Social media became a strong and accessible tool for today’s democracies, allowing for the wide-reaching spread of news, opinions, and analysis, sometimes in places where the press is not welcome.
However, a completely open space of debate, with no efficient regulation or transparency, also has its downsides. Ever since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, social media has often been used by political forces in nefarious ways, creating a swarm of bots to manipulate and interfere in the public debate. This was particularly present in the lead up to the 2018 election, which saw an epidemic of hoaxes and disinformation spread constantly by often inauthentic users on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Political analysts have since suggested that the “wave of fake news” helped elect far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
Granted, bots don’t vote. But with the vast majority of the population online and forming opinions based on what they see on their computer or smartphone screens, strategies to muddy or co-opt the public discourse can be highly effective. And this is hammered home by the sheer reach of social media bot legions, turning the lie told a million times into truth. And this has proven to be difficult to stop, even with regulations, fact-checking agencies, and — in the case of Brazil — a nascent legal effort to curb the spread of misleading information.
Jair Bolsonaro is well aware of the power of disinformation. He claims “fake news is a part of our lives,” and vehemently supports what he calls “freedom of speech” online — a right that while applicable to humans, does not necessarily extend to social media bots.
In October 2022, Brazil will embark on one of its most controversial and pivotal elections in history. Political polarization is high, while the country lives under the shroud of economic and social woes. For President Bolsonaro, reelection is everything — and expect him to use every trick (and tool) in the social media handbook.