Bolsonaro Is Already Undermining Brazil’s Upcoming Election

The populist president and his devotees are casting a dark cloud over the October vote.

By , a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a meeting of the National Confederation of Industry in Brasília, Brazil, on Dec. 7, 2021.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a meeting of the National Confederation of Industry in Brasília, Brazil, on Dec. 7, 2021.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a meeting of the National Confederation of Industry in Brasília, Brazil, on Dec. 7, 2021. Mateus Bonomi/Getty Images

As Brazil’s October presidential elections loom closer, the country faces a deluge of digital threats. Misinformation and disinformation on social media and elsewhere on the internet are only the most obvious examples. Harder to discern are other more insidious dangers, including cyberattacks against the election machinery and reporting of votes. As the Superior Electoral Court (known by the Portuguese acronym TSE), Brazil’s highest election authority, works to stormproof the system, observers would be forgiven for wondering if Latin America’s biggest democracy can withstand the darkest cloud over this year’s vote: incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and his devotees.

The last two nationwide elections in 2018 and 2020 are a cautionary tale. Start with the presidential campaign four years ago, when Bolsonaro and his supporters took their cues from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook by stoking baseless rumors about the integrity of the voting process, claiming that critical ballot boxes were corrupted. Since the 2018 election, Bolsonaro has doubled down on the lie and worked overtime to sabotage the reputation of Brazil’s well-regarded electronic voting system. Although the TSE has promised to punish misinformation in the future, the damage is already done.

Bolsonaro, his sons, and his closest advisors are widely recognized as the most prolific purveyors of such election-related chicanery. The president alone is accused of making more than 5,000 false or distorted statements to date, including repeated attacks against the TSE and supreme court. After setting up a dedicated unit in 2019 to fight fake news, the TSE received over 100,000 reports of misinformation and disinformation during the 2020 municipal elections. In order to accelerate efforts to reduce the spread of digital harms, the TSE and the Brazilian National Congress signed a new cooperation agreement in 2021. Meanwhile, a three-year investigation into fake news led by the STF is exposing a web of vested political and economic interests reaching the highest echelons of power.  Last year, the TSE even authorized a formal investigation into Bolsonaro’s claim that efforts are underway to defraud the 2022 elections. Yet Latin America’s “Teflon president” has shrugged off these probes and continues to spew lies into the ether.

As Brazil’s October presidential elections loom closer, the country faces a deluge of digital threats. Misinformation and disinformation on social media and elsewhere on the internet are only the most obvious examples. Harder to discern are other more insidious dangers, including cyberattacks against the election machinery and reporting of votes. As the Superior Electoral Court (known by the Portuguese acronym TSE), Brazil’s highest election authority, works to stormproof the system, observers would be forgiven for wondering if Latin America’s biggest democracy can withstand the darkest cloud over this year’s vote: incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and his devotees.

The last two nationwide elections in 2018 and 2020 are a cautionary tale. Start with the presidential campaign four years ago, when Bolsonaro and his supporters took their cues from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook by stoking baseless rumors about the integrity of the voting process, claiming that critical ballot boxes were corrupted. Since the 2018 election, Bolsonaro has doubled down on the lie and worked overtime to sabotage the reputation of Brazil’s well-regarded electronic voting system. Although the TSE has promised to punish misinformation in the future, the damage is already done.

Bolsonaro, his sons, and his closest advisors are widely recognized as the most prolific purveyors of such election-related chicanery. The president alone is accused of making more than 5,000 false or distorted statements to date, including repeated attacks against the TSE and supreme court. After setting up a dedicated unit in 2019 to fight fake news, the TSE received over 100,000 reports of misinformation and disinformation during the 2020 municipal elections. In order to accelerate efforts to reduce the spread of digital harms, the TSE and the Brazilian National Congress signed a new cooperation agreement in 2021. Meanwhile, a three-year investigation into fake news led by the STF is exposing a web of vested political and economic interests reaching the highest echelons of power.  Last year, the TSE even authorized a formal investigation into Bolsonaro’s claim that efforts are underway to defraud the 2022 elections. Yet Latin America’s “Teflon president” has shrugged off these probes and continues to spew lies into the ether.

A growing number of Brazilian institutions are cracking down on such digital misdeeds. In 2021, Brazil’s federal police accused Bolsonaro and a constellation of his top advisors of coordinating a “hate cabinet” that reportedly played a “direct and relevant” role in spreading falsehoods about the electoral process. The feds reported how the secretive cabinet targeted opponents and disseminated disinformation to incite animosity against legislative, judicial, and military bodies on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and especially WhatsApp and Telegram. A separate parliamentary investigation warned of the risks these so-called digital militias pose to democracy.

Either Brazilians pull off a free, fair, and transparent election—or else they succumb to the 21st-century digital storm.

Brazilian scholars are also parsing how digital harms spread online and attack media outlets critical of the government, including prominent news agencies. A study of Brazil’s 2018 election campaign traced the most prolific disinformation campaigns to a small number of ultraconservative politicians and journalists on Facebook and, especially, WhatsApp, along with an assortment of financial backers. Fact-checking groups have taken note and are pressing messaging apps to restrict forwards, broadcasts, and the size of new groups.

Digital rights advocates are mapping the dynamics of digital distortions. Reporters Without Borders and the Institute for Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro pored over half a million tweets under anti-media hashtags between March and June 2021. They concluded that Bolsonaro supporters spearheaded these virtual militias, overwhelmingly targeting media outlets critical of the government and singling out female journalists for ad hominem attacks. While 20 percent of the tweets were automated, the study found that most of these Twitter assaults could be traced to a relatively small number of identifiable accounts.

Indeed, the Getulio Vargas Foundation has been closely tracking social media for warning signs. Crunching the numbers from November 2020 to January 2022, the organization flagged almost 400,000 Facebook posts related to electronic voting machines and other aspects of the voting process across approximately 28,000 accounts attracting 111 million interactions. The study found that the flow of misinformation peaked at election time, during debates over key bills related to printed votes, and after Bolsonaro issued controversial statements. Not surprisingly, a few dozen accounts were responsible for most of the digital toxins.

Complicating matters, private cybersecurity firms have detected the possible involvement of foreign actors in sowing doubts about Brazilian elections. In 2018, FireEye tracked a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #OpEleiçãoContraOFascismo that criticized the democratic model and the legitimacy of Brazil’s election. They identified a host of Russian bots deployed to amplify the reach of posts. A few years later, in 2020, Firefly itself was subject to a massive cyberattack, including theft of its cyberattack simulation tools, by what was presumed to be a hostile government.

Despite the digital insurrection at the top, several institutional initiatives are underway to limit the spread of online disinformation, including about elections. Pushback from the Brazilian Senate and other institutions helps explain why Bolsonaro balked on his pledge to issue a decree to prevent sites from taking down posts containing misinformation. All told, Brazilian lawmakers have introduced at least 45 bills to combat fake news. Yet these measures are also criticized by some digital rights groups for their potential to negatively affect data privacy.

Big Tech is also climbing aboard. At least 10 social media platforms, including Facebook, Google, Instagram, Kwai, Telegram, TikTok, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube, have signed agreements with the Brazilian authorities to fight fake news. Initiatives include sharing access to dedicated pages that provide reliable information on the electoral process, creating channels to report suspicious content, and posting labels to identify “official” content. Online providers are also offering search prompts to direct users to trustworthy content, as well as enhanced identification and removal of content deemed detrimental to the democratic process.

Meanwhile, Brazilian officials are also working to bulwark institutional cyber-defenses against attacks on election infrastructure—and none too soon. Brazil already registers among the highest levels of cyber-malfeasance in the world: Attacks increased by over 20 percent in 2021 alone, clocking some 1,400 threats per minute at their peak. The TSE and the supreme court are on the front line. In 2020, the latter found its computers infected with viruses, an incident authorities described as Brazil’s worst cybersecurity incident on record. And this attack came shortly after a separate incident involving an attempt to access the servers of the Brazilian National Council of Justice.

The scale of the cyberthreat to the second-largest democracy in the Americas should not be underestimated. An election observation mission during the 2020 municipal elections reported that the TSE’s website was hit by some 486,000 cyberattacks per second. Most of these intrusions were denial-of-service attacks designed to keep websites from being accessed. The sources of the attacks were suspected to be from Brazil, Portugal, New Zealand, and the United States. While the system held strong, the larger risks were clear: With over 500,000 voting machines installed in all 5,567 municipalities, 26 states and the federal district, Brazil’s electronic balloting system is a target too big to take its safety for granted.

Encouragingly, Brazilian institutions are taking that cautionary tale seriously in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Starting in 2009, the TSE conducted a series of security tests of electronic voting machines and the wider Brazilian voting system. In the latest trial, in 2021, authorities launched almost 30 simulated attacks to test the integrity of machines. The cyberartillery included tampering with ballot box software, changing the election results, and violating the confidentiality of votes. Despite a few reported failures, the TSE concluded that overall, Brazil’s election infrastructure was secure and robust.

Yet as Brazil closes in on what could be its most consequential vote since military rule ended 37 years ago, the country can ill afford to rest on its digital laurels. Either Brazilians pull off a free, fair, and transparent election, or else they succumb to the 21st-century digital storm. Democracies across the region—and around the world—will be watching in real time.

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

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