TikTok, Bolsonaro has arrived

. Feb 29, 2020
tiktok brazil bolsonaro far-right Image: Salomé Gloanec/The Brazilian Report

If Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency has been built on social media, then Brazil’s head of state celebrated a defining achievement this week. Using his official Twitter account, the president announced that he had reached over 6 million followers and surpassed 10 million likes on Facebook.

“Thank you all for your consideration and interaction,” he said, immediately receiving floods of responses from his followers, some of whom proclaimed their love for the 64-year-old; others begged him to be president for as long as he lives. 

This interaction between Mr. Bolsonaro and his digital fans now has a new channel: short-form video sharing platform TikTok, where users create short and often comical clips to publish to their followers.

Unlike traditional social media, TikTok doesn&#8217;t yet have an official presidential account, so far being a milieu where supporters or detractors can say whatever they like about the incumbent president. </p> <p>More than just new territory on which Bolsonaro supporters may plant their flag, the Chinese social network is <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomtaulli/2020/01/31/tiktok-why-the-enormous-success/#63b7820165d1">overwhelmingly used by young people</a>. While the common perception that it is the older generations that create the rough-around-the-edges memes shared on pro-government WhatsApp Messenger groups, it is important to recognize the influence of young digital native classes in the rise of far-right content online in Brazil and around the world.</p> <p>According to Sergio Denicoli, Ph.D. in communication studies, no matter the medium, the government&#8217;s strategy is the same: discrediting traditional sources of information.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>“One of the strategies is to damage the reputation of whatever the government doesn&#8217;t like, which includes the press and media personalities. They run to social media seeing that regulated networks [such as the mainstream press] won’t give space for the government to advance its narratives,” he told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bolsonaro government&#8217;s attitude of bending narratives and truth to suit itself has found an ideal home on social media. On February 27, after <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/02/27/bolsonaro-impeachment-offense-markets-coronavirus-vale/">sharing a video on WhatsApp</a> calling people to the street to protest against Congress and the Supreme Court—which made some opponents call for his impeachment—the president said the video was outdated and from 2015. However, the same clip included footage of Mr. Bolsonaro being stabbed on the presidential campaign trail, which happened in September 2018.</p> <p>With Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp coming in for heavy criticism in their perceived idleness in promoting fact-checking or punishing abuse, there is nothing to suggest that TikTok will stray from this hands-off hymn sheet, Mr. Denicoli says.&nbsp;</p> <p>“As a new network, TikTok is one more place where <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/12/06/brazil-election-social-media-democracy/">Bolsonaro can spread his ideas</a>. When we think about video, let’s remember that many far-right YouTubers just make content and share it there with whatever they want. What seems most relevant to me is not <em>where </em>Mr. Bolsonaro does it, because he essentially builds the same narrative and creates bubbles to support it.”</p> <h2>Incels for Bolsonaro</h2> <p>Brazil&#8217;s far-right has seen a boom in anonymous accounts on social media which adapt to the languages of <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/10/24/whatsapp-brazil-far-right-gab/">each different network</a>, and TikTok is unlikely to remain untouched by this phenomenon. This wave has also encapsulated the seemingly endless production of far-right memes, often filled with hate speech and linked to digital communities known as &#8220;chans,&#8221; the gathering point for the online subculture of <a href="https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/4/16/18287446/incel-definition-reddit">incels</a>—involuntary celibates.</p> <p>This internet subculture is almost entirely made up of heterosexual males, who gather on chans to engage in discussions based on misogynism, misanthropy, racism, and violence. Traditionally a North American phenomenon, people self-identifying as incels have been responsible for a number of mass shootings in the U.S. and Canada, and Brazil&#8217;s own incel community is edging towards a similar status.</p> <p>In 2019, two former students entered the Raul Brasil high school in the town of Suzano, outside of São Paulo, and <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2019/03/15/suzano-shooting-us-massacres/">opened fire on students and teachers</a>, killing eight people. The gunmen were members of homegrown Brazilian chan Dogolachan and their act of terrorism sought to ape notorious mass shootings such as the Columbine massacre in 1999.</p> <p>The nature of the community and the chans they gather on are that they are clustered and difficult to trace. In the case of the Suzano killers on Dogolachan, the forum was being hosted on the deep web, making it difficult to track and identify posters.</p> <p>Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Brazilian incel community has felt comfortable in supporting Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s government, with the president&#8217;s past of misogynist and racist comments, his administration&#8217;s apparent disregard for human rights, and the promotion of guns as a mode of personal security and freedom.</p> <p>At the same time, the government&#8217;s social media machine is aware of its links to incel culture and has done nothing to distance itself from it. As an example, Vaporwave, a <a href="https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/a47793/what-happened-to-vaporwave/">2010s digital aesthetic</a> which was quickly adopted by the online far-right, has made its way into several memes shared by figures close to President Jair Bolsonaro, including his son <a href="https://twitter.com/bolsonarosp/status/1158908286483271685">Eduardo Bolsonaro</a> and Education Minister Abraham Weintraub.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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