What we know so far about the illegal donations scandal involving Jair Bolsonaro

. Oct 18, 2018
A major newspaper revealed that business owners have been paying for the broadcast of hundreds of millions of WhatsApp messages; electoral law forbids donations by companies

Earlier today, Brazil’s biggest newspaper Folha de S.Paulo revealed that Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign has been receiving illegal donations. According to the newspaper, business owners have paid technology companies to spread content favorable to the candidate via messaging app WhatsApp. Brazilian electoral law forbids any kind of donation or contribution that is off the books and restricts any donations made by companies. Each “packet” of messages can cost up to BRL 12 million.

However, this is not the only way in which these companies and Mr. Bolsonaro’s campaign have broken the law: they have also used databases sold by digital agencies, which is forbidden. Candidates must only use their own contact databases. Luciano Hang, the owner of the department store chain Havan, denied being aware of any wrongdoing. His company is one of those accused of paying for the WhatsApp messages illegally.

Officially, Mr. Bolsonaro declared having spent only BRL 115,000 on digital media. There is no mention of these large contracts Folha de S.Paulo revealed today. He said that he has “no control” over what others do.

Fernando Haddad said that his campaign is considering suing those responsible for the wrongdoings. According to him, witnesses present in meetings with Mr. Bolsonaro said the former military captain asked for support to finance WhatsApp campaigns. Mr. Haddad did not give any names. “He left a trail, and we are following it,” he said. The Workers’ Party requested the federal police investigate the case.

The Democratic Workers’ Party plans to file suit to request the annulment of the presidential elections, based on these accusations.

The election that changed the game

The outcome of this scandal is still uncertain. But the accusations are serious and are in line with what we know about the 2018 elections so far. Mr. Bolsonaro has been relying almost exclusively on social media and WhatsApp to reach his voters and been very efficient. These same communication networks are the conduit through which rumors and lies about Fernando Haddad, Lula, the Workers’ Party, and their allies, have been spread.

This year’s presidential campaign is the first in history in which television had a minor role. Social Democracy Party candidate Geraldo Alckmin had to make many concessions to gather allies and have the largest slot of TV time, yet he was far away from reaching the second round. At the same time, state governor candidates backed by Mr. Bolsonaro that had small numbers in polls knocked out traditional contenders and made it to the second round in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.

There is no denying that WhatsApp has tremendous power in the 2018 elections. It is even possible to say that Jair Bolsonaro will be elected president because of it – which makes the accusations brought forth by Folha de S.Paulo even more serious. In June, Supreme Court Justice Luiz Fux, then presiding over the Superior Electoral Court, declared that an election could be canceled if there was enough evidence that the use of  “fake news” had a direct influence on the results.

The court’s record is not favorable for those who expect swift justice. In 2014, the Social Democracy Party requested that the Dilma Rousseff-Michel Temer ticket be annulled. It was one of the many fronts that the then opposition used to try and remove Ms. Rousseff from office. An electoral prosecutor claimed that their campaign had received BRL 110 million in illegal funds. The case was only tried in 2017 and the justices absolved both politicians. The delay ended up being convenient for the Electoral Supreme Court, after all, they didn’t need to get their hands dirty.

Who is responsible for this mess?

At the same time, who are the losers in this battle for power and the truth? And who do we have to blame?

Not without reason, the Workers’ Party can now claim that the elections have been manipulated, much to their loss. Although the anti-Workers’ Party sentiment has yet to be fully comprehended, it is clear that much of its power comes from the memes, lies, and rumors spread on WhatsApp. But this is nothing new. Since at least 2015, the political world has been aware that conservative groups have been using the messaging app owned by Facebook to organize and spread messages of their interest. In the last three years, the Workers’ Party and the left did little to occupy this domain of the public arena.

Gleisi Hoffman, the current chairperson of the Workers’ Party, admitted that the organization should have put more effort into understanding and using WhatsApp. But the truth is, an eventual defeat cannot be blamed solely on the revelations Folha made today. Just as it is insufficient to explain the party’s failure in barring the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff only by considering the demonstrations against her. The inability to negotiate with Congress and Rousseff’s inefficiency in communicating with the people must also be taken into account. And, of course, the corruption scandals revealed by Operation Car Wash, never fully explained by the Workers’ Party.

There are also those who say that the phenomenon of fake news being spread using WhatsApp can be blamed on the press. A widely-shared article on Medium argued that Brazilian news organizations are not “present” on WhatsApp and, therefore, were to blame for the spreading of lies. Tai Nalon, director of the fact-checking agency Aos Fatos, rebutted the claim, explaining that the American company did not offer tools for businesses until earlier this year. Also, WhatsApp does not have an office in Brazil, nor does the app offer any kind of tools to facilitate the broadcasting of messages or send user-friendly content.

No matter what the outcome of the investigation about Mr. Bolsonaro using illegal money in his campaign, these elections have shown politicians, journalists, lawmakers, and academics that serious reflection and study is needed. Even though many disagree with his proposals, declarations, and methods, he is the symptom of a system that, right now, does not fully comprehend what citizens want and does not have the proper tools to do so.

Hopefully, at the end of this painful electoral process, society will realize that we do not need to only point fingers, but to come up with solutions.

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