With his chances of reelection slipping further away, Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is resorting to increasingly desperate measures to ensure he will stay in power after the country's 2022 election—including utilizing Twitter bots and misinformation to lay the groundwork for a coup attempt, election monitors say.
At the center of the campaign are calls to reintroduce printed voting ballots that could make it easier for the incumbent president's supporters to make claims of voter fraud. For more than a decade, Brazil has used a system of electronic ballot boxes that is considered secure by Brazil’s Court of Auditors of the Union, as well as by experts in the field of computer security.
Bolsonaro advocates a return to paper ballots—or rather, a way for printed votes to be added to the electronic system as a "backup" to prevent fraud.
While creating a paper trail can improve election security, the dependence on paper ballots can also be used to contest the results in some countries. In Brazil, every polling station prints the so-called “ballot paper,” a document printed by the electronic ballot box at the end of the election with the tally of the votes from that location. What Bolsonaro proposes is that each vote, individually, be printed.
But some experts believe that Bolsonaro has an interest only in creating a climate of distrust regarding the election. They warn that the printed ballot would open the door for election challenges, and potentially facilitate a coup that is openly advocated by supporters of the president and supported by the nation's military sectors.
According to Odilon Caldeira Neto, a history professor at the University of Juiz de Fora and Coordinator of the Far-Right Observatory, the campaign is a way for Bolsonaro to further radicalize his base and “raise doubts about the electoral process, of weakening the Brazilian electoral system and also of fomenting an eventual narrative that accounts for an eventual defeat of Bolsonaro in 2022 elections.”
David Nemer, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, also notes that Bolsonaro adopts a position close to Trump and Steve Bannon’s playbook. "It's a tactic that works, as Bolsonaro has seen in the US," he told Motherboard. "Not that Trump was put back in power, but it was enough for an insurgency on the Capitol, so he expects that the population will support a coup so that he can perpetuate himself in power.”
After being defeated in Congress in a vote on the printed ballot, Bolsonaro did not give up and decided to mobilize his supporters on September 7th—Brazil's independence day—in several Brazilian cities. Neto said the event was “the search for the construction of a more cohesive internal narrative and a process also of escalation of a certain authoritarianism of Bolsonaro.”
According to an analysis by the Institute of Technology and Society of Rio (ITS Rio), there was intensive use of bots and automated profiles to boost the September 7th pro-Bolsonaro events. The agency Aos Fatos, reached a similar conclusion after analyzing thousands of tweets with hashtags linked to the protests. According to ITS Rio, at least 25 percent of the profiles that published tweets in support of the printed vote had a "high probability" of being bots through an analysis of the username, tweet syntax and semantics, network usage, and timing.
In the case of the printed ballot boxes, the use of bots broke records on Twitter. The hashtag "#brasilpelovotoauditavel" [Brazil for the auditable vote] was used 2,444 times, a record, according to the Bot Sentinel platform, which monitors the use of bots in political elections. The September 7th actions similarly involved the boosting of several hashtags through the use of artificial means and fake profiles. All of this, said Nemer, “serves to create a false perception that he would have more power among the population than he actually has.”
Thousands answered Bolsonaro's call, but the number of supporters of the president turned out to be much smaller than the protest organizers had anticipated and expected. The protests have served “to show that Bolsonaro's electoral base is motivated, but this does not translate into broad popular support,” Nemer explained.
Through his sons, Eduardo and Carlos, Bolsonaro has also sought support outside Brazil. Nemer points to the strong use of Parler and the Gettr by supporters of the president in an attempt to evade recent actions taken against them by the Brazilian Supreme Court.
The president's network of supporters has been targeted by the Supreme Court in recent months, leading some far-right bloggers and Youtubers to delete thousands of videos containing disinformation about COVID-19, and sending others to jail. But the supporters behind disinformation networks were newly emboldened by Bolsanaro's recent campaigns.
"We noticed the traditional method of the president’s supporters to take over social media," Guilherme Felitti, a partner at Novelo data analytics studio, told Motherboard. "Traditionally, a social media personality convenes, and, in the following hours, a kind of mass campaign begins with the participation of some of the biggest profiles on social media." In the past, those campaigns have been driven by viral Facebook posts and right-wing influencers on YouTube. But unlike in previous mobilizations, they are increasingly taking place on Instagram, Felitti said.
The campaigns come amidst intense scrutiny of Facebook after whistleblower Francis Haugen revealed documents showing the company chose "profits over safety" on its platforms in the lead up to the January 6th insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.
According to Yasodara Cordova, a Ford Foundation Mason Fellow, at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, social media companies aren't doing nearly enough to contain the growth of disinformation bots used in campaigns like Bolsonaro's.
“[Companies] need to work along the lines of what Twitter is doing: identify automated accounts faster, identify automated service accounts (the good bots) and their ‘owners,'" Cordova told Motherboard "In addition, big techs need to open their data to public interest research, so that these incidents can be predicted and prevented more frequently by researchers.”
But above all, she says, the profit incentives that drive social media companies to replicate viral content in the first place need to fundamentally change.
“It’s past time for these companies to move away from the business model based on the exploitation of data to display advertising,” she said.