Make no mistake: this is an iconic campaign. We might be witnessing the twilight of Lulism, which political scientist André Singer described as “the convergence of the interests of the private industry sector on one side, and of the organized labor force on the other,  [that] led to the stability that allowed this political system to take the form of a sort of consensus.” We could be facing the rise of a new political establishment – as most political dynasties have endured hard electoral losses. But the major turnaround the 2018 election will represent is forever changing how candidates campaign.

Jair Bolsonaro spent the last month of the campaign in a hospital bed, after being stabbed in the abdomen in early September. In the runoff, he chose not to debate his opponent at any point – a first in Brazilian politics. Still, barring a major upset, he will become Brazil’s 38th president tomorrow. Why?

There are many reasons, some of which we have covered in other articles: an anti-system wave, major rejection of the Workers’ Party and its supreme leader, Lula, and a nationwide focus on public safety – an issue that strikes a chord in a country with over 62,000 murders per year. But a major reason for this outcome was social media. Like no one else, Mr. Bolsonaro dominated the guerilla tactics on messaging apps such as WhatsApp to fuel the anti-Workers’ Party sentiment.

Mass WhatsApp messaging services

Last week, Folha de S.Paulo revealed that private businesses paid for automated messaging services that would send negative messages (sometimes with fake information) against the Workers’ Party to dozens of millions of people. The electoral legislation forbids any financial help from companies. At this point, however, the damage is done.

It could be a coincidence, but the last Ibope poll shows that rejection towards the Workers’ Party is twice as high among voters who own a cell phone (44 percent, against 21 percent among those who don’t own a cell phone). The same phenomenon repeats itself among those with access to the internet (47 percent wouldn’t vote for the Workers’ Party no matter what) and those without (26 percent).

Truth be told, disinformation and negative campaigning are tactics common to all parties, including the Workers’ Party. This week, Fernando Haddad called Mr. Bolsonaro’s running mate a “torturer.” The political prisoner he was accused to have tortured during the military dictatorship, however, had been arrested three years before General Hamilton Mourão entered the academy.

We could discuss the tone and quantity of false information generated by each campaign, but at this point, it seems impossible to recognize which pieces of fake news are produced by the campaigns themselves or by their supporters.

How did the WhatsApp mass messaging system operate?

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was characterized by a war on Facebook, with microtargeting techniques used by campaigns based on data provided by the controversial – and now defunct – big data company Cambridge Analytica.

In Brazil, the battlefield moved to WhatsApp Messenger.

First of all, social media companies had illegal lists of cell phones to which they would send content against Mr. Haddad and his party. It remains unclear how they were obtained: either through leaks in telecom companies, credit companies or other illegal means. They were separated into several clusters, notably municipality of residence, gender, age, and monthly earnings.

Then, each cluster would receive specific content. Content about family-related topics such as same-sex marriage, gender issues, and social minorities would be sent out to more religious or older voters – who tend to be less open on those issues. Criticism of social programs would be forwarded to urban, richer voters – where the discourse of meritocracy against affirmative action is very popular.

It is actually impossible to know the extent of the reach. In July, WhatsApp limited the number of times one can forward the same message to 20. To circumvent this, companies obtained U.S. numbers – which can forward messages to up to 250 people. In about five minutes, you can get a number online for as little as USD 1.49 per month.

WhatsApp’s cryptography doesn’t allow for content monitoring. The company (owned by Facebook), however, does have metadata – that is, it knows which users talk to each other, how many messages they send and at what time. But the company is not inclined to share those.

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PowerOct 27, 2018

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BY The Brazilian Report

We are an in-depth content platform about Brazil, made by Brazilians and destined to foreign audiences.