What to make of Brazil's election news
Natalia Viana is a co-founder and co-director of Brazilian investigative journalism outlet Agência Pública, founded in 2011 by women reporters, and has worked on International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) investigations Panama Papers, and Evicted and Abandoned. Agência Pública is the first non-profit investigative news agency in Brazil. Natalia is also an author, the president of the Brazilian Association of Digital Journalism and a Nieman fellow.
Watch the video of Natalia’s talk
Part of our Global Journalism Seminars series.
Read an automated transcript of the seminar.
Why coverage of the Brazilian elections matters
- The majority of respondents in Brazil for our latest Trust in News report agreed that false and misleading information, harassment, using data about people irresponsibly, prioritising certain political views and censoring content were big problems for Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and YouTube. | Learn more
- The proportion of news consumers who say they avoid the news, often or sometimes, has doubled in Brazil (54%) over the last five years, according to the Digital News Report 2022. | Learn more
- “35% of Brazilian voters interacted with and may have had their electoral choices influenced by ‘fake news’ in the last presidential election,” according to a study published in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Politics. | Learn more
Five lessons from Natalia’s talk
1. The mood is grim among journalists in Sao Paulo. “The mood is not very good because even though polls predicted Lula would win the first round, which he did, the polls were showing Bolsonaro would have much less support than he had. And this shows for us (journalists have been repeatedly attacked in a way that had never happened in Brazilian history) that either the public doesn't care or is not aware of the reduction in democratic space that's happening in Brazil.” Natalia said that this sense of foreboding is connected to similar events experienced by her colleagues elsewhere in Latin America. “I've seen exactly the same thing happen in many other countries. The same thing happened in Venezuela. The same thing happened in Nicaragua. The same thing happened in Honduras and El Salvador now, and it's the journalists who are on the front line, and they're the first ones to feel the heat when there is an autocrat who is trying to grab more power.”
2. Electoral violence is a serious issue. According to Natalia, electoral violence mostly comes from incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters, although there is some from those on the opposing side as well. These attacks include physical violence such as shootings and stabbings, but also a strong undercurrent of verbal violence and internet violence. The situation is such that politicians having bodyguards “is becoming more normal specifically for groups like LGBTQI+, indigenous people, feminists, who are identified with progressive causes, because the Bolsonaro vision of the word is violent, and it is violent against these minorities. So more and more of these people are receiving threats and they start on social media, but then they can get attacked on the street.” This has also affected Bolsonaro’s rival for the presidency Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Natalia added, “which was a big loss because Lula is a popular leader. He likes being amongst people, but he has needed to use protection and even a [bulletproof] vest. He couldn't do open-air events, out of fear that there would be violence against him.”
3. Journalists need to be protected too. The polarised and sometimes aggressive political situation has resulted in journalists being targeted, especially online. Natalia talked us through the measures her team has taken to safeguard their safety and mental health. “Back in 2018 was the first time my team was attacked. There was a doxxing campaign, some Bolsonaro supporters prepared a dossier. And they used the social media of all of my team to say that we were communists, that we were supported by George Soros, we were part of this international conspiracy that wants to curtail freedoms. When that happened, it affected the mental health of my team enormously. And back then I don't think I was good enough at leading the team to get past this. What we did then is, we sat down with everybody and we started having protocols about exposure on social media, personal accounts, and professional accounts, we started having protocols about how you approach people to ask for comments because we were starting to ask for comments and they would doxx us, they would just expose the request. So we needed to create a neutral [social media] account, not a personal account. We did training for digital security with our people. And then during the pandemic, we started having a psychoanalyst come and have a roundtable to discuss the mental stress everybody was feeling.”
4. Misinformation is fuelled by social media. Some of the rumours and misinformation regarding politicians making the rounds on social media veer into the outlandish. Natalia gave an example: “In the last month, Bolsonaro's campaign has associated Lula with the devil. And there have been rumours that he has a pact with the devil. And yesterday Lula put out a fact check which was absolutely hilarious saying he doesn't believe in the devil, Lula believes in God and then it said Lula has never spoken with the devil, and Lula does not have a pact with the devil. And then the final one was Lula's main proposal to regain the economy and eliminate hunger because they wanted to say something serious.”
Absurd questions such as this taking precedence over policy-related issues on social media platforms is a problem, Natalia added. “There is the fact that people are interested in this kind of thing, that campaigns go after what people are interested in discussing. There's another fact: algorithms and social media support this kind of thing. So they ferment and they make them larger, they make them reach more people, and more people engage. So the infrastructure that we have in which the public discourse is happening supports these kinds of debates, and this is a huge problem.”
5. The average Brazilian is not aware of how closely the world is watching. “Brazilians are very insular. They're very internally focused. And our media is like that as well. I mean, the amount of coverage of the world outside of Brazil is very small,” Natalia said. Brazilians don’t know the world is watching this election and also have other things to worry about, she added. “People are really interested in their kids going to school and eating because of the huge economic crisis that is happening. Everybody's really interested in inflation and are they going to get jobs. These are their daily concerns. On the other hand, Brazilians have shown again and again and again, that they are very conservative and they are fretting a lot about [the current] cultural shift … I think [Brazilians] were always as a society, very traditional, scared of change. And this change is happening.”
The bottom line
In her talk, Natalia highlighted that Brazil finds itself at a crossroads with this election: the country can continue along the path Bolsonaro is taking, or it can choose a different direction. Were Bolsonaro to win, Natalia fears that the situation would get worse, for journalists, but also for the rest of the country. “What I think we can see is a very Venezuelan-type of very rapid decay, or you can compare it to Nicaragua,” she warned, adding: “If he wins, we're in a very bad position to defend our democracy.”
If you want to know more…
- For a deeper dive into election-related mis- and dis-information, read this piece by Murillo Camarotto. | Read
- For an example of Agência Pública’s election-related investigative journalism, read this piece about social media coordination between Brazilian and US alt-right groups. | Read (in Portuguese)
- To find out what may happen if Lula were to win, read this piece. | Read