Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil

Opinion | Distrust discourse transforms into defense of paper ballots on networks

*Sabrina Almeida and Victor Piaia

In the beginning of November, during the presidential election process in the USA, a wave of fraud accusations with the defeat of Donald Trump encouraged supporters of President Bolsonaro to use the opportunity to criticize the Brazilian electoral system. The hacker attack attempt against the Electoral Court’s system and the delay in the vote count in the first round led to a wave of distrust, with people questioning the court’s ability to ensure the security of the elections and promoting voting campaigns.

However, the mobilization to defend the Brazilian electoral system, which encompasses individuals and democratic institutions, was not significant. Those are some of the findings from a study carried out by FGV DAPP on the networks that circulate content about electoral distrust in the electoral month on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

History did not repeat itself, but it rhymed, as stated by the authors of “How Democracies Die”, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. At least since 2014, the debate about potential fraud in the electoral system came out of the groups doing technical criticism, and sometimes out of conspiracy groups, and into the public debate and the wider political context.

In a previous study, we mapped the circulation of links about this topic between 2014 and October 2020, demonstrating its constant presence in the digital debate throughout the period. In addition, there were statements made by politicians, including the President of the Republic himself, claiming that the did not won in the first round due to fraud.

An intriguing fact happened in November, 2020: the increase and alignment with the idea of paper ballots in the context of a municipal election with no incidents related to potential election fraud and of questions about the United States elections, which is carried out using paper ballots. In other words, paper voting, which was the base for the fraud accusations in the USA, is supposedly the solution to increase trust in the Brazilian electoral system, which did not have episodes of fraud.

From an analysis of Facebook posts, the study shows that this outcome was possible thanks to a sophisticated communication strategy on social media, which restructured the narrative of fraud, reducing the weight of alleged reports and cases of manipulation and instead investing in civic arguments, such as more transparency and auditing ability, as well as technical arguments, questioning the Electoral Court’s ability to ensure security in the elections. While the repercussion of the USA elections fed the group that was already engaged in the narrative of fraud, the Electoral Court’s episodes were mobilized to increase distrust in the institution for a wider public and to bring up the topic of paper ballots.

The analysis of the interactions about electoral distrust on Twitter indicates a more propositional and engaged nature on that platform. In the studied period, there was a strong cohesion among the discourses, and efficient mobilization strategies that organized the coordinated engagement in favor of paper ballots. The major hashtags mobilized on Twitter reinforce this trend, which is also observed through other strategies on the other networks analyzed.

However, indicating the existence of this mobilization does not mean ignoring the strong presence of the debate about paper ballot in previous periods. At least since 2013, Bolsonaro is one of its major defenders publicly, and, in 2018, the topic expanded its reach with the increase in election fraud reports. However, the spread of the topic happened in connection to conspiracy beliefs about an alleged collusion of left-wing parties and institutions for electoral manipulation. That is, the narrative trigger used mobilized distrust in the electoral system through ideological adhesion.

November 2020 represents the beginning of a new phase in this discourse, organized through more universal arguments given from events that are not directly related to episodes of fraud or manipulation. Therefore, the narrative was expanded beyond the hyper-partisan public, investing in the distrust in the Electoral Court beyond conspiracy discourses. This has led to a context in which the court must prove not only its integrity and credibility, but also its technical capacity and transparency.

This response is urgent and cannot happen in isolation. Parties, institutions, civic organizations, companies, influencers and media outlets will have an important part to play in creating a secure and credible institutional environment. The study also found that, on YouTube, videos published in channels of traditional media outlets such as Band, RedeTV and Jovem Pan reproduced arguments about fraud in the American elections, becoming trending channels in conspiracy recommendation lists. Therefore, the dissemination of discourses that weaken the electoral institutions happens through different means that feed from each other, increasing the credibility of the messages being circulated.

As remembered in the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, democracy is an ongoing struggle against the opportunism and manipulation that arise from within and outside the system itself. In order for the system to remain intact and faithful to its basic foundations, joint efforts are required, and institutional actions and particularly important. As the elections of new presidents for the Chamber and Senate draw near, it is urgent to reflect on strategies to ensure the legitimacy of the 2022 presidential dispute.


** Sabrina Almeida – Political scientist. PhD in Political Science (UFMG) and researcher at FGV DAPP. Studies political behavior focusing on participation, social capital and political intolerance, as well as methods and research on social media.

**Victor Piaia – PhD student in Sociology at the Institute of Social and Political Studies (IESP-UERJ). Researcher at FGV DAPP and a member of the Center for Studies in Social Theory and Latin America (NETSAL). Investigates the political effects of transformations in day-to-day communications, focusing on social media platforms and messaging applications.

*The opinions expressed by members of the different teams at Fundação Getulio Vargas, where identified as such in articles and interviews published in the media in general, represent exclusively the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the institutional position of FGV.

This article was published firsthand in Congresso no Foco.


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