Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil

2022 Elections, Disinformation, and Attacks on the Electoral System

Repercussions of the digital public debate in the 2022 Brazilian presidential elections

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1. Executive Summary

Abstract:
This report provides an overview of the public debate regarding the 2022 presidential election, focusing on the circulation of disinformation and the anti-democratic mobilizations that directly questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process. The information contained herein originates from systematic, multi-platform analyses conducted by the School of Communication, Media and Information at FGV between August 29, 2022 and January 8, 2023, focusing on the debate regarding the institutions and authorities associated with the Electoral Court and on political key players in the debate about democracy. The investigation looked at the different digital articulations seeking to either strengthen or deliberately weaken democracy. This compilation encompassed analyses related to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Telegram, providing a plural and diverse view regarding the debate about the Electoral Court and the anti-democratic articulations in the digital context.

Keywords:
Presidential Elections; Digital Democracy; Disinformation.

Summary of results

  • The analysis found 15 million mentions to the Superior Electoral Court (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral – TSE) and 20 million mentions to the Supreme Court (Superior Tribunal Federal – STF) on Twitter. Mentions to the president of the TSE, Justice Alexandre de Moraes, accounted for more than 9.5 million tweets;
  • Far-right groups aligned with former President Jair Bolsonaro were responsible for most of the production and circulation of disinformation about the electoral process on multiple platforms between September 2022 and January 2023;
  • In general, the profiles aligned with Bolsonaro had a significant predominance in the political debate, based on the participation of congress representatives and other politicians, influencers, ordinary users, and hyperpartisan right-wing media outlets;
  • This protagonism was evident in the debate on Twitter about September 7, the Brazilian Independence Day holiday, in which the right obtained 82% of the interactions compared to less than 10% of the progressive sector. It also appeared in the context of the claims regarding radio broadcasts favorable to Bolsonaro, in which the right obtained 86% of the interactions, while the opposition reached only 11%. This trend repeated itself with similar proportions on Facebook, Instagram and Telegram;
  • The articulation of anti-democratic demonstrations appeared in different moments of the analyzed period, particularly in the context of September 7 and in the period after the elections until the January 8 attacks;
  • The message flows in Telegram groups indicated a high mobilization of Bolsonarist users, taking into account both the participation in anti-democratic demonstrations and the remote support for them.

 

2. Results and discussion

This study happened within a thematic framework and sought to deepen the investigation on the circulation of disinformation regarding the Electoral Court in particular. As demonstrated by previous studies on the political discussion in the digital environment (RUEDIGER; GRASSI, 2020; 2021), political key players and procedures related to the electoral process tend to be at the center of this debate.

The analysis of the electoral debate on Twitter included a series of distinct analytical paths. With a database of more than 15 million mentions to the TSE and around 20 million mentions to the STF over the mapped period, it was possible to analyze mentions to electoral institutions and to authorities of the Electoral Court. Based on that data, the study found an intense mobilization of the group allied with former President Jair Bolsonaro in order to delegitimize the electoral system and the STF and TSE justices, particularly TSE President Alexandre de Moraes, who appeared in almost 9.5 million tweets.

After finding a predominance of the narrative related to voting machine fraud, the study also conducted analyses focused on specific topics within this subject. These analyses evidenced the nature of the attacks on the institutions and their relationship with anti-communist and ‘anti-globalism’ theories, as well as questions about the security of electronic voting machines and demands for a military intervention and printed vote. Based on that, it was possible to identify moments of weakening of the electoral system in the context of the digital public debate, such as during the second round of the elections, when mentions to the security of electronic voting machines increased by 1153%.

 

 

1) Analysis of the electoral debate on Twitter

1.1 Debate on Institutions and Authorities of the Electoral Court on Twitter

Figure 1 – Mentions to the Institutions on Twitter
Period: August 29 to December 29, 2022

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

There were more than 6 million mentions to the STF, the TSE and the TREs on Twitter between September 2022 and January 2023, which enabled the identification of strategies, events and narratives about the Brazilian Electoral Court. Some topics stood out in this context, such as the narrative about an alleged collusion involving the TSE, the STF, the left, and the national press. This idea predominated throughout the period analyzed, evidencing the protagonism of the group allied with Jair Bolsonaro and its ability to drive discussions and narratives in the digital debate.

Specific episodes fed the idea of an opposition between “the people” and the legal system, such as the demonstrations on September 7 (the Brazilian Independence Day holiday), decisions to veto Bolsonaro’s campaign acts, and alleged evidence of voting machine fraud. Although the episodes are separate, the modus operandi of the Bolsonarist group often followed three lines of action: raising suspicions about the legal system, reinforcing a “us versus them” narrative, and weakening the discussion on risks against democracy.

This group showed a high ability to mobilize on the days around the election (both in the first and in the second round), including a movement nicknamed ‘Você Fiscal’ (‘you are the supervisor’) and calls to film the electronic voting machines when voting. Throughout the period, particularly in the days before the election, the fraud narrative was the absolute highlight among the analyzed topics and included the significant participation of influencers and politicians aligned with the far right, which Jair Bolsonaro represented at the time. For example, in the first days of November there was a peak of around 468 thousand mentions to an Argentine report that allegedly provided evidence of electoral fraud.

Figure 2 – Mentions to Authorities of the National Electoral Court on Twitter
Period: August 29 to December 29, 2022

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The analysis also detailed specific mentions to certain authorities in the debate about the Electoral Court, seeking to qualify the image of these key players on digital media. In general, TSE Justice Alexandre de Moraes was, by far, the most important figure in this debate, with a predominance of negative mentions to him fed by Jair Bolsonaro’s allies. This opposition was constant, but it intensified even more at specific moments. On such moment was the throat-cutting gesture allegedly made by Moraes during the TSE trial that maintained the ban on using the Palácio da Alvorada for Bolsonaro’s campaign live broadcasts. Users accused the president of the TSE of abusing his authority and frequently called him a dictator.

Although these attacks appeared on Twitter, they contained direct threats to Moraes as a person, such as the statements made in the context of the September 7 demonstrations insinuating that the justice was staging a coup. “Try to defraud it, Xandão. The message is given”, said one of the viral posts.

There were also mentions to other justices, but they appeared in strong association with specific events. In September, for example, there was a 1278% increase in mentions to Justice Edson Fachin due to his overturning of Bolsonaro’s decree on the purchase of weapons and ammunition. The same happened with mentions to Justice Benedito Gonçalves, with a 318% increase after he prohibited the use of images of the September 7 demonstrations in Bolsonaro’s election campaign.

1.2 Thematic Debate about the Electoral Court on Twitter

Figure 3 – Mentions to Voting Machine Fraud on Twitter
Period: August 29 to December 29, 2022

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Due to the predominance of the debate on voting machine fraud in the electoral discussion, this study broke down the topic in order to understand which narratives users mention together with the idea of fraud in the electoral process. Public institutions, particularly those within the legal system, were central in the debate about fraud. With a predominance of criticism against the TSE, the coup narratives mentioned above prevailed in this topic, driven by important key players on the right such as Pastor Silas Malafaia.

Mentions to the security of voting machines and to printed votes also stood out, sometimes surpassing the discussion about the institutions. In the second round of the elections, for example, there was an increase of 1153% in the debate about the security of voting machines, with supporters of the former president claiming that there was fraud in electoral process in order to justify protests and roadblocks throughout Brazil. The mobilizations included demands for printed votes, with comments demanding new elections, this time with a handwritten, “auditable” system.

To a lesser extent, there were also anti-communism and anti-globalism discussions permeating the idea of fraud. Users mobilized these narratives in order to feed mistrust regarding the voting machines and the electoral polls.

 

2) Analysis of the Electoral Debate on Facebook and Instagram

 

Taking into account the specificities of Facebook and Instagram, as well as the possibilities to access and collect data from these platforms, this study employed additional ways to analyze the electoral debate focusing on profiles that stand out on each network. In this context, the analysis of the digital capital of different users enabled an understanding of the engagement dynamics in their profiles.

With that, this study found that the predominance of the right in the electoral debate, as shown above in the Twitter mapping, was also present in the dynamics on Facebook and Instagram, where congress representatives, influencers and hyperpartisan media outlets had a central role.

In addition to explaining this predominance, the study also detailed the attempts to weaken the reputation of the Electoral Court, demonstrated in posts with claims of censorship, abuse of authority and fraud. There was an increase in engagement of some profiles based on the topic observed, such as what happened with the program Os Pingos nos Is, which often aligned with the former president. After covering the request to nullify the elections by the Liberal Party (PL) – of which the former president was a member at the time –, the page saw an increase of around 1042% in its weekly average engagement in November.

 

2.1 Major Key Players of the Electoral Debate on Facebook and Instagram

Figure 7 – Digital Capital on Facebook
Period: September to December 2022

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The mapping of the key players indicated that the group allied with former President Bolsonaro dominated the debate on Facebook for several weeks. The highlights included the two days after September 7 and the week before the first round of the elections. The opposition to the previous administration stood out in only a few moments, such as after the second round, in the beginning of November, with comments praising Alexandre de Moraes’ conduction of the electoral process.

Congress representatives appeared as protagonists in both sectors. The right wing saw Carla Zambelli, Carlos Jordy and Marcel van Hattem standing out, while the left saw names such as Humberto Costa and Gleisi Hoffmann. However, the right-wing sector had an even higher reach by establishing connections with hyperpartisan media outlets, intensifying the circulation of several narratives targeting the Electoral Court. The protagonism of these media outlets became evident, for example, in the second and third weeks of November, when the program Os Pingos nos Is at Jovem Pan talked about the Liberal Party’s request to nullify the elections.

There were constant efforts made by congress representatives and media outlets to weaken the reputation of the legal system, particularly the TSE and the STF. This included claims of collusion between Lula’s ticket and Alexandre de Moraes and allegations of censorship and abuse of authority.

Figure 8 – Digital Capital on Instagram
Period: September to December 2022

Source: Instagram | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Instagram | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The right-wing sector also predominated on Instagram, not only through congress representatives and media outlets but also through influencers and support pages. Players such as Renata Barreto, Carla Zambelli and Jovem Pan News were central in several moments throughout the mapped period, leading attempts to weaken the reputation of the Electoral Court.
However, the forms of articulation within this sector varied over the months. In September, for example, the group focused on a positive campaign for the Bolsonaro administration and on direct attacks on the legal system. After the first day of the elections, the group adopted a more modest tone regarding the legal system, unlike the accusatory and conspiratory tone before the first round.

The offensive intensified after Lula’s victory, with direct attacks on Justice Alexandre de Moraes and accusations of unconstitutional acts by the STF and the TSE. In December, there were attempts by some congress representatives, such as Marcel van Hattem, to formalize the attacks on the legal system through an inquiry commission (Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito – CPI). Similarly, in November, this study monitored the movements of the congress representatives Bia Kicis and Carla Zambelli to dialogue with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to alleged abuses by the STF and TSE.

The research also took into account the analysis of the performance of these profiles in specific moments throughout the period. During the second round of elections, the digital debate reflected the polarization of the political scene, particularly through key players such as Bolsonarist influencer Renata Barreto and the progressive and/or left wing media outlets Mídia Ninja and Carta Capital. In this context, the Federal Highway Police (Polícia Rodoviária Federal – PRF) operations on voting day were a topic of strong contention on social media, with the left seeing them as a form of “electoral checkpoint” and the right seeing them as an attempt to prevent vote manipulation. Shortly after the second round, which happened on October 31, there was an invention of the scenario seen in previous months, with profiles and pages opposing Bolsonaro standing out.

 

2.2 Interactions and Paid Promotions in the Electoral Debate on Facebook

Figure 9 – Evolution of Posts and Interactions about September 7 on Groups Supporting Jair Bolsonaro on Facebook
Period: July 1 to September 1, 2022

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

In the context of the digital mobilization around September 7, there were around 1,739 groups supporting Bolsonaro on Facebook. Based on a set of 13.4 thousand publications about September 7, the study found that users posted videos and statements made by the former president calling the population to the streets. The content also included criticism of the TSE and Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who users called an “emperor” due to his decisions seen as attempts to impede popular demonstrations supporting Bolsonaro on the Independence Day holiday. There were also posts implying that users would not respect the justice’s decisions regarding the date.

 

3) Analysis of the Electoral Debate on YouTube

In addition to the analyses focusing on interactions on Twitter and key profiles on Facebook and Instagram, the research also investigated the electoral debate happening on YouTube, seeking to add more diversity to the mapped platforms and to understand the trends and forms of audiovisual content creation regarding the target topic. The YouTube analysis enabled the creation of lists with the major videos about the Electoral Court and about the election fraud narrative. In this context, the study identified the most active channels at the center of the discussion, their metrics in terms of views and likes, as well as the content and narratives they employed. Around 422 videos over the mapped period were relevant to the debate on the Electoral Court.

Figure 11 – Videos Mentioning the Electoral Court on YouTube
Period: September to December 2022

Source: YouTube | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: YouTube | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Channels aligned with former President Bolsonaro, such as Os Pingos Nos Is and Jovem Pan News, stood out strongly on the platform throughout the mapped period. To a lesser extent, there was also a presence of traditional media outlets in this debate, such as the channel of the free television network SBT. Like on Twitter, the arguments employed on YouTube had a more sensationalist and urgent tone, circulating content that mostly criticized the Electoral Court. In October, for example, one of the major videos about the topic claimed on its title that a senator “confronted” Alexandre de Moraes. In September, the channels mentioned the alleged impeachment of the justice in an urgent tone.

Videos with more explicit and direct opposition to the TSE gained prominence over the months, indicating how the digital debate reflected the polarization of the national political scene. While, in September, the major video claimed that the TSE had authorized insults against former President Bolsonaro, in October, the channel Os Pingos Nos Is called on people to watch “the video that the TSE does not want Brazil to see”. Likewise, in November, the channel PROBLEMA RESOLVIDO stood out in the debate by stating that “Alexandre de Moraes has been exposed”.

Figure 12 – Videos Mentioning Voting Machine Fraud on YouTube
Period: September to December 2022

Source: YouTube | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: YouTube | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

In addition to mentions to the Electoral Court, the study also mapped videos with references to the election fraud narrative. Unlike the analyses mentioned above, in which Bolsonaro’s support group were almost completely dominant, the mapping of mentions to electoral fraud on YouTube indicated a fiercer dispute. A video published in September, for instance, was against the fraud narrative, saying that Bolsonaro electors would give a wrong vote and then claim there was a collusion with the TSE.

However, despite the attempts to build an opposition in the debate, the narratives delegitimizing the voting machines and the electoral system continued to stand out, using the sensationalism mentioned above to attract attention and engagement. That happened in videos such as ‘Report does not rule out fraud’, published in November, and ‘Revealing everything: there are even more people with Alexandre de Moraes in the investigation’, in December. In October, the month of the elections, users constantly used YouTube to promote the voting machine fraud narrative.

 

4) Analysis of the Electoral Debate on Telegram

From September 2022 to January 2023, the study produced many analyses based on mobile apps, focusing on Telegram. Taking into account the groups and public channels in the messaging app, the research measured the temperature of the political groups, as well as mentions, criticism and threats against the actions of the Electoral Court.

 

Figure 13 – Messages about the Electoral Court on Telegram
Period: September 2022 to January 2023

Source: Telegram | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Telegram | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Fake news, conspiracy theories and calls to action against the Electoral Court and democracy were central elements on Telegram. There was frequent content sharing of arguments claiming that there was a collusion devised between the Electoral Court, the press and the left in order to prevent Bolsonaro’s reelection. Telegram served as an aggregator of content originating from other platforms and social networks, becoming an efficient strategic tool to spread theories related to voting machine fraud, particularly on Election Day. It also contributed to the articulation of organized anti-democratic movements, such as illegal camps and the attacks that happened on January 8, 2023.

In September 2022, the monitoring registered a series of claims that the TSE had censored videos related to the former president’s campaign, as well as messages encouraging voters to use their phones to record the alleged “fraud” when voting. In the same period, there was a high circulation of fake videos simulating election polls favoring Bolsonaro based on the manipulation of excerpts from Jornal Nacional, a news program at Rede Globo. Between the end of September and the beginning of October, there were messages encouraging carrying guns on Election Day and blocking federal highways in groups supporting Bolsonaro. After the first round, many videos “proving” the alleged fraud circulated on the platform. The roadblocks executed by the PRF on the day of the first round were also at the center of the debate. Users saw the actions taken by Alexandre de Moraes against the blocks as evidence of “collusion”.

In November, there were calls to action on the platform against the election result, with articulations to organize anti-democratic camps in many states. Users employed statements made by Bolsonaro to “legitimize” the protests, and many demands for “military intervention” circulated on Telegram. Between the end of December 2022 and the beginning of January 2023, there was an even more intense articulation of Bolsonarist groups on the platform, with users encouraged to remain in the camps.

3. Conclusions

The analyses indicated a significant predominance of the political sector aligned with former President Jair Bolsonaro in the context of the political debate. This group positioned itself on social media based on a distinct digital articulation. The spread of disinformation narratives on social media platforms, especially in relation to mistrust in the electoral system, its institutions and its representatives, contributed to the consolidation of anti-democratic movements that found support in many regions of the country.

Based on the digital articulation of Bolsonarist groups, there were significant demonstrations against the legitimate result of the elections, such as blocking federal highways, setting up illegal camps, and the attacks on January 8, 2023 in Brasília. This dynamic appeared in multiple platforms, including in interactions between influencers and media outlets on Twitter, engagement strategies on Facebook and Instagram, and in strongly sensationalist content on YouTube.

The analyses based on mobile apps, particularly on Telegram, also indicated a great power of articulation for real events by political groups on these platforms. This includes calls to action encouraging recoding episodes of alleged election fraud and engaging (either remotely or in person) in anti-democratic demonstrations, which, in general, happened in association with groups aligned with former President Jair Bolsonaro.

The platforms acted as vectors for users to share practical instructions to maintain the operation of illegal camps and organize caravans for the collective attacks in Brasília on January 8, 2023. In addition, users shared tactics to avoid tracking by authorities and by ideological opponents, such as changing group names to generic terms and taking photos of notes containing handwritten instructions instead of typed information. Considering the above, this study highlights the importance of continuous advancement in terms of research and analysis of the digital environment within the scope of the political debate.

4. Editorial Staff

Research Coordination
Marco Aurelio Ruediger
Amaro Grassi

Researchers
Leticia Sabbatini
Renato Contente
Mariana Carvalho
Victor Piaia
Sabrina Almeida
Dalby Hubert
Maria Sirleidy Cordeiro
Polyana Barbosa
Lucas Roberto da Silva

Technical Review
Renata Tomaz

Graphic Project
Daniel Almada
Luis Gomes

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