How right-wing extremists used social media to mobilize

Social networks have also contributed to the heated atmosphere in Brazil. Despite strict regulation of online services, there are open and cryptic calls to murder. Money can also be made with anti-democratic propaganda.

Some right-wing extremists want a military coup in Brazil. 

There were enough warnings: Brazil must be protected from the communist threat, it said on Facebook. In WhatsApp groups, farmers and gun owners were urged to get rid of the “rats” who had recently taken power. And on video services like TikTok, calls circulated tens of thousands of times to paralyze the country and Congress, reports the Brazilian fact-check medium Aos Fatos.

For days, the government district of the Brazilian capital was filled with demonstrators who do not want to recognize the election victory of left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On Sunday, supporters of the voted-out right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro finally stormed Congress, the Constitutional Court, and the Presidential Palace. It was reminiscent of the storming of the US Capitol two years ago when Donald Trump fans tried to use force to prevent the democratic transfer of power.

Sentiment in social media

As then, social media played a role. For weeks, the networks were flooded with inciting messages, Brazilian researchers report, according to the Washington Post. The Telegram messenger service called for murder and organized demo transports, speculated about election fraud on the TikTok video service, while the search functions on Facebook and Instagram directed users to groups that questioned the election results.

“For years, our country has been going through a very powerful process of radicalizing people to extremist views — especially online,” researcher Michele Prado told the Washington Post. In the two weeks before the storm, the atmosphere is said to have heated up even further, according to the researcher. “Practically people are saying we need to bring the country to a standstill and create chaos,” Prado said.

Laws hardly help against disinformation

Brazil is one of the democratic countries with the strictest online legislation. After massive disinformation campaigns in the 2018 election campaign, a so-called fake news law was approved, which stipulates that users of social networks are required to show ID and expands data retention.

The law has since been revised several times, and some of the strictest provisions are no longer in force, according to the US non-governmental organization Freedom House. But in its last draft version, for example, it exempts politicians from the private community rules of online services – something that Jair Bolsonaro also wanted to decree so that he would no longer be subjected to fact checks there. The decree was later overturned by the Constitutional Court, where Alexandre de Moraes is a prominent opponent of Jair Bolsonaro and against whom many blatant threatening messages from the occupiers were directed.

In the meantime, many users on the Internet have switched to coded messages, which they use to avoid automated moderation tools. In the weeks leading up to the attempted coup, for example, usage of the phrase “Festa da Selma” – a play on words in Portuguese that cloaked in a call for a violent takeover rather than a harmless party – had skyrocketed.

No more Twitter moderation in Brazil

At the same time, legal regulations fizzle out if hardly anyone adheres to them. For example, Twitter fired its entire moderation team in Brazil after it was taken over by billionaire Elon Musk, reports the Washington Post. The outstretched hand of the new owner was also gratefully accepted by right-wing extremists in South America: Twitter has become a “safe haven” for them, according to the online medium Rest of the World in a recent data analysis.

But online services with existing moderation teams also seem to have failed. According to Aos Fatos fact-checkers, the coup attempt was streamed by dozens of relevant right-wing internet channels, including YouTube. 23 of the 47 channels checked are said to have been monetized. In other words, there’s good money to be made from anti-democratic messages, even if it’s against YouTube’s rules.

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