Ele Não: The International Media’s Complicity in the Rise of Populism in Brazil and Beyond

Jair Bolsonaro Source: Wikimedia CommonsJair Bolsonaro Source: Wikimedia Commons

Brazilian Elections: Front Page News on an Unprecedented Scale

This Sunday, Brazilians will go to the polls for the second time to elect their next president, but the result is already all but decided. Right-wing populist and retired army officer Jair Bolsonaro, coming off a landslide (and almost outright) victory in the first round, is poised to beat his centre-left opponent and former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, in what has been a highly contested – and equally highly reported – race.

From telling a female member of congress that he “wouldn’t rape” her because she is “ugly” and “not worthy of it” to arguing that he would rather his son be dead than gay, Bolsonaro’s offhand  and often offensive comments have made him no stranger to media attention. If this proclivity to spew derogatory statements weren’t enough fodder for the media, Bolsonaro was also stabbed during a rally in September: an event that further amplified his presence in the international press.

Despite a feeling of inevitability around the upcoming results, the dramatic and politically charged nature of these elections has made them a major topic around the world. From The Economist’s controversial endorsement of the Workers’ Party candidate to journalists calling last week the end of “both democracy and journalism,” it is safe to say that this election is about much more than simply who will hold the highest office in Brazil. These elections are a stark reminder of the powerful role news media can play as a political tool, and the devastating consequences this can have for democracy.

The Creation and Propagation of a (False?) Narrative

International commentators have neatly situated this election within the broader narrative of global politics in 2018: the rise of right-wing populists in the style of Trump and Duterte who eschew political correctness and leverage the media to disseminate their radical views in a way corrosive to democracy. Unfortunately, the reality is not so straightforward. Any comparison of the Brazilian election to the ascendancy of populist politics elsewhere proves ultimately unconvincing.

The incessant parallels drawn in the American press between Bolsonaro and Trump belie a fundamental difference in their levels of extremism. In the words of LSE politics professor Dr Brian Klaas, Trump is a “wannabe despot” whose powers are ultimately checked by the judiciary and the legislative branches. This stands in contrast to Bolsonaro, who actively advocates for extreme policies such as the mass killing of alleged members of the drug trade without due process. Despite this contrast, the American press continues to label Bolsonaro the “Trump of the Tropics,” highlighting his Trumpian refrain of making Brazil “great again” and attempting to compare disillusionment with the Workers’ Party to the anti-establishment sentiment that propelled Trump to the White House.

The suggestion that Bolsonaro is simply a Latin American Donald Trump has allowed the perception to flourish that the two are morally equivalent. The Wall Street Journal’s endorsement of Bolsonaro in a piece entitled “The Brazilian Swamp Drainer” is a prime example of this selective choice of facts. Casually brushing off the legacy of the country’s twenty-year military dictatorship, the piece is eerily reminiscent of discourse promoting right-wing coups in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century that resulted in administrations which shaped (and, arguably, stunted) the region’s development even decades after democratisation.

The WSJ’s promotion of populism is not dissimilar to right-wing icon Steve Bannon’s foray into European politics. Arguably, however, the populists whom Bannon favours would be done a disservice if compared to Bolsonaro, considering the Brazilian’s authoritarian tendencies and lack of respect for the rule of law. A more appropriate comparison would be with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose similarly outrageous comments, combined with his alleged killing of over 26,000 under-18s as part of his war on drugs, make Trump appear a model of civility.

A Hypocritical Fascination with Social Media Scandals

On top of these rampant false equivalencies, international journalists covering the Brazilian elections rarely miss an opportunity to discuss the latest social media scandal surrounding one of the candidates and exaggerate its ramifications to absurd effect.

Last week’s outrage was focused on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service, which is used by 120 million of Brazil’s roughly 210 million citizens. Misinformation of various degrees of believability and seriousness was being spread around the platform, and accusations surfaced that Bolsonaro’s campaign was behind this diffusion of so-called ‘fake news.’ Of course, the conservative candidate denied any wrongdoing and called on any of his supporters who may have been involved to immediately cease and desist.

The ubiquity of these stories stems from journalists’ obsession with this connection between populism and social media. They note the supposedly clear links between the rise of right-wing populists, their ability to leverage the media in their favour, and the demise of democracy.

There is a certain hypocrisy, however, when it comes to coverage of populists and social media. Despite all the attention paid to right-wing populists and their use (or abuse) of the media, the strategy has been successfully deployed on the left as well – despite being less covered in the press. In Mexico, President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his campaign staff masterfully engaged with voters around the country to create a new movement that culminated in his successful run.

Looking Ahead: Social Media and Populism

Fake news is clearly an issue. No one disputes that – neither on the left nor the right, or even within the tech companies themselves. However, is this mass mobilisation and politicisation of citizens not exactly what the founders of these social media networks were hoping to achieve in their creation of online communities? Giving citizens a voice through a platform on which equality is the norm rather than the exception seems as noble a goal as any in times of such socio-political turmoil. Is it dangerous that major media outlets are decrying this fundamentally democratic (albeit sometimes imperfect) tool of communication and political organisation as the end of the world order as we know it?

While the Brazilian elections will shortly come to a close and another right-wing populist with authoritarian tendencies will quite likely take charge of one of the largest countries in the world, the press’ obsession with the international populist movement and the threats to democracy will undoubtedly continue. Their work on promoting the transparency of democratic administrations and criticism of the pernicious rise of authoritarianism is extremely important and should be respected. Furthermore, Bolsonaro is a radical political candidate whose statements and policies should be thoroughly scrutinised and fact-checked, as any major world leader’s policies should.

But when it comes to populists’ use of social media tools, journalists would be remiss not to acknowledge the democratising power of these services, as well as to highlight cases in which these platforms have been used for positive social change, such as the Arab Spring. We may not be used to the radical transparency that social media affords its users, but it is within these very tools that we may be able to change society for the better.