The recent storming of Brazil’s Congress is directly reflective of the social media radicalisation threat

By Charlie Sawyer

Published Jan 9, 2023 at 01:23 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

When rioters began to storm key government sites within the Brazilian capital on Sunday 8 January 2023, media outlets and netizens alike couldn’t help but recognise the stark similarities between the ongoing chaos they were witnessing and the violence previously put on display during the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021. Currently deemed the blueprint for any and all future political insurrection, the Capitol riot’s origin, escalation and materialisation all came down to one thing: social media. Now, while considering the present situation in Brazil, we’re all asking ourselves the same question: how do we combat extreme radicalisation online?

Why did citizens storm the Brazilian Congress?

Similarly to the far-right political unrest that took place after former President Donald Trump was defeated in the 2020 election, the primary motivation for the Brazilian rioters is to take back power for their chosen leader, former President Jair Bolsonaro. It seems as though a number of citizens have been less than happy with the current executive Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, more commonly referred to as Lula, who defeated Bolsonaro in a highly contested election towards the end of 2022.

According to The Guardian, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters targeted the nation’s Congress, Presidential Palace and Supreme Court. These rioters were then removed after security forces intervened. Leftist President Lula announced a federal security intervention in Brasília—bringing policing under the control of the central government—lasting until 31 January after capital security forces were initially overwhelmed by the invaders.

In what can only be described as an eerily accurate comparison to Trump, far-right former President Bolsonaro managed to somewhat discourage the violence while not explicitly condemning the mob. Rather than using his political prowess to shut down the riots, he more so took the advantage to make a divisive dig—tweeting about how while the present situation was wrong, the leftist insurgencies that had occurred in 2013 and 2017 had also been unpeaceful.

In regard to global response, numerous national politicians as well as world leaders have categorically denounced the insurrection and expressed dismay at this blatant attack on democracy. Colombian President Gustavo Petro wrote on Twitter: “All my solidarity to @LulaOficial and the people of Brazil. Fascism has decided to stage a coup. It is urgent for the OAS (Organisation of American States) to meet if it wants to continue to live as an institution.”

US President Joe Biden also made his opinions clear, stating: “I condemn the assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil. Brazil’s democratic institutions have our full support and the will of the Brazilian people must not be undermined. I look forward to continuing to work with @LulaOficial.”

Bolsonaro is currently residing in Florida—another thing the Brazilian conservative has in common with Trump, aka the tycoon of chaos. After facing a number of investigations which pertain to his time in office, Bolsonaro seemingly sought refuge in sunny Orlando. Presumably, the former President fancied a ride on Space Mountain before he faced any political repercussions back home.

Shortly after the violence began, US representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) took to Twitter, demanding that the US cease granting Bolsonaro refuge:

It’s evident that the far-right took umbrage with the recent transfer of power and, potentially having seen the events of January 2021, took it upon themselves to try and force the government’s hand—a strategy that very rarely heeds results. The question that still stands is how political radicalisation and unrest online can then manifest itself into real-life insurrection?

What role did social media play in the Brazilian insurrection?

It’s no surprise that social media plays a gargantuan role in online movements, cultural discussions and political radicalisation. However, it’s only now that we’re seeing its sheer influence regularly depicted onto the world stage.

In the most recent case of Brazil, The Washington Post explored the ways in which social media directly drove the far-right mayhem that took place. Analysing social media insights from Brazilian researchers, the news outlet stated that there had been a “war cry party” sentiment circulating on a number of platforms such as TikTok, Twitter and other far-right specific channels.

According to the media outlet, Brazilian researchers stated that among Bolsonaro supporters, a counter narrative had begun to circulate on Sunday 8 January—blaming the Lula government and people from his party for infiltrating peaceful and democratic demonstrations to turn the country against supporters of Bolsonaro. This message also had echoes of the 6 January insurrection, wherein many Trump supporters blamed left-wing activists for the violence.

In fact, Brazilian analysts had even caught wind of disinformation dominating social media in the months leading up to Bolsonaro’s election defeat. On TikTok, researchers found that five out of eight of the top search results for the keyword “ballots” were for terms such as “rigged ballots” and “ballots being manipulated,” while the Portuguese translation of “Stop the Steal” flooded people’s timelines.

TikTok has proven itself to be a platform often complicit in promoting and propping up radicalisation, particularly among young boys and men. You only have to consider the popularity of hyper-masculine misogynist and alleged sex offender Andrew Tate to recognise the significance of the app’s reach.

Another key element to this conversation is the omnipresent role of Twitter. While it may be far more entertaining to concentrate on the petty and laughable aspects of Elon Musk’s recent social media takeover—a far more sinister theme is beginning to emerge.

The billionaire and Tesla CEO recently announced that he’d be lifting the ban on political advertisements on Twitter, thereby aligning the platform with Meta’s Facebook which also allows paid political ads. As reported by Politico, it’s the latest in a series of Musk moves that have reversed policies that were put in place under former CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey.

Dorsey previously banned all political ads in November 2019, saying in a Twitter thread that paying for political reach “has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”

Far-right discourse nested into Twitter a long time ago and seemingly has zero plans of changing course. With political extremism and radicalisation at an all time high, it’s beyond worrying to consider how social media may’ve officially become a catalyst for terror.

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