If Facebook bolstered the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election to the White House, the rise of Brazil’s far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro owes more to the messaging app WhatsApp. The difference, however, was that the Brexit and Trump campaigns relied on algorithms to create echo chambers, whereas Bolsonaro’s did not. Instead, his campaign assembled a human infrastructure to create a pro-Bolsonaro environment on WhatsApp and spread mis- and disinformation to bolster his candidacy.1Although such human infrastructure worked on disinformation campaigns to favor Jair Bolsonaro, I cannot affirm that they were affiliated with Jair Bolsonaro himself or his political party, the Social Liberal Party (PSL).
WhatsApp has been popular in Brazil since it entered the market in 2009. In 2018, there were around 120 million active WhatsApp users, out of a total population of 210 million. About 96 percent of Brazilians with access to a smartphone use WhatsApp as one of their main methods of communication. WhatsApp’s popularity was driven by its low cost in comparison to SMS texting, which could cost around 55 times the price in North America. Another reason for the app’s popularity was that, after Facebook bought WhatsApp for US$19 billion, the company partnered with telecom companies to offer a zero-rating plan that allowed subscribers to use WhatsApp basically for free.2Zero-rating (also known as sponsored data) “refers to the practice in which mobile networks offer free data to customers who use specific services (e.g., streaming videos) or smartphone applications (e.g., [Facebook Chat], WhatsApp). Thus, customers who access this zero rated/sponsored content do not pay for the mobile traffic generated by such use.” See Jeffrey Omari, “Is Facebook the Internet? Ethnographic Perspectives on Open Internet Governance in Brazil,” Law & Social Inquiry 45, no. 4 (2020): 1–20, 7. WhatsApp also makes it very easy to create group chats and to share content such as videos.
The app became a hotbed for political campaigns based on disinformation not only because of its affordances and widespread reach in the country but also because of its end-to-end encryption, which ensured that no one besides the sender and the receiver could read the content of messages. This made it nearly impossible for WhatsApp analysts to identify disinformation campaigns as Facebook did in Brazil in 2018, when the platform removed 196 pages and 87 profile accounts that were participating “in a coordinated network that was disguised with the use of fake Facebook accounts, and hid the nature and origin of its content from people in order to generate division and spread disinformation.”
I define disinformation as false information with the intention to mislead. Disinformation is deliberately created and spread as truth to influence public opinion, obscure the truth, and get a reaction that assists its creator. Disinformation is often confused with fake news. However, fake news is an umbrella term that covers a range of falsehoods or lies, including misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is not always intended to mislead; for example, it may be false or inaccurate information that was created by mistake or inadvertently spread. Misinformation can also be true information that misinforms when taken out of context.3David Nemer, “Desinformação No Contexto Da Pandemia Do Coronavírus (COVID-19),” A to Z: Novas Práticas Em Informação e Conhecimento 9, no. 2 (2020): 113–116.
Since WhatsApp runs on a peer-to-peer architecture, there was no algorithm curating content according to users’ characteristics or demographics, which is how echo chambers work on Facebook. Deliberate human action was required to create and distribute disinformation on WhatsApp. I call this the human infrastructure of fake news.“What is necessary to understand how the Bolsonaro campaign leveraged WhatsApp to their advantage is an understanding of infrastructure that goes beyond technological artifacts and focuses on humans as central to such networks.”
Infrastructures, as defined by anthropologist Brian Larkin, are “built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space.”4“ The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (October 2013): 327–343. There has been increasing work on social engagements with infrastructures in technological systems, particularly in the global South. However, what is necessary to understand how the Bolsonaro campaign leveraged WhatsApp to their advantage is an understanding of infrastructure that goes beyond technological artifacts and focuses on humans as central to such networks. How do humans organize to accomplish complex tasks?
Bolsonaro became known for his controversial speeches rather than a robust presidential plan. Throughout his political career, he has celebrated dictatorship, glorified torture, promised to reverse policies that protect the Amazon Region, and threatened Brazil’s women, Black, and LGBTQIA people. However, none of these threats had an impact on Bolsonaro’s popularity, as his electorate was composed of a loose coalition brought together by the candidate’s appeal to “bullets, Bibles, and bulls.” Bolsonaro’s campaign claimed that his presidency was the only hope to end violence and corruption in Brazil. His supporters call him Mito (Legend or Myth) and expected him to “reinstate law and order.” A typical charismatic populist, Bolsonaro built his rise on people’s distrust in politics, and wariness of politicians and the political establishment in general. According to Ernesto Laclau, populists emerge during widespread dissatisfaction, and claim to come from outside the system to situate themselves as champions of change.5Verso, 2018More Info → Moreover, populists do not necessarily anchor their political messaging in reality—Bolsonaro presented himself as the anti-establishment candidate, even though he had been a member of the Brazilian congress for 27 years.
Bolsonaro, who has earned comparisons to Donald Trump, was an avid user of social media during his campaign. He constantly participated on WhatsApp groups, recorded Facebook Live videos, and tweeted. Bolsonaro often turned to his social media accounts to spread disinformation and attack his opponent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT). In one of his tweets, Bolsonaro both impugned the “School Without Homophobia” program and accused Haddad of attempting to implement the so-called “gay kit” through the program to promote gender ideology in Brazilian schools.6Isabela Kalil, “Políticas Antiderechos En Brasil: Neoliberalismo y Neoconservadurismo En El Gobierno de Bolsonaro,” in Derechos En Riesgo En América Latina: 11 Estudios Sobre Grupos Neoconservadores, ed. Ailynn Torres Santana (Ediciones desde abajo, 2020), 276.
Although mis- and disinformation had spread in Brazil across all forms of social media, WhatsApp’s impact has been the most notable. Due to the popularity of the app in Brazil, about 44 percent of the voting public used WhatsApp to find political information, according to the polling institute Datafolha. WhatsApp’s simple design allowed users to easily share text, audio notes, images, and videos, facilitating the spread of mis- and disinformation. A study of 100,000 WhatsApp images that were widely shared in Brazil during the election found that more than half contained misleading or blatantly false information. Another study conducted by fact checking agencies involved in Comprova found that 86 percent of false or misleading content shared on WhatsApp benefited Bolsonaro and targeted Haddad and his party, PT.
WhatsApp’s human infrastructure“I found that disinformation spread in these groups through a pyramid structure, in which Influencers were at the top and ‘average Brazilians’ at the bottom.”
Given the prevalence of WhatsApp’s use and the intriguing way that disinformation spread during the 2018 presidential election, I decided to research who was creating this content and sharing it. I joined four self-declared pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups via invitation links that were publicly listed in the description of conservative YouTube videos. I began monitoring WhatsApp groups that had an average of 160 members in March 2018. At the peak of the election cycle, the members were posting an average of 1,000 messages in each group per day. In August, after I conducted the first thematic analysis of my data, I identified three clusters of members across the groups: the “average Brazilians,” the Bolso-army, and the Influencers. I found that disinformation spread in these groups through a pyramid structure, in which Influencers were at the top and “average Brazilians” at the bottom.
“Average Brazilians.” The vast majority of the WhatsApp group members fell under this category. As I analyzed the members’ conversations, I noticed that they came from different social classes and included both men and women. They justified their vote for Bolsonaro by sharing their life experiences and difficulties. Before entering the groups, many of them mentioned that they didn’t have a strong opinion about the candidate. However, I found that they saw WhatsApp groups as safe spaces where they could learn more about the Mito, verify rumors and news, and obtain digital content to share on other social media accounts and groups. Many of them voted for a different right-wing candidate in the first round and had switched to Bolsonaro for the runoff. One of these people was Carlos. He said in the groups that he “wasn’t going to vote in the runoff, but after learning that our country was under an eminent socialist attack” he decided to vote for Bolsonaro. These groups functioned as echo chambers maintained by the Bolso-army and Influencers. Every time a member posted disinformation—such as fake or manipulated poll results or memes in support of Bolsonaro—members rallied by cheering with the Brazilian flag—a sign of Bolsonaro’s new emphasis on Brazilian nationalism—or posting a specific emoji (👉🏼).7The backhand index pointing right or left is Bolsonaro’s trademark handgun symbol and referred to his promise to relax gun controls and allow police officers to shoot suspects with impunity.
The Bolso-army. The group comprises Bolsonaro’s loyal fan base and the machinery that stood ready to attack anyone who insulted Bolsonaro on WhatsApp or other social media platforms. They began following the candidate long before his campaign started. They were part of the administrative team of these WhatsApp groups and kept a vigilant eye to promptly ban infiltrators or people who dared to challenge anything related to the candidate. In these groups, debate or discussion about Bolsonaro’s policies was not possible. I witnessed people get kicked out because they asked questions related to Bolsonaro’s refusal to participate in televised debates, his family’s mysterious assets, and even his record as a congressman. Every time average users attempted to verify information or ask a question critical of Bolsonaro, they were flooded with passionate Bolso-army messages that quashed any doubt about Bolsonaro. Bolso-army’s arguments were mostly founded in disinformation.
Indeed, the Bolso-army formed the glue that held the human infrastructure together in order to actively disseminate the disinformation produced by Influencers across pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms. Given their support, which displayed extreme trust and left no space for questions, the average user felt secure with the information they were given. They recirculated it, helping to spread disinformation even further.“The Influencers also took advantage of the Bolso-army’s loyalty to quickly spread their mis- and disinformation.”
Influencers had a decisive role in creating or bringing new mis- and disinformation into the groups. There were only 4 or 5 Influencers per group, and they were not the most outspoken or active participants. They worked backstage, orchestrating disinformation campaigns by sharing the same content at the same time in different groups and coordinating online and offline protests. They used image and video editing software to create convincing and emotionally engaging digital content. They knew how to work content into memes and short texts that went viral. The Influencers also took advantage of the Bolso-army’s loyalty to quickly spread their mis- and disinformation. Influencers often used affect (satire, irony, and humor) in their content, creating memes about “Bolsonaro the Oppressor” to ironically show Bolsonaro’s human side. They also worked fast to delegitimize anybody who criticized Bolsonaro before group members read the news in other venues. For example, Marine Le Pen—the iconic far-right politician from France—stated that “Bolsonaro says extreme things, unpleasant things which are insurmountable in France.” Within 30 minutes of this story coming out in a popular Brazilian publication, the Influencers posted a meme saying that Le Pen was a communist. Their strategy was to label everyone who might undermine Bolsonaro a communist, and to discredit mainstream news.
Traditional right-leaning news outlets such as Veja and Folha de São Paulo were actually labeled as socialist venues on pro-Bolsonaro groups. The mis- and disinformation produced in WhatsApp insidiously alters perception, but the absurdity of stories may be even more astonishing. A group of Influencers created a flyer alerting their members that Haddad would sign an executive order that would allow men to have sex with 12-year-old children. When David Duke endorsed Bolsonaro for thinking like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), they were quick to produce content that would associate the KKK with the left to distance Bolsonaro’s image from them. During the elections’ first round they circulated fake videos that showed malfunctioning electronic voting machines in order to reinforce the idea that the elections were rigged. Influencers also found public videos on YouTube and Facebook that challenged Bolsonaro and posted their links to the WhatsApp groups so the “Bolso-swarm” could descend upon them to express their dislike or show support for their “legend.”
Although these three types of members—the “average Brazilians,” the Bolso-army, and the Influencers—had different roles in the Bolsonarist WhatsApp ecosystem, they had much in common. In addition to the social and economic issues outlined above, what united these groups was a deep distrust of political institutions. Despite their hopes for a military intervention, they claimed they didn’t want a new dictatorship, per se. Rather, they wanted someone to stop the corruption that had benefitted politicians on the left and on the right and deteriorated Brazil’s economy, leaving more than 13 million people unemployed. This crisis should be seen as a cry for help. But Bolsonaro was far from being the hero they hoped for.
Understanding the digital Bolsonaro
Despite being called the “tropical Trump” in Nature and the “Brazilian swamp drainer” by the Wall Street Journal, Bolsonaro is actually part of the corrupt political establishment. Bolsonaro has spent 27 years in congress and didn’t do anything to improve the situation of his home state Rio de Janeiro. He belonged to one of the most corrupt political parties in Brazil (the Progressist Party) for 10 years, and accepted questionable donations. During his 2018 campaign, corporate supporters were accused of leading a “multimillion-dollar ‘anti-Workers’ Party campaign’ designed to inundate Brazilian voters with untruths and inventions, by simultaneously firing off hundreds of millions of WhatsApp messages.”“Bolsonaro’s campaign relied on disinformation that was systematically created and spread by a human infrastructure that orchestrated a targeted campaign.”
What happened during the 2018 presidential election debunks the idea that WhatsApp is a level playing field. WhatsApp’s peer-to-peer encrypted architecture may give users a sense of security and privacy, since there is no algorithm intervening in their messages and content shared is part of deliberate human interactions. It may also give them a sense of spontaneity, since the app allows anyone to produce and share content. However, as I described earlier, Bolsonaro’s campaign relied on disinformation that was systematically created and spread by a human infrastructure that orchestrated a targeted campaign. It is hard to verify the exact impacts that digital populism had on the 2018 presidential elections. However, based on the many accounts like Carlos’, in which people felt motivated to vote for Bolsonaro, it is undeniable that the human infrastructure behind the disinformation campaign on WhatsApp helped Bolsonaro become Brazil’s president.
During the few weeks before the runoff vote, many people turned to WhatsApp hoping for a technological intervention to reduce the spread of mis- and disinformation and the poisoning of Brazilian political life. Even though WhatsApp did not act in time, the solution to stop Bolsonaro wasn’t going to come as a feature on the app but in the voices and actions of people who still believe in Brazil. To move forward, we must understand the depths of the desperation that Bolsonaro and his supporters have tapped into, and given voice to, in their WhatsApp groups.
This essay is based on David Nemer’s forthcoming book Technology of the Oppressed (MIT Press, 2022).
Banner photo: Alan Santos, Palacio do Planalto/Flickr.