Future Tense

Bolsonaro’s Social Media War With the Press Keeps Bleeding Into the Real World

A reminder that social media is the real world too, after all.

Bolsonaro, at a lectern, holds a hand by his head.
President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, seen on June 17 in Brasilia, Brazil Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

On the afternoon of June 12, a man carrying a knife took journalist Marina Araújo hostage after breaking into the studios of the Globo Television Network in Rio de Janeiro. After a tense negotiation, which involved the network’s all-powerful general director of journalism, Ali Kamel, the man turned himself in. TV Globo released a statement saying that the incident was “the work of someone with mental disorders, without any political connotation.”

Yet the case comes after months of threats and even cases of physical violence against journalists by supporters of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro himself perpetuates anti-press sentiment, with violent, rude, and sexist language demanding that journalists shut up and even threatening a boycott of the country’s largest printed newspaper. He often does this on Facebook and through his Twitter account.

The unidentified assailant in the June 12 attack screamedGlobo Lixo,” or “Globo is garbage”—the same expression supporters of the president usually dedicate to the network.

Many journalists I spoke to agreed that times are difficult and that the angry speeches of the president and his supporters potentially incited the attack, whatever the assailant’s mental state may have been. They also agree that such an attack sets dangerous precedent for the future. “We know what kind of precedent this sets, in a context in which physical attacks on journalists by Bolsonaro supporters have caused various media to stop covering the presidential press conferences. It was a war that had already been declared, perhaps even before the elections,” said journalist Fabio Marton.

For Sérgio Lüdtke, a journalist and editor of Comprova, a coalition of 24 media outlets that works to combat fake news, “the environment has become dangerous and groups that support Bolsonaro with devotion have attacked journalists recently—virtual campaigns against news outlets and patrols of press professionals have been constant on social media.”

And Bolsonaro’s and his supporters’ main battlefield is indeed the internet. Even before he was elected in 2018, a network of his supporters campaigned heavily through social media. In Brazil, a country where most internet access is via mobile phones, misinformation campaigns took (and take) shape and reach most of the population through WhatsApp—93 percent of those who access the internet via mobile phones use the application daily.

The tactic adopted by Bolsonaro does not differ much from that of Donald Trump—a bet on social media to the detriment of traditional media, with massive use of fake news and dubious content. And even before Trump’s tweets were flagged as misleading, Bolsonaro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro became the first world leaders to have content deleted from social media for promoting fake news.

Through Twitter hashtags, often driven by bots, Bolsonaro tries to guide the public debate and also seeks to attack the press in every way possible. And all coordination is done through the so-called Office of Hate—a unofficial structure set up by politicians and supporters of the president, even though they don’t admit its existence, to manufacture fake news and campaigns against opponents—headed by Carlos Bolsonaro, son of the president and councilman of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Its existence can be traced back to the 2018 presidential election, set up with the support of big businesses and the massive and illegal use of WhatsApp. This machinery was eventually consolidated into the Office of Hate.

This Office of Hate (whose members are being investigated by the Supreme Court and the National Congress for spreading fake news in support of the government) creates strategies and marketing materials that are disseminated by popular websites known for spreading fake news.

A study conducted by Avaaz, an international network for social mobilization through the internet, shortly after the 2018 presidential elections showed that almost all Bolsonaro voters were exposed to false news during the campaign, and almost 90 percent believed this fake content. But Bolsonaro doesn’t only use social media to promote fake news to serve his interests. He also uses it as a conduit of violence, especially toward the press.

Much of Bolsonaro’s message on social media is about discrediting the press. Not surprisingly, even today, a core of supporters that stands firm in defense of the president (about 30 percent of the population) continues to share false news that seeks to attack press professionals—also incited by the president himself, who has declared that the press “is afraid of the truth,” “misrepresents” and “lies,” and that “journalists are a dying breed.” Between Bolsonaro and his supporters, press professionals face at least 11,000 daily attacks through social media. And these attacks have spread to face-to-face violence.

Journalists Patrícia Campos Mello (from the newspaper Folha de São Paulo) and Vera Magalhães (the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo) were targeted by the pro-Bolsonaro mob with doxing, lies spread against them, harassment (Campos Mello’s face was used in a pornographic collage), and even threats of physical violence in recent months. Journalists who cover events supporting Bolsonaro are especially at risk. Photographer Dida Sampaio was assaulted during a demonstration in support of the president in early May, and reporter Clarissa Oliveira, of BandNews TV, was assaulted with a flagpole to the head by a supporter of the president on May 17 during another pro-Bolsonaro demonstration.

Each of these violent acts gets proudly reported on the social media accounts of the president’s supporters, and the cycle continues.

For Marcelo Träsel, president of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, “the inauguration of Bolsonaro marked a break with the rules of coexistence between journalists and authorities in Brasilia,” the capital of Brazil. The relationship between the press and politicians has always had its ups and downs, with periods of greater or lesser tension, but the recent attacks are unprecedented.

“From the outset, Bolsonaro decided to act with hostility against journalists, subjecting professionals to unworthy conditions for interviews, uttering personal offenses, and criticizing the coverage. He went so far as to offending the mother, questioning the sexual orientation, and belittling the physical appearance of reporters,” Träsel said.

Amid the various attacks on the press, some of the president’s radical supporters have been investigated by the Supreme Court and even arrested in operations targeting fake news and threats to court judges and democracy. However, nothing seems to diminish the violent impetus of the president’s supporters.

While press professionals look for ways to ensure their safety, the president continues his turn to the far right, seeking ways to prevent the exercise of press freedom in Brazil—both online and offline, setting a dangerous precedent not only for Brazil, but for the world.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.