If the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s charge to the White House were jet-propelled by Facebook, the rise of Brazil’s likely next president, the far-right firebrand , owes much to WhatsApp.
The Facebook-owned messaging app is wildly popular in , with about 120 million active users, and has proved to be the ideal tool for mobilizing political support – but also for .
To understand the motivations, hopes and fears of Bolsonaro’s tens of millions of supporters I joined four pro-Bolsonaro groups.
After four months of receiving an average of 1,000 messages per group, per day, this is what I found:
There are three key clusters of members, who I classified as Ordinary Brazilians, Bolsominions, and Influencers.
The vast majority of members are ordinary Brazilians: men and women from all social classes who use the groups to share the life experiences they invoke to justify voting for Bolsonaro.
These members don’t trust mainstream media, and see WhatsApp groups as safe spaces where they can learn more about Bolsonaro, verify rumours and news, and find memes and other content to share.
The groups function as echo chambers: every time a member posts polls results or other news, members rally behind them, cheering with the Brazilian flag or the handgun emoji – a reference Bolsonaro’s promise to relax gun controls and allow police officers to shoot suspects with impunity.
Bolsonaro’s loyal volunteer “army” administer the WhatsApp groups and stand ready to ban infiltrators – or anyone who dares question their leader.
There is little debate or discussion of Bolsonaro’s electoral manifesto, but users are often expelled for apparently trivial infractions such as asking why Bolsonaro has refused to participate in televised debates.
Whenever “average” users attempt to ask questions, they are bombarded by passionate messages from Bolsominions, who often base their arguments on fake news stories. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s most passionate supporters form a human infrastructure that actively disseminates fake news across social media platforms.
It is in the creation of fake news that the “Influencers” have a decisive role.
They represent perhaps only 5% of group members and are not the most outspoken or obviously active participants. Rather, they work backstage to create and share fake news and to coordinate protests online and in the real world.
They use sophisticated image and video editing software to create convincing and emotionally engaging digital content. They are smart and know how to manipulate content into memes and short texts that go viral.
They work fast to undermine any person or news outlet that criticizes Bolsonaro. For example, after the French far-right leader , the Influencers quickly published a meme accusing her of being a communist.
Some of the fake news stories are simply astonishing. A group of “movers and shakers” created a bogus flyer claim that Bolsonaro’s leftist rival Fernando Haddad, planned to sign an executive order allowing men to have sex with 12-year-olds.
During the first round of votes they repeatedly circulated fake videos that showed malfunctioning electronic voting machines in order to reinforce the idea that the elections were rigged.
Influencers also scour YouTube and Facebook for posts which challenge Bolsonaro, and then share the poster’s profile link so the “Bolso-swarm” can descend upon them.
These three groups have different roles, but they have a lot in common: they share a total disbelief in Brazil’s representative democracy and have concluded that the system only serves those at the top.
Despite their support for the idea of military intervention, they don’t want a new dictatorship, arguing instead that needs someone to end the corruption that has benefited politicians of both the left and the right – and devastated the country’s economy.
This crisis should be seen as a cry for help, but Bolsonaro is far from the hero they dream of.
Although the Wall Street Journal this week described him as the “”, he is actually part of the establishment: a professional politician who has only passed two pieces of legislation in his 27 years as a congressman.
And, as Bolsonaro heads toward what seems like certain victory in Sunday’s second round, it remains unclear what role these WhatsApp groups will play after the election.
Will they serve as propaganda machines for his eventual government? Will they become the main source of “news” for his supporters? , but such fixes could potentially inhibit freedom of speech.
The solution will not be found in technology, but in the voices and actions of people who still believe in Brazil. To move forward, we have to understand the depths of the desperation that Bolsonaro and his supporters have tapped into, and given voice to, in their Whatsapp groups.
David Nemer is an assistant professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky, and the author of Favela Digital: The Other Side of Technology.