Bolsonarism uses Telegram to destabilize elections, affirms specialist

Leticia Cesarino, anthropology professor in UFSC, points out right-wing dominance over digital "underground platforms"

São Paulo (SP) |
Bolsonaro holding a phone during event in 2020 to release a program to "recover" tourism; far- right dominates the dissemination of misinformation on social media - Evaristo Sá/AFP

One of the main subjects that appears in the president Jair Bolsonaro's (PL) speeches is the alleged fragility of the electronic voting machines as fundament to his attacks to the Brazilian voting system. This same point of view also prevails in the far-right groups of Telegram.

Letícia Cesarino, professor in the Anthropology Department and in the Program in Social Anthropology (PPGAS) of the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), studies the behavior of the Bolsonaro's supporters in groups and points out that "the most shared [contents], the topics and narratives that have the most prominence in the groups that we analyze are not that directly connected with the allegation of frauds in the electronic voting machines, but with those that question the legitimacy of the institutions that guarantee the result of the election".

"And it's precisely the far-right, president Jair Bolsonaro's supporters, that dominates this environment. In the more underground platforms, such as Telegram, the right-wing has complete dominance. The way they present themselves, as content creators, has to do with the idea of being the ones to reveal the reality Press hides. And that's how they conquer the fidelity and loyalty of these followers ", completes.

The idea of "revealing the truth" also set the tone to Bolsonaro's way to act. In last year's July, the retired captain promised to present evidences of the so-called fraud in the voting system during the 2018's election. Back then, the now president, had said that he would've actually gained the elections on the first-round. Right after, though, the alleged revealed "truth" was nothing but old and fake allegations that the electronic voting machines were automatically completing the vote on the Workers Party (PT) despite the actual voter's choice.

Check below the complete interview with Letícia Cesarino.

Brasil de Fato: From 2018s election to now, what has changed regarding the production and dissemination of misinformation in social media in Brazil, especially focusing on the far-right?

Leticia Cesarino: The machine is running at full speed, but it has a different look from 2018, when it had an expansive character. After the stab, it [the machine] achieved an expansion and a reach beyond those segmented groups and influencers more loyal and strictly connected to Bolsonaro. Through WhatsApp, mainly, you could've seen a very large outreach for the campaign.  

This year, when it comes to re-election, with four years of government, pandemic, Lula's return to the electoral race, Bolsonaro and its supporters are in a bad moment. The ecosystem was decreasing in size compared to what it came to be during the campaign. What all indicates, though, is that they are “updating” the machine for election itself, as they did in 2018.

What has changed is this new pattern in the usage of the machine to not only try to increase the electoral base, but also to destabilize the very legitimacy of the election. This has always been there, including this supposed fraud at the voting machines. It was always one of the narratives, but it was not so important at that moment because Bolsonaro had just won and had with great support.

This year this agenda gained importance and, at least in the data that we work from the Telegram platform, it is undoubtedly the dominant one this year. The most shared [contents], the agendas and narratives that have the most prominence in the groups that we analyze are not those directly connected with the allegation of frauds in the electronic voting machines, but with those that question the legitimacy of the institutions that guarantees the election result.  

On September 7th, for example, an agenda that gained prominence was the vaccine passport, but in a kind of crossover with the fraud at the voting machines. There were rumors that unvaccinated people would be unable to vote. So even if it was not their agenda [at that moment], the topic has always been circulating at least since September.
The internet environment where fake news is produced and disseminated seems to be dominated by the far right. The left-wing, on the other hand, appears to have no power over this territory. Is that it? Is it possible to also find sectors of the left wing in this production and diffusion?

In these more underground platforms, such as Telegram, the right-wing has complete dominance. It's a right wing niche, and it will continue to be, because that's where they operate [work]. The political Left has a contact with the mainstream media that this right wing, from Congress Man down, does not have. They have nowhere else to have such visibility other than on the internet. It's their niche. Therefore, as much as the left-wing grows, this remains theirs.

The way they present themselves, as content creators, pseudojournalists, has to do with being the ones to reveal the reality media hides. It makes no sense for them to get out of it, because that's how they attract consumers, with this claim that after the internet the media will never be able to hide anything again. And that's how they conquer the fidelity and loyalty of these followers. It is inherent to this kind of media. On the left-wing there is not much of it. It has some conspirative channels, but it does not even have scale comparison.

Is it possible for the left-wing to confront this domain in some way?

You can greatly increase the relevance, but getting to their level is difficult without crossing certain ethical and even legal lines. They will always be ahead, because they have no limit for distortion and sensationalism, because it is based on effectiveness, engagiment. If a media goes viral, then the content will follow the same line of thought, and what tends to go viral is sensationalism. This is the differential between this media and the mainstream Press.  

However, it is important to struggle at least to take part of this advantage that the far right has. The left wing is improving its presence, but it is a matter of organicity. The Left wing organizations needs organic channels. There is no point in PT having a great communication strategy to speak the language of the internet if there is no network of organic content creators.

The right-wing has achieved its organic network through this appeal. The matter of the threat is also very important, because it keeps people connected, alongside to the revelations. But it is possible to have it on the left-wing too, and it is necessary to have that too. This bias of revelation could be better used.

In 2018, WhatsApp was a very important platform for the dissemination of fake news related to political and electoral content. Did that changed somehow? Can we point out other significant new platforms for this network of production and dissemination of misinformation?

It changed, it changed a lot. The platforms that were important in 2018, like WhatsApp and Facebook, remain important, but the ecosystem as a whole has diversified. We have, for instance, TikTok, which despite not being so numerous has an investment from Bolsonaro’s supporters. Instagram itself, which does not have much of this political use, has an incidence adjacent to their agenda, with misinformation about prevent treatment, alternative Sciences, the anti-vaccine.

Bolsonaro supporters have diversified its platforms. For example, Telegram is one of the most underground, with very closed and radicalized groups. We are trying to observe the relation between these more restricted segments, which we call refracted, with those up in the surface, like Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, that, what all indicates, are more important than Telegram in terms of capacity of dissemination.  

This investment of Bolsonaro’s supporters in TikTok is visible. YouTube has a character of producing fake news and WhatsApp, of dissemination. With that in mind, what is the role of TikTok?  

There are already content produces exclusively for TikTok. But they are usually under-covered content that stays in that gray area between entertainment and political propaganda. That social media have such scope, but quantitatively it is not yet important. But TikTok videos also circulate on WhatsApp, so there is this flow too.

And what about other more alternative [underground] platforms used by the far right?

That's another clearer pattern that was not present in 2018: the usage of alternative platforms like Gettr, Rumble, BitChute and others that copy the “mainstreaming” [dominant] ones as they began to tighten content moderation, banning channels, banning content from Twitter itself. And so they started moving to these underground platforms, which is something that didn't really happen in 2018.

The blogger Allan dos Santos, president Bolsonaro's ally is investigated in Brazil for disseminate fake news and misinformation / Reproduction

One thing that has surely changed is the fact that the content seems to be more spontaneous, since in 2018 this style of making electoral campaign or this type of language for politics was brand new. So, at first, the content was very associated with what the Press called the “Office of Hate”, that we do not yet know who exactly is behind. Nevertheless four years later, the president's supporters have already organically absorbed this modus operandi [way to do], simply by copying it.  

And then there is another pattern also that was already there in 2018, but it is increasingly clearer, that is the issue of monetization, mainly related to YouTube. So for many of these activists, it really became a kind of entrepreneurship. There's even a certain “mainstreamization” of part of this right wing. They are actually already colonizing broader media niches within the public sphere.  

You talked about Youtube. What is the extent and importance of YouTube today in the creation and distribution of misinformation?

YouTube links are wide spread through Telegram. YouTube presumes that it has a control over the platform that it does not have, because it is connected with all the others social medias. Bolsonaro's supporters take advantages of it.

We observe an incidence of YouTube within Telegram five to six times higher than the second platform, which is Telegram itself. In other words, the second most used platform is Telegram and Youtube is first, but it is far ahead. There is, indeed, a structural relation between these two. So the role of YouTube is very important, because it is YouTube that monetizes.

What is it and what does the long tail means?

The long tail are the small ones. It is a very intricate network structure with many small ones and a few big [content creators, groups or individuals]. On YouTube we see this same pattern: three or four big Bolsonaro's support channels are the majority of the links and between 60% to 70% belongs to the small or medium channels that are trying to gain views and subscribers within the ecosystem of the far-right, which is their environment, to eventually become one of those big channels to monetize.

What is the relation between Telegram and Youtube? 10 out of 100 channels are big, with thousands of views, and the vast majority, the so-called long tail, are the small ones, that do not have, yet, the capacity to monetize, but they are reaching out for it.

Edited by: Felipe Mendes