Brazilian Ex-President’s Supporters Attacked Congress with Smartphones in Hand

Reuters file photo
Supporters of Brazil’s far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro gather at the presidential palace after invading the building as well as Congress and Supreme Court in Brasilia on Jan. 8.

As a diet of bad food weakens the body, a diet of low-quality information distorts the mind. Enabled by the internet and social media, unbalanced information diets can impede sensible decision-making, divide societies and threaten democracy. This is the first installment in a series of articles looking into cases around the world in which people have been radicalized through polarized information.

BRASILIA — Listed as a World Heritage site, Brazil’s capital is a planned city built in the 1950s. Seen from above, Brasilia is laid out like an airplane. At the nose of the plane is Three Powers Square, surrounded by buildings representing the three powers — Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace.

On Jan. 8 this year, approximately 4,000 supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro crowded into the square. Some of them broke into Congress and other buildings, smashing windows and causing other damage.

“I was inside Congress, waiting for the military to intervene,” said a man in his 50s, speaking to The Yomiuri Shimbun about his experience storming Congress.

The man was frustrated with the victory of leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in October’s presidential election. He had joined about 40 different pro-Bolsonaro groups on messaging app WhatsApp, where people with similar grievances were posting comments such as “The presidential election was rigged” and “Let’s wait for the military to intervene.” Over 500 comments were posted on a busy day, so the man’s smartphone was constantly sounding alerts.

But on Jan. 1, Lula assumed the presidency as scheduled. The man recalled feeling helplessness and outrage at the same time.

In early January, an audio recording of Brazilian right-wing ideologue Olavo de Carvalho, who had died about a year earlier, spread through social media. The audio claimed that the military would intervene if citizens occupied the buildings of the Three Powers and kept legislators, ministers and judges out. Specific plans to occupy Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace for three days and then await military intervention also reached the man’s phone.

The audio became a form of justification, and discussions on WhatsApp heated up. The man recalls feeling “encouraged” every time he checked the posted messages.

On the morning of Jan. 8, the man walked with a group of associates from the front of a military facility in Brasilia toward the Three Powers Square, about 6 kilometers away. Someone shouted, “Let’s go,” and they stormed Congress. The man waited inside Congress for the military to arrive, but had to escape about 40 minutes later as tear gas from the security forces became unbearable.

“Although I don’t condone vandalism, I have no regrets about occupying Congress,” the man said.

On Jan. 8, a woman in her 50s was on the rooftop of Congress, wrapped in a Brazilian flag. “I cannot allow Lula to become president,” the woman thought, and joined the demonstration without hesitation when she heard about the plan from her friends.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Instagram account of a woman who participated in the attack on the Brazilian Congress displayed a series of posts criticizing President Lula is seen on Jan. 17.

As the woman was being interviewed by The Yomiuri Shimbun after the incident, her smartphone kept receiving messages criticizing Lula.

The woman claimed that it was Lula supporters who committed the vandalism, posing as Bolsonaro supporters.

Although Bolsonaro supporters have been arrested for vandalism, the woman trusts the “information” she received through social media. “When I communicate with my family and friends on WhatsApp, everyone says the same thing,” she said. “It’s trustworthy if two or three people send me the same information, so I share such information with others as well.”

“There’s no need to see newspapers and television as they only say bad things about Bolsonaro,” the woman insisted. “With my smartphone, I can more or less understand what’s going on in the world.”

The term “filter bubble” refers to a situation in digital space, including social media, in which people are surrounded by information that reflects their known preferences. Exposed to only what they want to see, people in a filter bubble become unable to recognize opposing opinions.

Keio University Prof. Tatsuhiko Yamamoto, an expert on the Constitution, and University of Tokyo Prof. Fujio Toriumi, an expert on social media and other related fields, describe this situation as “fussy eating of information” in their paper published in January last year titled “Digital Diet Sengen” (Digital diet manifesto).

Echo chamber radicalization

In the wake of the Jan. 8 storming of Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace in Brasilia, local experts are analyzing the social media trends behind the radicalization of many participants. From this analysis, a picture emerges of Bolsonaro supporters and others who were radicalized by being surrounded by biased information on social media.

In Brazil, the leftist candidate Lula defeated the incumbent Bolsonaro in the presidential election last October.

Prof. Viktor Chagas of Brazil’s Fluminense Federal University, who specializes in media studies, infiltrated 125 WhatsApp groups of Bolsonaro supporters and observed their posts since September.

According to Chagas, the number of posts in the groups increased from Oct. 31, the day after the presidential election. On Nov. 1, it reached 17,425, almost double the number on Oct. 29, the day before the election. Many posts refused to accept the election results, claiming there were irregularities in the electronic voting system, and that votes for Bolsonaro had been “stolen” by Lula. Some posts said, “Let’s intervene in the federal government,” and “Warriors, please don’t give up.”

When the new year began and Lula was sworn in as president, posts spiked again. In the week starting from Jan. 1, there were 49% more posts than in the week that started on Dec. 25.

From around Jan. 3, a plan to occupy the three buildings began to spread under the codename of “Selma’s Party.” “Selma” likely came from “selva,” which is used by Brazilian soldiers as a war cry to increase morale.

Some posts cited the military coup in Thailand or the occupation of the presidential palace by protesters in Sri Lanka last July as “successful examples.”

According to a social media data analysis by a team led by Emillie V. de Keulenaar, a Brazilian PhD candidate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the highly encrypted Telegram messaging app was used to discuss specific plans, and Facebook and Twitter were used to disseminate messages. WhatsApp, which is popular in Brazil, was also used, so the information apparently spread in a multi-layered manner.

The pattern of refusing to accept the defeat of a presidential election as “rigged” and moving to forcefully prevent the transfer of power was also seen in the U.S. Capitol attack in January 2021 by supporters of then U.S. President Donald Trump.

“In Brazil, people don’t trust the media,” Chagas said. “Information shared by trusted friends, family and colleagues tends to spread, leading to radicalization.”

When Bolsonaro won the presidential election in 2018, he repeatedly sent out messages on social media criticizing Lula and other leftists to broaden his support. He was dubbed the “Trump of Brazil” for dismissing newspapers and television reports that criticized him as “fake news,” and his supporters began to block outside information.

Keulenaar said, “Supporters are thought to have been in a filter bubble since around 2017.” When people in the same filter bubble communicate with each other, it leads to the related phenomenon of an “echo chamber” in which the same opinions reverberate. By hearing the same opinions repeatedly, people become convinced that they are right, leading to radicalization.

“In a group of people who believe in a rigged election, claims that there was no fraud are seen as hostile,” said the University of Tokyo Prof. Fujio Toriumi. He pointed out that echo chambers become more radicalized if there is an opponent to focus on.

“If dissenting opinions come from a trusted source, things can be okay, but it may have gone out of control as there is low trust in traditional media in Brazil,” he said.