The three types of WhatsApp users getting Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro elected
Jair Bolsonaro The three types of WhatsApp users getting Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro elected
WhatsApp has proved to be the ideal tool for mobilizing political support â" and for spreading fake news
If the Brexit vote and Donald Trumpâs charge to the White House were jet-propelled by Facebook, the rise of Brazilâs likely next president, the far-right firebrand Jair Bolson aro, owes much to WhatsApp.
The Facebook-owned messaging app is wildly popular in Brazil, with about 120 million active users, and has proved to be the ideal tool for mobilizing political support â" but also for spreading fake news.
To understand the motivations, hopes and fears of Bolsonaroâs tens of millions of supporters I joined four pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups.
After four months of receiving an average of 1,000 messages per group, per day, this is what I found:
There are three key clusters of members, who I classified as Ordinary Brazilians, Bolsominions, and Influencers.
The vast majority of members are ordinary Brazilians: men and women from all social classes who use the groups to share the life experiences they invoke to justify voting for Bolsonaro.'He's not perfect': why do so many Brazilians support rightwinger Jair Bolsonaro? Read more
These members donât trust m ainstream media, and see WhatsApp groups as safe spaces where they can learn more about Bolsonaro, verify rumours and news, and find memes and other content to share.
The groups function as echo chambers: every time a member posts polls results or other news, members rally behind them, cheering with the Brazilian flag or the handgun emoji â" a reference Bolsonaroâs promise to relax gun controls and allow police officers to shoot suspects with impunity.
Bolsonaroâs loyal volunteer âarmyâ administer the WhatsApp groups and stand ready to ban infiltrators â" or anyone who dares question their leader.
There is little debate or discussion of Bolsonaroâs electoral manifesto, but users are often expelled for apparently trivial infractions such as asking why Bolsonaro has refused to participate in televised debates.
Whenever âaverageâ users attempt to ask questions, they are bombarded by passionate messages from Bolsominions, who often base their arguments on fake news stories. Indeed, Bolsonaroâs most passionate supporters form a human infrastructure that actively disseminates fake news across social media platforms.
It is in the creation of fake news that the âInfluencersâ have a decisive role.
They represent perhaps only 5% of group members and are not the most outspoken or obviously active participants. Rather, they work backstage to create and share fake news and to coordinate protests online and in the real world.
They use sophisticated image and video editing software to create convincing and emotionally engaging digital content. They are smart and know how to manipulate content into memes and short texts that go viral.Bolsonaro business backers accused of illegal Whatsapp fake news campaign Read more
They work fast to undermine any person or news outlet that criticizes Bolsonaro. For example, after the French far-right leader Marine Le Penâs described some of Bolsonaroâs comments as âextremely unpleasantâ, the Influencers quickly published a meme accusing her of being a communist.
Some of the fake news stories are simply astonishing. A group of âmovers and shakersâ created a bogus flyer claim that Bolsonaroâs leftist rival Fernando Haddad, planned to sign an executive order allowing men to have sex with 12-year-olds.
During the first round of votes they repeatedly circulated fake videos that showed malfunctioning electronic voting machines in order to reinforce the idea that the elections were rigged.
Influencers also scour YouTube and Facebook for posts which challenge Bolsonaro, and then share the posterâs profile link so the âBolso-swarmâ can descend upon them.
These three groups have different roles, but they have a lot in common: they share a total disbelief in Brazilâs representative democracy and have concluded that the system only serves those at the top.
Despite their support for the idea of military intervention, they donât want a new dictatorship, arguing instead that Brazil needs someone to end the corruption that has benefited politicians of both the left and the right â" and devastated the countryâs economy.
This crisis should be seen as a cry for help, but Bolsonaro is far from the hero they dream of.The Brazilian group scanning WhatsApp for disinformation in run-up to elections Read more
Although the Wall Street Journal this week described him as the âBrazilian swamp drainerâ, he is actually part of the establishment: a professional politician who has only passed two pieces of legislation in his 27 years as a congressman.
And, as Bolsonaro heads toward what seems like certain victory in Sundayâs second round, it remains unclear what role these WhatsApp groups will play after the election.
Will they serve as propaganda machines for his eventual government? Will they become the main source of ânewsâ for his supporters? Researchers called on WhatsApp to devise a technological solution for Brazilâs fake news epidemic, but such fixes could potentially inhibit freedom of speech.
The solution will not be found in technology, but in the voices and actions of people who still believe in Brazil. To move forward, we have to understand the depths of the desperation that Bolsonaro and his supporters have tapped into, and given voice to, in their Whatsapp groups.
David Nemer is an assistant professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky, and the author of Favela Digital: The Other Side of Technology.Topics
- Jair Bolsonaro
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