aranha, former Secretary of Digital Rights in the Brazilian Justice Ministry, revealed rot at the heart of Shellenberger’s narrative. The only criminal charge filed against Twitter Brazil referenced in the leaked emails was made by the São Paulo District Attorney’s Office, after the company refused to turn over personal data on a leader of Brazil’s largest cocaine trafficking organization, the PCC. Shellenberger had cut the section of an email about a São Paulo criminal investigation and mixed it with communications complaining about Moraes on unrelated issues. Pressed by Brazilian reporters, Shellenberger wrote, “I regret my mistake and apologize for it. I don’t have evidence that Moraes threatened to file criminal charges against Twitter’s Brazilian lawyer.”

The following interview with Estela Aranha was conducted on April 13, 2024.

What was your role in Brazil’s Ministry of Justice? Please give an example of a project you worked on.

I started as Special Advisor to the Minister of Justice for digital affairs. Later, I was appointed Secretary of Digital Rights. One project that I helped coordinate, along with other departments in the Ministry of Justice and the Federal Police, was called Operation Safe Schools, which was created to prevent school massacres. In March, 2023, a series of attacks and random child murders began in schools across the country and thousands of school massacre threats vitalized in the social media. This created a generalized mood of panic and hysteria. Users were spreading images of school attackers with the goal of spreading terror. Consequently increasing numbers of panicked parents pulled their children out of school. In addition to spreading images of school killings, people were working online to encourage others to commit similar attacks. We began to monitor this phenomenon on the social media networks, and our initial analysis showed that Neo-Nazi groups were encouraging attacks on April 20th because it was the anniversary of Columbine, and the Columbine massacre was committed on Adolf Hitler’s birthday. They were contacting children and teenagers online and trying to encourage them to attack other children in schools. It was a national issue that paralyzed the country. In some cities during the week before April 20th, only 20% of children were attending school because of the generalized sense of panic.

Operation Safe Schools worked in partnership with social media companies so that content inciting school killings would be properly moderated. We created a reporting channel. All reports were analyzed. The operation was huge, in terms of the number of people involved and the intelligence deployed. We had very significant results, including 360 arrests. Not all, but the vast majority of people who were involved in these threats and these attacks, and who we had evidence would commit this type of crime – people who were arrested with detailed plans, weapons, masks, everything – were affiliated with clandestine Neo-Nazi groups. Everyone who advocated Nazism was also reported to the police and these individuals were detained and charged, according to due process, because advocating for Nazism is a crime in Brazil.

Did you ask social media companies to remove user profiles during this operation?

Yes. We met with representatives from all the social media companies – we spoke with all of them. The only one that didn’t engage in dialogue was Telegram. During our the first meeting, Twitter initially resisted. It didn’t want to remove them. We were talking about profiles that were promoting very realistic attacks on schools.

I said, “I’m talking to you because there are profiles of actual terrorist personas. They are fake profiles using the names and faces of school massacre terrorists that post videos with songs that say, ‘I’m going to get you kids, you can’t run faster than my gun.’ There are video clips that show the terrorist’s picture and then show real school massacres.”

The Twitter representative said that this did not violate their terms of use. After strong push-back from the Minister of Justice and social pressure, including from users of its own platform, Twitter changed its policy and collaborated with the investigation.

Do you think there was a positive effect in de-platforming those people? Did it reduce the risk for children?

Of course. These were people sharing videos promoting and glorifying the perpetrators of school massacres. Imagine a teenager who already has issues and suffers from bullying, who is bombarded with images glorifying school massacres and messages like, “look, this guy is awesome. Look what he did!”

Some kids will say, “Great. Nobody respects me, I don’t know what to do so I’ll to do this to be respected.”

All the guys who were arrested who left letters or made statements, summed it up like this, “I was despised, nobody cared about me. I’m going to do this to show that I’m tough, that I’m somebody.”

They thought they were doing it to get revenge, to be glorified, to be seen differently. Any material that glorifies terrorism, whether it’s a school attack or any kind of terrorist attack, leads some people to think it’s good to commit a terrorist act. This is scientifically proven, by the way.

The other thing about this wave of school massacre threats is that it created an atmosphere of fear. If you logged onto Twitter or any social network at the time, started seeing these crimes, these scenes, how were you going to send your children to school? We had many parents who kept their children out of school during the whole three weeks of the crisis. Imagine the impact on people’s lives without being able to send their children to school. Imagine the mothers who depend on sending their children to school in order to work, to have a normal life. There were thousands of testimonies of children crying, saying, “I’m going to be stabbed at school.”

Imagine the psychological impact – school should be a safe place for children, right? Imagine a parent who browses on any social network like Twitter and sees a bunch of people promoting terrorism in schools. What parent would send their child to school after that? What child would feel comfortable and want to go to school? This created an impact on the entire Brazilian society. Mothers couldn’t work and daughters were terrified to go to school. School ceased to be a place where children felt safe – they started to be afraid of it.

How did you discover that Michael Shellenberger was lying in the so-called Twitter Files?

I am lawyer and digital rights specialist and I began working in the Justice Ministry shortly after the period from which the emails used in Twitter Files Brazil were selected. I am familiar all of those cases and decisions. I am familiar with all the rulings in my field that are in circulation. As a lawyer who is part of a group who specializes in this area – and they’re aren’t many of us – we obviously share, discuss and debate all of these cases and rulings. I remember the case filed by the São Paulo Public Prosecutor’s Office against Twitter because we all talked about it when it happened. So when I read the email excerpts that Michael Shellenberger posted I immediately saw that they had been manipulated. I immediately knew what decision each email fragment referred to. I am familiar with all the important rulings on social media networks that happened during the time period of the emails. The moment I saw it I thought, ‘no, that never happened’, because I follow this very closely – it’s my job. When I read it I said to myself, “this is wrong.” He was speaking incorrectly and this is why I complained about it online. I knew they had fabricated a false narrative because I know all of the cases that they cherry-picked their text fragments from. They stitched together excerpts. Anyone who doesn’t know what they’re referring to could believe them. But I know about all the cases because I am a dedicated lawyer. There is no case in my area that I don’t study, in order to understand what is happening. There is nothing they presented in the Twitter Files that I hadn’t been closely following.

Musk and Shellenberger are alleging that the Brazilian government is violating the right to freedom of expression. But it seems that the arguments they make are based on US law. What are some differences in freedom of expression laws between Brazil and the US?

There are several universal rights in each country or region and in each legal tradition. I will speak about Brazil. Both legislation and doctrinal legal tradition – the interpretation of doctrine, as well as jurisprudence – are very different here. The right to freedom of expression in the United States is a right that is held above other rights – it is broader. My colleagues who know more about American law than me tell me that, for example, the United States has never managed to criminalize revenge porn: when you expose intimate data of a former partner from whom you separated. This speaks legions about the breadth of freedom of expression that exists in the United States. It is not absolute but it is a very broad right. In Brazil, as in Europe, freedom of expression is an essential right that is equal to other essential rights. If you try to use one right to infringe upon another right, you will face limitations. All rights are weighed side by side, and there is proportionality in the scope of how much you can interfere. For example, advocating for Nazism is illegal in Brazil because it is considered to be such a harmful discourse that it must be preemptively prohibited. That doesn’t exist in the United States. Racist insults are crimes, as is discrimination against the LGBTQ+ population. There are several forms of speech that are illegal. And there are some types of speech that are not inherently illegal but can lead to lawsuits for moral damages in certain cases. This gradation obviously depends on the legal good that we are protecting. For example, advocacy for a crime, in general, is considered a form of criminal speech. So it is prohibited, it has to be taken out of circulation. Also, you cannot make threats. Shellenberger mixes all kinds of unrelated things together in his Twitter files. He mixes things from criminal cases, things from the São Paulo public prosecutors office, electoral crime investigations, and inquiries from the the Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court.

Freedom of expression has many restrictions in our electoral law framework because we have other values that take precedent, for example the equilibrium of an election. We have laws guaranteeing balanced elections and integrity of the electoral system itself. The practice that is common in the United States, of a candidate paying for a lot of campaign advertising, is not allowed in Brazil. There is a system of free electoral advertising space. It is pre-divided among the candidates. Candidates cannot take out any advertisements over their established time limits even if they can pay for it. The circulation of all campaign materials is highly regulated. There are spending caps on election campaigns. TV stations cannot give more airtime to favor one candidate over another. There always has to be equivalence. It is clear that a tightly regulated election system like ours has rules to protect it. During our election seasons, which typically last for less than 4 months, governmental agencies pull information down from their websites, leaving nothing but emergency or public utility information because otherwise it could interfere with the electoral process by favoring government officials who are running for office. This could interfere with the balance of the election. It is also illegal to run negative campaign adds. There are a lot of rules that are very different from the United States. You cannot, for example, use knowingly false information in election campaigns. This is a crime in Brazil. If candidates make patently false statements, the media cannot replicate the information. This always leads to a lot of electoral court rulings and during 2022, they weren’t only made in favor of President Lula. Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign successfully petitioned the court to remove several of Lula’s campaign adds and numerous social media posts by Lula supporters. There are thousands of court rulings demanding removal of advertising materials in every election campaign in Brazil. This is absolutely normal here. But Micheal Shellenberger has decided to use US laws regarding freedom of expression to criticize decisions based on Brazilian law, made by our electoral courts.

Shellenberger is using a totally different concept, which he even mentioned when he testified in a hearing in the Brazilian Senate this week. Advocacy for Nazism is tolerated in the United States. In Brazil, it is not. We have a very different system. He cannot use American legislation as a measuring rod to claim that a Brazilian court ruling is wrong. There is a lot of deliberate confusion in Twitter Files Brazil. He grabs a lot of things and mixes them to create his narrative and arguments. He claimed that Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes threatened to arrest Twitter’s lawyer and then he was forced to admit that it wasn’t true. It’s obvious that he mixed different things together on purpose. It makes no sense to say that Moraes is breaking the law – he isn’t. His rulings are legal according to Brazilian law.

The other thing that I think is relevant to mention is that in Brazilian Law, Judges can order precautionary measures that we call “atypical” to prevent further threats to rights from materializing. This is what Alexandre de Moraes has used in some of his rulings. This institution of Brazilian law is called the General Precautionary Power of the Judge.

What do you think is the real goal of these attacks made by Elon Musk and Michael Shellenberger and their allies?

Shellenberger and Musk are working hand in hand and I’m sure their goal is to be players in the US elections and that’s why they have joined the international far right. Obviously they have chosen Brazil because it is also an important player in the international far right. They have taken advantage of all this discourse about regulating social media, which Musk obviously opposes. But I think their immediate goal is to attack the established powers in Brazil. Our far right was completely isolated because its main leader is Bolsonaro and he couldn’t lead because he was cornered the criminal investigations against him for crimes that have been proven, thanks to very robust investigations by the Federal Police. He was powerless because the whole coup plot has been uncovered by the Federal Police. He really tried to implement a coup d’état, together with military leaders, and there were direct actions like the attack on the Federal Police headquarters the day Lula arrived in Brasilia to sign documents in preparation for his inauguration. This attack was very serious but some people seem to have already forgotten it. I was there. I personally witnessed a car full of Jerry cans filled with gasoline parked in front of a gas station, and later Jerry cans full of gasoline were found in the hotel where Lula was staying. There was an attempted bombing in Brasilia airport on Christmas, which only failed to explode because the detonator didn’t work. Then we had the attack on January 8th which was also very serious. So at the moment when were were managing to finally hold the main leaders of this attempted coup accountable, Elon Musk and Michael Shellenberger came onto the scene to attack the institutions that are prosecuting them, to usurp their power so they can’t convict them anymore. That was clearly their short-term goal and in the long run Elon Musk obviously wants to be a player in the international far right and interfere in elections around the world, especially in the US.

Do you think they are trying to implement a coup?

That’s part of it. The far right tried and never gave up on it. I was in the Ministry of Justice at the time and we worked hard to contain the subversive elements that continued after January 8th, 2023. After they began being held accountable their activities decreased. But they want to reignite that flame by preventing Bolsonaro from being held accountable by delegitimizing our court system. Of course, that’s part of the coup movement. I think their first goal is to strengthen the far-right leadership again because today they are weakened, they have no firepower to carry out this coup. That’s why they stepped in. They want to strengthen these leaders who are cornered because they are being held responsible for the coup attempt.

Brian Mier is a native Chicagoan who has lived in Brazil for 25 years. He is co-editor of Brasil Wire and Brazil correspondent for TeleSur English’s TV news program, From the South.