How the “bolsonarists” organized themselves on social networks

There was an air of deja vu this Sunday in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, when supporters of Jair Bolsonaro invaded places of power. Two years ago, almost to the day, on January 6, 2021, thousands of Donald Trump activists gathered outside the Capitol in Washington to challenge the result of the presidential election. A hundred of them had entered the building, giving rise to violent images, which have become historic.

On January 8, 2023, thousands of defenders of the outgoing Brazilian president entered Congress, the presidential palace and the Supreme Court, unhappy with the result of the presidential election that brought Lula to power. It took more than four hours for Brazilian law enforcement to regain control of all government buildings. However, several days before the assault, signs of an insurrection were already visible on social networks.

A Brazilian “Stop the steal”

From Tuesday, January 3, and until Saturday, January 7, publications calling for “freedom and democracy”, “to defend the country from the communist threat”, and “to seize power” had been posted by the supporters of Jair Bolsonaro on social media, including Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, reports Brazilian fact-checking site Aos Fatos.

On WhatsApp instant messaging, a series of messages inviting “truckers, farmers, gun owners” to “dig up all the rats who have taken power”, add our colleagues. On Kwai, a popular video-sharing social network in Brazil, a video urging the former president’s supporters to “mass action” to shut down the country and storm Congress had more than 10,000 views on Sunday evening, complete Aos Fatos.

On the Twitter side, more than 10,000 accounts shared, between Friday January 6 and Sunday January 8, the expression “Festa da Selma” – a combination of the word “selva”, used by the Brazilian army and deliberately modified, meaning “scream of war”, and “festa” meaning party -, a code name to mobilize the pro-Bolsonaros, according to Arcelino Silva Neto, researcher at the University of Sao Paulo.

An expression that is reminiscent of the slogan of the Trumpists, “Stop the steal” – which translates to “Stop the theft (of the election)”, which appeared just after the election of Donald Trump and shared massively on social networks. And for good reason, like their American counterparts at the time, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro claim that the Brazilian presidential election was rigged.

#BrazilianSpring

But the expression “Festa da Selma” is not the only one to have been massively shared. The hashtag #BrazilianSpring – a parallel with the Arab Spring, the popular protest movement against authoritarian regimes that has affected many countries in the Arab world since the 2010s – returned frequently on Twitter. According to the Brazilian investigative site Públicathe expression was launched in November 2022, shortly after the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro, by Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, implying electoral fraud.

But more than slogans, it is above all “practical instructions”, exchanged on instant messaging platforms, which have allowed supporters of Jair Bolsonaro to coordinate their attempted insurrection. Maps of the Brazilian capital, itineraries, meeting points or advice… According to several Brazilian media, this information was notably exchanged on pro-Bolsonaro groups on Telegram and WhatsApp. Buses, renamed “freedom caravans”, were even made available to transport demonstrators from at least six regions of Brazil to the capital, according to screenshots taken and shared by our Brazilian colleagues.

End of the Brazilian branch of Twitter

However, two years ago, during the assault on the Capitol, social networks had been widely criticized for their inaction. Some had promised increased monitoring in the future, others enhanced moderation or, as with Twitter, the deletion of certain accounts. A few days after the violence, Donald Trump’s Twitter account had even been suspended. But then what happened? It must be said that on the side of Twitter, since Elon Musk bought the social network at the end of 2022, the new CEO has removed all the moderation staff, but also all the employees of his antenna in Brazil, according to our colleagues from washington post.

Some platforms have already reacted. On Monday, the Meta group, owner of Facebook, claimed to have removed from its social networks content supporting or praising the events in Brazil. “Ahead of the election, we designated Brazil as an interim high-risk location and removed content calling on people to take up arms or forcefully invade Congress, the presidential palace and other federal buildings,” a Meta spokesperson said, adding that the social network would also remove “content that supports or praises these actions.”

On the YouTube side, the platform said it was “closely following” the situation in Brazil. “Our Trust and Safety team removes content that violates our Community Guidelines, including live streams and videos that incite violence,” a spokesperson said.

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