Montage picture of Bolsonaro and Whats app logo. Image: internet reproduction. Some rights reserved.
“The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it”
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in How Democracies die.
How could a Whats Zapper win a presidencial election?
As highlighted by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the system is to blame for letting demagogues into power. “Authoritarians shouldn’t be treated as part of the system; they must be stopped by it”. However, different than what happened in the US, the Brazilian political system did try to stop Bolsonaro some how.
But it was not efficient enough. Bolsonaro did not run for presidency with the support of an established party, neither with the help of the traditional media. Evidently, his election does not stem only from the use of social media, yet, social media was indeed paramount to allow a speech of hate, violence and discrimination to come to light.
What is the Social Media Narrative?
There is no doubt that we live in a revolutionary time regarding communication, where an established narrative in Social Media hasn’t been set yet.
When cinema was invented it did not have a specific narrative, audience or even purpose. Only in 1915, more than 20 years latter from its invention, the revolutionary but controversial Griffth’s “Birth of a Nation” shaped a remarkable contribution to the visual storytelling narrative.
The dramatic editing of Sergei Eisenstein and the poetic sequences of Leni Riefenstahl helped Cinema to become an established and solid form of communication with its theory, storytelling narrative and an effective audience response. Nevertheless, most of them used to disseminate ideologies and reinforce totalitarian discourses.
Narrative in social media and new media are close to a “no law land”.
The same is happening now. We have many “inventions” in communication popping up here and there. Technology in mass communication is at its fastest speed, but there is no solid ground on its theory, narrative and no effective impact evaluation. Bearing that in mind, narrative in social media and new media are close to a “no law land”.
Social media’s anarchic way of reporting and exploring storytelling is a very important experimental tool towards a contribution in developing a Social Media narrative theory, as it happed in Cinema. However, it also provides a fertile ground for extremists to find their peers. In the Brazilian case, Levitzki and Ziblatt would call this election outcome “the rise of a totalitarian”. In their work, a totalitarian is the one “who to exist, denies every other existence”.
Social Media and Human Rights
How did these “totalitarians” and “anti-human rights” speeches found space in Brazil? The uprising signalized in the 2013’s demonstrations on the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo was called through Facebook and What’s App. They fashioned themselves as a movement without party and legitimate representatives of the Brazilian people who said to be tired of being manipulated by professional politicians. I wouldn’t blame only the left wing for not spotting this “far-right” movement back then.
The rise of the “far-right” was actually facilitated by the disregard of the right wing parties, when they chose not to recognize Dilma Roussef’s victory in 2014 elections. Such a decision opened the “pandora’s box” by not accepting an elected president and its legitimacy to govern by orchestrating an impeachment few months after her election.
A mobile phone home screen show a picture of Bolsonaro pretending to be pointing a gun. Image: Courtesy of the author.
The PT (labour party), during its 12 years in government did not challenge the political or economic systems as expected, but instead it sought to manage the existing structure putting forward gradual changes and targeted social programs.
There is no denying the important role of the PT in bringing significant social, educational and health advances to a mass of Brazilians who had previously been completely abandoned. These advances have also facilitated lower-class access to consumption and a significant increase in social status.
In a society that came out of slavery in the late 19th century and no significant social reform have ever been made, popularization of flight tickets, university access thanks to polemic “quota system” and house servants rights, brought to light the dominant class discomfort. However, among those crucial changes to be made, the media is one that continued to have its traditional white and well-educated profile on our TV screen.
In 2015, right after Dilma’s re-election, the political/ economic crisis broke out and corruption scandals were revealed. Social services provided by the States collapsed and local police salaries started to be delayed. With all these issues, opposition found the perfect excuse to blame the labor government for the violence and the presence of the unwanted part of the society taking part in the elite’s daily life.
In the same year, Bolsonaro and his controversial speech found a perfect ground in social medias to accuse human rights activists and the left wing of being responsible for not letting the police “to do their job” by killing criminals instead of “protecting” them. He tapped the anti-system mood initiated in 2013 and blamed all social failures on the corruption of the political class.
He also embraced a very conservative agenda questioning same-sex marriage approved by the Supreme Court and demanded to lower the age of criminal responsibility of minors. With an extremist discourse, he evoked the dictatorship as a time without corruption and an example of order, moral and respect to the traditional Christian family.
His candidacy attacked single moms as responsible for bearing criminals, homosexuality for diseases and the secularism of the state for the lack of morals.
At first, he sounded like an unbalanced person speaking. Protected by the parliamentary immunity law, he said all this nonsense and made it available for followers in social medias.
With the systematic institutional crises led by corruption outbreaks involving the left and the right wings, he a sequence of fake news in social medias, he became the anti-system spokesperson, perfect to lead the transformations the Brazilian fundamentalist Christian, white dominant and racist society demanded. Supported by the triple “B” caucus “BBB”, an acronym for “Bible, Bullets and Bulls”, Bolsonaro accuses all who do not agree with him as communists and as not Brazilians at heart.
Are we, Brazilians, fascist and we didn’t know it?
As Levitzki and Ziblatt argue in their research, there has always been 35 - 40% of the population in any country that in an institutional and political crisis would support demagogues, in some cases antidemocratic, but who were mostly kept out of mainstream politics by the political parties themselves.
Bolsonaro can be understood as a result both of a successful social media strategy and of an institutional failure.
In a country like Brazil, where voting is compulsory for 147 million people, without the help of a mainstream party, conventional media and with Lula, the left wing leader, imprisoned, Bolsonaro won the presidential election with nearly 58 million votes, which means 39% of all voters.
Thus, I argue that if, as Levitzki and Ziblatt’s research shows, between 35 – 40% of any population would support demagogues, Bolsonaro is within that range by achieving 39% of the Brazilian voters.
As Bolsonaro did not run with an established political party and did not have enough TV time for political campaigning, social media played an essential role in letting him reach his voters. In that regard, social media has played an essential role in the launch of this process of demoting human rights in Brazil.
Bolsonaro can be understood as a result both of a successful social media strategy and of an institutional failure that, according to Levitzki and Ziblatt’s definition, did not find ways to safeguard forbearance and mutual tolerance.