Why is Brazil such a fertile ground to conspiracy theories

. Jul 20, 2019
moon landing

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first paces taken by man on the lunar surface. The moon landing was a giant leap for mankind—so large, in fact, that a few don’t believe it actually happened. In Brazil, a lot more than just a few think it never happened: a survey by Datafolha out this week shows a full quarter of the population to be moon landing skeptics. But disbelief in Brazil is hardly confined to feats of space exploration.

Moon landing conspiracy theories are almost as old as the event itself. The Apollo 11 program was controversial throughout the 1960s, criticized in the U.S. by both left and right, though the landing itself awed the world. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide (one-quarter of the world’s population at the time), watched as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon’s surface at 11:56:20 pm (Brasília time) on 20 July, 1969. Brazil was no exception, however lame the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper’s headline might have been (“Moon in Our Pocket”).

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The last manned perambulation on earth’s natural satellite was way back in 1972. The longer we go without returning, therefore, the more incredible the feat seems,</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">as I’ve argued in a piece for </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Jacobin</span></i></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. Moon landing conspiracy theories began gaining ground early on, with a</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">1976 pamphlet</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> the first to consistently argue this case, based on “evidence.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Perhaps it was the shadow of Watergate that led people to such mistrust—a fact to bear in mind when considering conspiracy theories in Brazil—but, regardless, a small minority in the U.S. continues to hold this position. Rates of moon landing disbelief there hover around the 6-percent mark (though there is some indication this may have</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">crept upwards recently</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">). </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">So what explains the much higher number in Brazil?</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Education levels aren’t a reliable alibi: although belief in the moon landing correlates with levels of education, a full 14 percent of highly educated Brazilians (who have passed through tertiary education) buy into the conspiracy theory. Nor is a younger population in Brazil to blame. In fact, it is older people, especially those 60 years old and upwards, who are </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">less</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> likely to believe that man really did land on the moon (that is, those who were alive at the time!).</span></p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/521224"></div> <p><script src=""></script></p> <h2>The fake news deluge</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">What may give us a better understanding is placing this conspiracy theory in context. Skepticism vis-a-vis other scientific knowledge is also prevalent in Brazil. The U.S. ‘anti-vax’ movement—rooted in the fallacious argument that vaccination is harmful—has</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">arrived in Brazil</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, spread via YouTube videos. Though the</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">numbers in favor of vaccinating children</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> remain very high (97 percent), the number of measles infections increased from 0 in 2017 to 10,362 last year, which should give us pause for thought. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;"><script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script></span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Even more outré is the belief that the Earth is flat,</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">held by 7 percent of Brazilians</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. President Bolsonaro’s guru, the “philosopher” </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Olavo de Carvalho</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, even flirted with such a position recently, tweeting that nothing could disprove that the Earth was not flat. He was endlessly mocked in memes as a consequence, showing a healthy skepticism of cranky conspiracy theorists.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But conspiracy theorizing is hardly restricted to scientific concerns. Last year’s election was, of course, the “</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">fake news election</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">”, Bolsonaro’s campaign in particular having been</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">driven by the spreading of untruths</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, like the “gay kit”, via WhatsApp. Indeed,</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">some argued</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> it was the first election globally to be so influenced by social media-borne propaganda.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But suspicion as to the veracity of phenomena has attached itself to a wide number of political events in recent years. Some, especially on the left, believed that </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro’s stabbing</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> while on the campaign trail last year was faked. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Many other conspiracy theories were mainly right-wing, concerning the Workers’ Party. To cite just a few: that former President Lula’s son was the head of the corruption-encircled meatpacker JBS; that self-exiled </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Congressman Jean Wyllys sold his seat</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> to Glenn Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda; and that the Workers’ Party imported Haitians to vote for it in 2014. Needless to say, none of these are true.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While these are easily dismissed, there are some cases about which factors remain unexplained—and so attract allegations of political conspiracy. Such is the case of the murder of</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">city mayor Celso Daniel</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, and two fatal plane crashes, one involving</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">presidential candidate Eduardo Campos</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> in 2014 and the other, most suspiciously, involving</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> in 2017. Stranger things have happened, so people end up questioning the official narrative.</span></p> <h2>Stranger things</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">A large study undertaken by polling group <a href="">YouGov</a> claims to identify a correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and populist attitudes. Of the dozens of countries surveyed worldwide, Brazil scored highest for populist beliefs (42 percent), thus supposedly explaining the greater appeal for disbelief of scientific facts and official narratives. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The study classes populist beliefs as those agreeing with both of the following statements: “My country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them” and “The will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics”. Now, the</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">methodology may be problematic</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (that latter statement, after all, is merely what defines “democracy”), but one thing is clear: a sense that corrupt elites are conspiring against you chimes very well with a deep skepticism—cynicism, really—about official narratives and institutions. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In a sense, who could blame them? If you follow Brazilian politics, you will no doubt be aware of phenomena that feel an awful lot like conspiracies. The revelations of systemic corruption by Operation Car Wash, for one. Or how about recordings showing that senior politicians were plotting an illegitimate impeachment against then-President Dilma Rousseff “</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">to stop the bleeding</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">” caused by anti-corruption investigations? There’s a reason that</span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> “</span></i><a href=""><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">com o Supremo, com tudo</span></i></a><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">”</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (a plot “with the Supreme Court, with everyone”) has become a bit of a catchphrase in Brazil.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Of course, there’s a huge difference between not buying the words of politicians who’ve been proven to be scheming, and disbelieving well-supported scientific evidence. But a social context of vast inequality plus a political one of distant, often unreliable institutions, can create a great deal of </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">mistrust</span></a> <i><span style="font-weight: 400;">in institutions in general</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">. </span></p> <h2>Distrust becomes mistrust</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to the</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">Edelman Trust Barometer</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, Brazil scores poorly for in its general trust score (46 out of 100; the global average is 52), while scores are low for trust in government (28; global average, 47), and in the media (41; global average, 47). </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The figures are even more stark if one follows</span><a href=""> <span style="font-weight: 400;">Latinobarometro</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8216;s surveys. Brazil scores the worst out of the region’s countries for interpersonal trust—only 4 percent. When considering public institutions, positive trust scores (above 50 percent) only apply to the church and the military, while they are negative for the police (47%), the judiciary (33%), the electoral system (26%), Congress (12%), Government (7%) and political parties (6%). Scores are also below 50% for all private institutions, ranging from banks to NGOs to trade unions. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">With such generalized mistrust, it becomes difficult to cleave away healthy democratic skepticism about the powers that be, from the thinking that vaccines will kill you and that the Earth is flat. While we may react with mirth—or horror—at a quarter of Brazilians believing the moon landings were faked, it is still important to put all this into a wider context.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The problem is not just to be found in Brazil. There is a growing mistrust of expertise in many parts of the world. And again, untangling it is not straightforward. Experts were meant to be in charge of a supposedly stable economy, and then the 2008 global financial crisis happened—or more mundanely, “experts” promised that Brazil’s economy would healthily rebound from its </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">worst-ever recession</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, despite it being plain to other, more critical observers that this would not be the case. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">And while 30 percent of Brazilians believe the conspiracy theory that Russia helped Trump win the 2016 election, the number is higher in the US; it is even taken as fact by senior members of the Democratic establishment and its allies in the media.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On this 50th anniversary of the moon landing, we should take a second to marvel at humanity’s greatest exploratory feat. And rather than sneer about those who would believe in outrageous conspiracy theories, instead ask why our societies produce such cynicism today. After all, Brazil might not be the outlier—inequality in the developed world is growing ever larger, as is the distance between the people and political institutions. Instead, Brazil might just be at the leading edge.

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Alex Hochuli

Alex is a writer, researcher and consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is host of the global politics podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga, and is currently researching a book on anti-politics.

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