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Bolsonaro crafts new social media strategy ahead of Brazil election

When Facebook and its sister social media sites were struck by an outage in October, Jair Bolsonaro took his chance to act. Taking to Twitter, Brazil’s populist president decried the platforms’ “constant instability” and urged supporters to follow him on encrypted messaging app Telegram instead.

It was a strategy aimed squarely at his campaign for re-election this year. Seen as Brazil’s first “social media president”, the hard-right leader wielded WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to dramatic effect to win the vote in 2018.

But thanks to his outspoken rhetoric — and what opponents call his frequent use of fabricated news — Bolsonaro has fallen foul of both the Big Tech groups and Brazil’s top courts, which have signalled they will take a tough line on any misinformation ahead of the October polls.

Just weeks after the president urged his followers to abandon Facebook, the platform deleted one of his live broadcasts in which he speculated the Covid-19 vaccine could cause Aids. WhatsApp — used by almost all Brazilians — has also cracked down on the spread of misinformation, placing limits on the size of chat groups and how many times messages can be forwarded.

These moves have raised the possibility that Bolsonaro, who kept followers updated last week during a two-day hospital stay for the treatment of abdominal pains, could be permanently banned from Meta-owned platforms — like his populist mentor Donald Trump. Media analysts say the threat is spurring a shift to platforms with looser regulation, including Telegram and new alt-right sites such as Gettr.

“WhatsApp worked as an ecosystem [where Bolsonaro’s supporters] produced and circulated their news, which is basically fake news. But because WhatsApp has been working to slow down misinformation, they then migrated to Telegram,” said David Nemer, a Brazilian professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

Industry estimates suggest more than 50 per cent of Brazilians have Telegram installed on their mobile phones. Bolsonaro himself has already accumulated more than 1m followers. His closest allies, including his sons, promote the app at every opportunity.

Estimates suggest more than half of Brazilians have Telegram on their mobile phones © Adriano Machado/Reuters

Unlike WhatsApp, which sets a 256-person limit on group chats, Telegram groups can hold hundreds of thousands of users. It also has channels, where selected users can send messages to millions of followers, a feature experts say eliminates any form of debate.

“You can have these massive channels and only a few people can post, so there is no space for debate. The radicalisation aspect [of social media] becomes stronger because there is no fighting back,” said Nemer, noting that Telegram groups have “tonnes” of extremist content.

The Dubai-based group did not respond to a request for comment. Critics say it is almost impossible for Brazilian authorities to hold Telegram accountable because it has no legal representation in the country.

“For Brazil, it is very concerning. They [Telegram] don’t respond to any communications or even subpoenas from the electoral court or the supreme court,” said Patricia Campos Mello, a researcher at Columbia University focused on social networks.

Campos Mello said Bolsonaro’s supporters had constructed a “parallel information ecosystem” in which sympathetic news is generated by ostensibly mainstream websites and then shared in Telegram or WhatsApp to reinforce — or legitimise — the president’s viewpoints. Government officials then promote the news websites, which in turn are monetised through Google ads.

The situation has been complicated by the proliferation of alt-right platforms with little or no content regulation. Gettr, a Twitter-like platform headed by a former aide to Trump, launched in Brazil in September. Bolsonaro quickly attracted almost 500,000 followers.

“The country has always been one of the top markets for competing social platforms,” said Jason Miller, chief executive of Gettr. “The difference here is that the Big Tech platforms routinely censor political speech for Brazilians, leading to an increased demand for a platform like Gettr that allows people to really speak their minds within the limits of the law.”

Experts say that although these platforms are unlikely to burst out of alt-right “bubbles”, they serve as repositories to share posts or videos blocked by the traditional Big Tech groups.

“[Gettr] is not only another place to publish content, it’s a place that changes the way disinformation campaigns work on other networks,” said João Bastos dos Santos, a specialist in social media at Brazil’s National Institute of Science and Technology in Digital Democracy.

For many, the impact of new social media platforms on this year’s poll will be determined by Brazil’s supreme court. Following the furore over fake news in the 2018 elections, the court known as the STF has taken a markedly tougher line.

Justice Alexandre de Moraes, one of Bolsonaro’s most vocal adversaries, warned in October that if there was widespread use of fake news during the campaign, those responsible would be impeached and “go to jail for attacking the elections and democracy”. The same month, Moraes ordered the extradition from the US of a prominent pro-Bolsonaro blogger, Allan dos Santos, for allegedly spreading fake news.

Luís Roberto Barroso, president of the superior electoral court, said the court had “learned a lot since the 2018 presidential election in dealing with disinformation campaigns”, adding that it had partnered with tech platforms and fact-checking groups to remove fraudulent content.

Bolsonaro’s ability to wield social media in the campaign is also likely to be limited as a result of his alienation of various interest groups that supported him in 2018.

“In 2018 it was a coalition between several groups that did not always go together: the anti-corruption group, anti-communism, evangelical groups, ultra-libertarian groups, all gathered around Bolsonaro,” said Bastos dos Santos.

“But a few weeks after he was elected in January, several groups were already pretty empty. They didn’t identify enough to continue there.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza

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