Brazil Disinformation Roundup: Fuel for Pro-Bolsonaro Riots & Continuing Threat

Brazil disinformation roundup: Fuel for Pro-bolsonaro riots and continuing threat

By: vakasha sachdev&
January 20 2023

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Brazil disinformation roundup: Fuel for Pro-bolsonaro riots and continuing threat

As the dust settles from the shocking events of January 8, 2023 in Brazil, one thing is clear: disinformation about elections has consequences. 

On that day, thousands of supporters of former Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the official buildings of the Brazilian Congress, Supreme Court, and Presidential Palace in the capital city of Brasilia. These riots took place nearly two years to the day former United States President Donald Trump's supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol in an insurrection bid. A similar cause fueled both riots — demonstrators insisted the elections were rigged and needed to be overturned.

There has long been evidence that the Capitol invasion was not a spontaneous event and that an extended campaign of polarized disinformation about the elections had triggered it. Similarly, there had been growing concern among experts that the extreme misinformation and disinformation in Brazil's political discourse could also lead to violence.

Since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – popularly known as Lula – won the run-off for the presidential election on October 30, 2022, there have been various calls for action by the outgoing president's supporters. Truckers who support Bolsonaro tried to block roads throughout the country. A mob of 'Bolsonaristas' tried to take over federal police headquarters in Brasilia on December 12 

Hundreds camped on the lawns outside Brasilia's national army headquarters for ten weeks, demanding the military stage a coup to stop Lula from taking power. It was from here that the march which eventually led to barricades being breached and government buildings vandalized for around three hours, began.

But the narratives that fueled the riots did not just crop up after Lula's victory. Understanding how they took hold and continue to resonate there will be essential to understanding how to prevent the next assault on democracy.


Fuel for the Invasion: Disinformation Surrounding the Election

The most significant false narrative was one whose foundation had been laid by Bolsonaro for years — that Brazil's voting system was vulnerable to fraud. Before introducing the current, fully-electronic system, he had questioned the use of paper ballots as a congressman in 1993. After the new system was introduced in 1996, he repeatedly raised objections about it despite experts finding it to be secure – and despite repeatedly being voted to power by it. The right-wing former military officer consistently argued that the system could be rigged, even suggesting that his 2018 win only went to a run-off because his leftwing opponents tried to steal it.


Source: Wikimedia Commons


The New York Times delved into Bolsonaro's litany of complaints against the system since 2014. "He often relies on hearsay, presenting unattributed reports of irregularities in the voting process as evidence of something amiss," the NYT found. Examples he cited include complaints by rural voters in 2008 claiming their votes were not counted, a programmer claiming to demonstrate hacking in 2018, and a spreadsheet of voting returns that he claims were statistically impossible. All these claims have been refuted by police, election officials, and experts. 

Even the Brazilian military, widely considered to view Bolsonaro favorably, found no evidence of fraud in the 2022 election (although it refused to rule out the possibility entirely), the Associated Press reported. Bolsonaro had asked the military to review the system prior to the elections – election authorities eventually agreed to certain reforms suggested by them.

Bolsonaro's campaign succeeded in sowing doubts that proved crucial to the events of January 8. Many of his supporters refused to accept Lula's victory with 51 percent vote share in the October 30 run-offs last year. In the subsequent months, they railed against what they termed a stolen election on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram (with the latter proving a particularly fertile ground for disinformation), as well as social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. 


Logically debunked several false narratives concerning the election results and their aftermath during this time.

FALSE: Swedish judge Anna Åse claims widespread voter fraud in the Brazilian elections.

A video of celebrated Swedish singer Agnetha Fältskog (of ABBA fame) speaking about spending time with her children was shared by pro-Bolsonaro accounts on TikTok with the claim that it showed a Swedish judge saying there had been blatant fraud. Swedish journalists found the video's creator was Brazilian far-right network Brasil Dos Brasileiros (Brazil for Brazilians). Another video montage of Lady Gaga allegedly showed the 'Prime Minister of the Hague Court' saying a recount was needed. 

Read the full fact check here.

FALSE: Photo shows Brazilians holding a protest following Bolsonaro's loss in the presidential polls.

A particularly striking image of a sea of people at a beach was shared on Twitter and Facebook as protest against the "rigged election." We verified that the image was from independence day celebrations at Copacabana beach on September 7, 2022 – before the elections. 2022 marked the bicentennial of Brazil's independence, and Bolsonaro had turned the festivities into an election rally for himself. Therefore, although it could be seen as proof of support for him, it was not a protest against the election results.

Read the full fact check here.



Benford's Law: The Questionable Statistics of Election Deniers

Bolsonaro had tried to discredit the 2022 elections arguing that voting figures showed unusual patterns. The American far right denounced the result, relying heavily on an anonymous report that claimed voting patterns in the election were suspicious as per Benford's Law. This mathematical/statistics rule is supposed to help analyze and detect potential fraud. This report was publicized and discussed on former Trump strategist Steve Bannon's podcast, where right-wing commentators cast doubt on both rounds of the 2022 election, claiming the report proved there had been fraud. Upon examining the report in more detail, Logically fact-checkers found that it was heavily plagiarized, lacked credible sources, and that the relevance of Benford's Law to elections had already been reasonably debunked.

Read the full analysis here.


The Fire is Lit: False Narratives Before & After January 8

Although Bolsonaro's petition questioning the result was dismissed by the Superior Electoral Court last November, the Bolsonaristas' agenda didn't waver. Despite his allegations termed as "ostensibly conspiratorial toward the democratic rule of law," the lack of impact of the court's decisions was perhaps foreseeable. The court had long been viewed with suspicion by them because of its regulation of election misinformation, with Justice Alexandre de Moraes a particular target of ire.

Additionally, several prominent Brazilian Twitter accounts that spread election denial rumors were reinstated after the election and acquisition of the company by Elon Musk, the BBC reported. Musk also reportedly fired the platform's Brazil-based content moderation staff, and no employees are currently performing this function for the country. 

Bolsonaro avoided expressly conceding the election, even as he authorized his officials to provide assistance in the transition of power. His son Eduardo traveled to Florida in November, where he met Trump and his controversial former advisors Jason Miller and Bannon. Two days before Lula's swearing-in, Bolsonaro released an emotional message and left for Florida, avoiding the customary formalities accompanying a transition of power.

This course of action allowed his supporters to continue their protests against the election. In the days leading up to January 8, as multiple reports in the BBC, the Washington Post, and other press outlets have revealed, they were encouraged to come to Brasilia to attend "Selma's Party." This was a play on the word 'selva,' a Portuguese word with connotations of war in Brazilian parlance, which helped them avoid potential censorship on social media. 


Just before January 8, Logically fact-checked a claim which offers some insight into the kind of narratives used to bolster the resolve of the Bolsonaristas. 

FALSE: Brazil's former prime minister Jair Bolsonaro spotted with U.S. military officials on January 2, 2023.

If true, this image would have shown ostensible support from the U.S. military for Bolsonaro, even as his opponent was sworn in as president. However, the image proved straightforward to debunk, having been taken back in 2020 when Bolsonaro was still president and had visited the U.S. military Southern Command.

You can read the full fact check here.

Even as the shock subsided and rioters found themselves in police custody on January 8 – 1,200 have since been formally arrested and face charges – misinformation, disinformation, and unverified information about the invasion had already begun circulating on social media. Logically's fact checking team swung into action to parse claims and track significant narratives.

FALSE: Brazilian police stopped Jair Bolsonaro's son from leaving the country after the ex-president tried to overturn the democratic elections.

An early claim arising from the events came from the 'other side,' so to speak. A 35-second video was shared on social media, purporting to show Brazilian police officers racing in a car to stop Bolsonaro's son Flavio from leaving the country in a prop plane, crashing into the wing of the aircraft to prevent it from taking off. In truth, the video was from 2011, showing a police chase to catch smugglers, and had nothing to do with the former president's son. Flavio, a senator for Rio de Janeiro, had not attempted to leave the country.

You can read the full fact check here.

MISLEADING: A protestor dressed like the QAnon Shaman was spotted at the January 8 protest in Brasilia.

Several social media accounts from across the political spectrum shared an image, allegedly from the invasion of the government buildings in Brasilia, of a man dressed in a similar fashion to Jacob Chansley, the Capitol rioter with a spear and headdress who gained notoriety as 'the QAnon Shaman.' This claim was untrue despite the similarities and connections between the two incidents. Although the image was of a Bolsonaro supporter in Brazil, it was from Sao Paulo in September 2021, not the January 8 attack.

You can read the full fact check here.



FALSE: Video shows unseen footage of protests against "election fraud" in Brazil.

Even after the failure of the attempted coup, Bolsonaro supporters have not yet given up on the idea that the elections were rigged and Lula’s presidency can be thwarted. Protests have continued even after the events of January 8 – although they have proved damp squibs according to the BBC and other media outlets. As with the post previously refuted by Logically, they tried to show the extent of support using a video of massive crowds. This was shared with the claim they were protests held between September and November. Some falsely claimed they were more recent. The video was from the bicentennial celebrations on September 7, 2022. 

You can read the full fact check here.


Narratives to Monitor Amid the Fallout

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Bolsonaro issued a statement condemning the violent protests and occupation of government buildings but didn't explicitly disavow the protestors. His son Flavio eventually released a statement on January 13 in which he said: "President Bolsonaro vehemently rejects the acts of vandalism and depredation of public patrimony committed by the infiltrators in the protest. He never had any connection or participation in these spontaneous social movements done by the people."

On the same day, the Supreme Court of Brazil accepted a request by the public prosecutor's office to investigate the former president's role in the riots. 

It is unclear at this time whether Bolsonaro had any role to play in what transpired. His former Minister for Justice and Public Security, Anderson Torres, who was the head of public security for the federal district at the time of the attack, has been arrested on the orders of Justice de Moraes. During a search at his house, police reportedly found a draft decree for overturning the election result, which Torres claims is being taken out of context. Torres had already been sacked by the pro-Bolsonaro governor of the federal district, Ibaneis Rocha, who was suspended from his post for 90 days by the Supreme Court.

The scope for misinformation and disinformation in connection with these developments is significant. Some potential issues include the terminology used to describe calls for Bolsonaro to be sent back to Brazil. U.S. lawmakers like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez called for his 'extradition' before it was announced he would be investigated. Even now, that term will not apply unless he is formally accused or convicted of a crime. 

A more troubling issue that could crop up going forward is the role of the security forces in what happened, and how the military will respond to proceedings against Bolsonaro and his supporters. President Lula is accusing security personnel of "explicit connivance" with the attackers, CNN reported. The Brazil president also suggested that Brasilia police and intelligence neglected the threat of an attack in the build-up to it. 

While the military has resisted calls for intervention in favor of the former army captain thus far, videos and images from that day offer a glimpse of a possible flashpoint. Brazilian news outlet Metrópoles tweeted a video that allegedly showed the army using armoured cars to prevent police from taking action against Bolsonaristas encamped at the military headquarters. 


Screenshot of Metrópoles tweet


On January 14, the Washington Post reported, "when top Lula administration officials arrived at the army headquarters Sunday night with the aim of securing the detention of insurrectionists at the camp, they were confronted with tanks and three lines of military personnel." Officials at the scene told the newspaper that the senior army commander, General Júlio César de Arruda, informed Justice Minister Flavio Dino they could not arrest anyone at the scene. The Lula administration argued this gave hundreds of insurrectionists a chance to escape. 

The general was removed from his post by Lula on January 21, following the dismissal of several military officers from duties protecting the President because of their sympathies. Claims and counter-claims surrounding these events, as well as Lula’s proposed purge of the Bolsonaro loyalists in the security forces for colluding with the rioters, could form the basis for more disinformation going forward.

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Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before