Bolsonaro’s protests and the importance of the “photograph”

When Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took the stage in the capital city of Brasília on Tuesday, addressing thousands of supporters who gathered to support his government in opposition to the Supreme Court, he made his objectives for the Independence Day protests clear.

The president spoke of sitting down with the heads of Congress and the Judiciary, and “showing them the photograph” of Tuesday’s demonstrations, in order to decide which direction Brazil will take from here on out.

Crowd estimates for demonstrations in Brasília and São Paulo are varied. In the capital, the Federal District’s military police force estimated a total of 400,000 people turning out to support President Bolsonaro. The protest’s organizers, however, announced a sum total of just 150,000.

Meanwhile, in São Paulo, the local police tallied the crowds on Paulista Avenue at 125,000, which attendees dispute.

Indeed, as Mr. Bolsonaro is fully aware, official crowd sizes are meaningless in a political environment effectively governed by social media. What is important is the “photograph,” the images and videos published on Twitter and Facebook, and passed around WhatsApp and Telegram groups.

Aerial images from television news cameras in Brasília showed large empty spaces in the capital’s Esplanade of Ministries, with a thicker concentration of militants gathered close to the stage from which Mr. Bolsonaro delivered his speech. A modern, planned city, Brasília’s central area’s broad plazas and streets are arguably designed to minimize the size of popular protests. Millions of demonstrators could swarm onto the Esplanade and, depending on the angle, footage could make the vast space look half empty.

But it’s the image that counts. Tuesday’s protests do not appear to be game-changing — at least not in the way Mr. Bolsonaro had hoped. Cropped images spread around social media delighted his already fervorous fan base, but footage from mainstream media depict protests that, while large, were nowhere near as numerous as the government expected they would be.

Will the photograph be enough to get Congress and the Supreme Court to bend to his will? It seems unlikely.