In Brazil, QAnon Has a Distinctly Bolsonaro Flavor

A deluge of online conspiracy theories is dividing an already polarized country.

A Brazilian demonstrator takes part in a protest against mandatory COVID-19 vaccination in São Paulo on Dec. 22, 2020.
A Brazilian demonstrator takes part in a protest against mandatory COVID-19 vaccination in São Paulo on Dec. 22, 2020. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the threat of COVID-19, Brazilians were understandably confused about the gravity of the pandemic. This helps explain why the country of more than 210 million people currently registers one of the world’s highest daily death tolls from the coronavirus. But in addition to the pandemic-spreading signals sent by their right-wing leader, there is another key factor behind Brazilians’ resistance to mask-wearing, social distancing, and other basic preventive measures: online conspiracy theories. Brazilians, who are among the most avid users of social media on the planet, are gorging on a steady diet of misinformation and disinformation.

The sheer volume of online conspiracies circulating in Brazil is hard to overstate. Sometimes, they become visible in the real world. One such example occurred during a pro-Bolsonaro protest in the capital, Brasília, last May. Amid the flag-waving car procession, one vehicle had the letter “Q” prominently displayed on the rear window. At the time, most Brazilians had no inkling of what the letter meant. Times have changed, and references to the QAnon conspiracy theory are today splashed across social networks, chatrooms, and messaging apps. There’s even a new self-published e-book, O Movimento Q (“The Q Movement”), seeking to bring the conspiracy to the masses.

Brazil’s version of QAnon has a distinctly pro-Bolsonaro flavor. Its followers target such popular media personalities as Luciano Huck and Xuxa, with the QAnon crowd accusing both of promoting pedophilia. Also maligned are left-leaning political parties, former leaders of Brazil’s National Congress, and judges on the Supreme Court. Put simply, opponents of Bolsonaro are declared enemies of QAnon. By contrast, the president and Foreign Affairs Minister Ernesto Araújo as his sidekick are cast as nationalist crusaders waging a battle against everything from child sex crimes and elite corruption to alleged vaccination conspiracies and the spread of Marxism. Bolsonaro’s admiration of disgraced former U.S. President Donald Trump—the supposed fountainhead of QAnon—has only cemented the movement’s support for the Brazilian leader and his various causes.

Once incubated, Brazil’s QAnon movement metastasized quickly, including during the country’s November 2020 municipal elections. At least four candidates declared their support for QAnon while running for city council. Candidates such as Alan Lopes, Dom Lancellotti, Daniel Augusto Rocha Carneiro, and Luis Alexandre Mandú all dropped QAnon quotes and hashtags on their social media profiles while campaigning. Although none of them was elected, they represent the tip of the infodemic iceberg.

Although Brazil fields a world-class public health system and vaccination program, it is home to a growing anti-vaccination movement. A significant portion of Brazilians say they will refuse vaccination against COVID-19 even though the country has one of the highest infection rates in the world. In December 2020, a Datafolha survey found that 73 percent of the population was open to being vaccinated against the coronavirus. While that may sound promising, it’s down from 89 percent just a few months earlier. Public health and immunization specialists are appalled by the spike in online misinformation and by Bolsonaro publicly discrediting the quality of imported vaccines.

In Brazil, the vulnerabilities are intensified by Bolsonaro’s assault against independent media.

Conspiracy theories are hardly new to Brazil. They were already deeply embedded in the country’s politics throughout the 20th century. Since the advent of the internet, however, they have been circulating at the speed of light across popular social media platforms and messaging apps. The algorithms powering Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube prioritize user engagement above all else, and the more sensational and polarizing the content, the more likely it will spread. Even efforts to discredit fake news can drive up circulation. Complicating matters are conspiracy-theorist-in-chief Bolsonaro and loyalists such as Damares Alves, the minister of human rights, family, and women, and other politicians including Eduardo Bolsonaro, Carlos Jordy, and Filipe Martins, who all continue to flood online ecosystems with misinformation.

In a digitally connected world—especially as people spend more time online because of the pandemic—virtually everyone is at risk. But in Brazil, the vulnerabilities are intensified by Bolsonaro and his supporters’ assault against independent media. Indeed, many among his base believe the major news and technology companies are run by corrupt liberal elites intent on destroying them. Conspiracy-minded online platforms such as 4chan, 1500chan, and Favelachan are rife with discussions alleging how mainstream media is waging a culture war against conservative Brazilians. Efforts to discredit these rumors often trigger a boomerang effect that strengthens believers’ faith in the culture-war thesis.

One reason online conspiracy theories are so effective is because they resonate with underlying biases. Human beings are essentially hard-wired to deny facts that don’t fit their worldview. Consider the case of anchor biasing—the tendency of people to rely heavily on the first set of information they hear about a given topic. This anchoring process is why people often find it hard to accept new information. To the contrary, new evidence may actually intensify confirmation bias, which is the tendency to embrace information that supports one’s beliefs and reject information that is contradictory.

Another factor that enables conspiracy-mongering is anger and rage. It turns out that emotions related to fury, outrage, and indignation can interfere with information-seeking and the processing of complex ideas. In effect, these emotions short-circuit careful, deliberate, and rational thinking. This explains why people often jump to conclusions when they are angry, even if they later regret their decisions. Study after study has shown that when people are enraged, their need for complete explanations is significantly reduced. Social media is, in some ways, the perfect incubator for misinformation precisely because of how it thrives on controversy, divisiveness, and emotion.

Today, most Brazilians have a story of a relative or friend who fell into the hothouse of conspiracy theories. Reports of family members turning to QAnon or similar movements are distressingly common. In most cases, there is astonishment and disbelief about how quickly the conversion occurred. Their surprise is often accompanied by deep concern about the potential risks that converts pose to themselves and others. There are ways to help individuals escape the misinformation rabbit hole—but they require empathy, patience, and stamina.

Any attempt to help someone disengage from obsession with a conspiracy theory should be guided by kindness. Although it is much easier to discount and discard a conspiracy theorist’s views as fantastical, direct confrontation often only strengthens their biases. An approach informed by empathy and devoid of condescension is important to build trust. It is also useful to hold conversations in private and away from the social media inferno. This has the advantage of avoiding possible embarrassment or humiliation for the person you’re trying to help. But extracting people from conspiracy-minded thinking is typically a painfully slow process.

Brazilians can only arrest the spread of online disinformation with a combination of sticks and carrots. Conspiracy-mongering and the diffusion of fake news are further dividing a deeply polarized country to the advantage of the far-right. Anti-vaccination conspiracies are spreading from the country’s coastal cities to Indigenous communities in the Amazon. Unless Brazilians confront these digital threats with legal action, science-based reporting, and empathetic engagement, they risk not just losing the battle against online harm, but—in today’s era of pandemics—also potentially their lives.

Pedro Augusto Pereira Francisco provided research support for this article.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah