Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil

Digital Congress in Focus

A monitoring of Congress representatives on Facebook

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1. Executive Summary

Abstract:
The study focused on the activities of federal deputies and senators on Facebook, analyzing prominent topics and key players from February 1 to October 31, 2023. This analysis was a continuation of a previous study, The Digital Congress in Campaign, which investigated the issues discussed by federal deputies elected during the first round of the 2022 elections. In turn, this investigation monitored the topics mobilized by these key players as they perform their role as elected representatives. The study analyzed around 213 thousand posts, enabling an understanding of the agendas mobilized by each representative throughout 2022 and of the prominence given to each political player, party, and caucus in Congress. The findings showed that, while government representatives published more posts, there was a notable protagonism of the opposition and the center in terms of engagement.

Keywords:
Brazilian Congress; Congressional Debate; Facebook.

 

Summary of Results:

 

  • The strongly polarized political context manifests itself on Facebook. While the government’s allies stand out in volume of posts, the opposition leads in engagement;
    Although the progressive sector seeks to dispute different debates, the opposition’s lead in the digital environment is clear, particularly for representatives in line with Jair Bolsonaro. Taking into account the political blocks of the government, center, and opposition, the government and its allies reached around 81% less engagement when compared to the opposition;
  • Federal Deputy Fábio Teruel (MDB-SP), aligned with the center, stood out despite the polarization. He achieved this by adopting a digital presence that is strongly associated with Christianity, with a routine of daily posts containing prayers and biblical passages. This case helps understand the relevance of religion in the digital public debate;
  • The January 8 attacks and their developments appear as one of the major highlights in the debate among members of Congress, with PL and PT representatives exploring it strongly;
    Other highlights include women’s rights, censorship and freedom of speech, religion, economy, the war between Israel and Hamas, health care, climate change, drugs decriminalization, technology, and cycling activism.

 

2. Results and Discussion

The analysis began with the 213 thousand publications mapped on Facebook in order to understand the presence of the deputies and senators on the platform, taking into account variables such as volume of posts and average engagement. This helped determine not only which Congress representatives participate or engage more, but also what their digital presence means for their respective parties and coalitions.

1) Federal deputies and senators who stood out on Facebook

Figure 01 - Volume of interactions and posts per elected representative on Facebook
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The figure shows the average engagement obtained in posts made by representatives in the first nine months after the inauguration of the new Congress on February 1, 2023. In general – like to what happened regarding federal deputies of the former legislature during the campaign period –, there was a notable protagonism of representatives associated with the right wing political sector, with agendas and political ties associated with former President Jair Bolsonaro. That was the case of Carla Zambelli (PL-SP), the second representative in terms of engagement metrics. She appeared alongside many other names in the opposition to the Federal Government, often with posts defending the values and projects of the political sector connected to Jair Bolsonaro.

In turn, the government and its allies formed a notable minority represented by Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR), Lindbergh Farias (PT-RJ), Guilherme Boulos (PSOL-SP), and Senator Rogério Correia (PT-MG). They obtained engagement through posts favoring the government and content defending agendas such as representativeness and education. Congress representatives connected to the PT, particularly José Guimarães (PT-CE) and Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR), published significantly more posts than the opposition, which indicates a high investment in communication with the public through social media, but with no proportional returns in terms of engagement. It is worth noting that those same representatives were in a similar position during the campaign period, with a high number of posts and low levels of engagement.

Other players also stood out. A distinctive element compared to the 2022 election campaign was Federal Deputy Fábio Teruel (MDB-SP), who was the absolute leader in terms of engagement. Although he was among the major names in the previous study, the recent publications of the gospel singer (videos of prayers and religious messages published very often) garnered a high volume of total and average engagement compared to posts made by other Congress representatives.

Another player in the religious segment, Marcos Feliciano (PL-SP) was the representative that stood out the most on the platform during the official campaign period in 2022. However, he was not able to maintain the same level of intense posting and popularity on the platform after the campaign. After his reelection for a new mandate, Feliciano left the top 25 representatives with the most engagement on Facebook.

 

Figure 02 - Engagement variation per Congress representative over the weeks
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The biggest variations in total engagement happened in pages of Fábio Teruel (MDB-SP), Carla Zambelli (PL-SP), Bia Kicis (PL-DF), Gustavo Gayer (PL-GO), Eduardo Bolsonaro (PL-SP), Filipe Barros (PL-PR), and Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR). Among those, only Teruel and Hoffmann represent the center and the government, respectively. This is an early indication of the prominence of right wing representatives aligned with former President Jair Bolsonaro of the PL. It is worth noting that the January 8 attacks and their developments were a heavily explored topic by these representatives. The analysis below shows the peaks of interactions that prompted the engagement variations mentioned above, enabling an understanding of the dynamic of far-reaching posts made by the representatives.

The support for Bolsonaro among the representatives that stood out manifests itself based on the adoption of a strategy of making frequent references to the politician and his ideas. There is often a religious and/or moral tone in a significant portion of those posts. In a highly polarized political context, this indicates an attempt to politically weaken and demoralize the progressive sector and its representatives, particularly President Lula and the PT, with the frequent attribution of a morally positive character to the right and a negative character to the left.
Associated with the center, Fábio Teruel (MDB-SP) has escaped this trend of direct political clash by making large-scale publications containing prayers and religious messages focusing on his followers, which boosted his engagement rates far above the others. Teruel made his post with the highest reach on October 8, consisting of an alleged divine revelation with teachings about how to deal with the “enemy”,

In the context of the narrative dispute regarding who to blame for the January 8 attacks, Carla Zambelli (SP-PL) had the highest level of engagement by publishing a video showing images that allegedly proved the direct involvement of Institutional Security Office Minister Gonçalves Dias in the attacks. Zambelli claimed that the government was attempting to boycott the inquiry on the anti-democratic acts to avoid exposing this alleged involvement.

Similarly, on April 18, Gustavo Gayer stood out by criticizing the January 8 investigation committee. In a video, Gayer stated that pro-government representatives attempted to boycott the session of the committee, going so far as to claim that there was vote-buying of deputies and senators to remove the signatures enabling the establishment of investigation.
In turn, Bia Kicis (PL-DF) obtained the most engagement on July 12 by publishing a video showing Federal Deputy Nikolas Ferreira (PL-MG) defending the people detained for involvement in the anti-democratic attacks of January 8. In that publication, Nikolas argued that the arrests were arbitrary and that there was inhumane treatment of those arrested. The general idea was that the coup attempt reported by the left and by the media did not exist and, therefore, there should be no investigation of it.

On February 7, Eduardo Bolsonaro (PL-SP) stood out by attempting to criminalize the PT and Lula in the context of the debate about the conduction of the Covid-19 pandemic during the Bolsonaro administration, defending it from accusations related to omissions in purchasing vaccines as well as disinformative content and scientific negationism by the former president.
In turn, Filipe Barros (PL-PR) stood out on June 30 by posting a video of Bolsonaro talking to the press after the trial at the Superior Electoral Court that made the former president ineligible. In this context, there is an idea that Bolsonaro and his allies were victims of political persecution by the legal system and by the current government. Bolsonaro’s posts focused on the January 8 attacks – an event he encouraged and for which he received a wrong punishment.

In the pro-government sector, Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR) stood out in isolation in the context of this analysis. Hoffmann’s publication agenda focused on publicizing positive measures and events of the Lula administration, with an average of 13 posts per day on Facebook only. Her general narrative was that Brazil is once again a good nation for Brazilians, and that the country now has the respect of foreign countries after Bolsonaro left and Lula became president. The announcement on May 16 of the reduction in the price of fuel and cooking gas in the Lula administration was Hoffmann’s most prominent post.

 

Figure 03 - Average engagement and posts per political party on Facebook

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Looking at these metrics under a different angle by mapping the performance of political parties on Facebook, there is a clear protagonism of the opposition block, with a secondary participation of the center. In this context, the government and its allies had around 81% less engagement when compared to the opposition.

When looking at this data in more detail, MDB, Novo, Avante, and the PL were the parties with the highest average engagement during the mapped period. This happened because of the protagonism of Federal Deputy Fábio Teruel (MDB-SP), whose strategy consisted of levering a large and consistent number of interactions through religious posts, mostly related to Christianity and containing biblical passages.

In turn, the other parties predominated in the context of a strongly polarized scenario: while Novo and the PL stood out with posts associated with Bolsonarism, spreading narratives against the government, the Supreme Court and the Press, Avante supported itself through publications made by Federal Deputy André Janones (Avante-MG), who focused on promoting a positive campaign for the Lula administration, highlighting proposals and policies such as Bolsa Família.

This polarized context also manifested itself in the way parties sought to dispute the narratives circulating on Facebook. These attempts to drive the debate become clear when observing that the PT and the PL are, by far, the parties with the largest number of publications on the platform – 61,796 and 40,005, respectively. However, despite having made the most posts, the PT had an average engagement level around 82% lower than that of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s party.

 

2) Major topics on Facebook

Another focus of this study were the topics mentioned by Congress representatives in the current legislation on their respective Facebook pages. To that end, the analysis performed a topic modeling technique in order to identify textual patterns through text mining. This step enabled an initial understanding of how some topics cluster around their co-occurrence, which was crucial to understanding the topics and meanings frequently mentioned by the members of the National Congress.

Figure 04 - Women’s rights
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The women’s rights agenda was central in the congressional debate on Facebook, as was the case in a previous study that analyzed, among other elements, the topics mentioned by elected representatives on Facebook during the 2022 campaign. Within this scope, opposing political sectors have disputed the topic: while the left, represented mostly by the PT, stands out with the highest volume of posts related to women’s rights, right-wing players, particularly within the PL and Republicanos, have reached a much more significant level of engagement.

It is also worth noting that, among the progressive sector, there is a majority of female representatives of the PT driving the topic, namely Gleisi Hoffmann, Reginete Bispo and Maria do Rosário. More than specific agendas such as policies and special protection, this section of the debate highlights an intersection that takes into account gender but also other variables such as race and sexuality. In turn, prominent conservative players such as Eduardo Bolsonaro (PL-SP), Damares Alves (Republicanos-DF) and Bia Kicis (PL-DF) give special attention to the participation of women on politics, focusing on the alleged case of gender-based political violence targeting Federal Deputy Júlia Zanatta (PL-SC) and on the performance of Michelle Bolsonaro at the head of PL Mulher.

Figure 05 - Censorship and freedom of speech
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Right-wing representatives dominated this topic, arguing that the left is in favor of censoring different ideas and against freedom of speech. Criticism of the Fake News Bill drove a large portion of these posts, since the opposition sees the bill as a mechanism for the government to implement an alleged form of informational censorship. There is a recurring idea that the truth will “free” citizens from the left, which promotes censorship and corruption. It is worth noting that the debate on corruption was a secondary topic in this discussion even though it stood out in isolation in the previous study.

January 8 appeared in this specific portion of the debate as a way for right-wing representatives to illustrate alleged attempts by the government to censor evidence of its direct involvement with the attacks. In the opposition, Gustavo Gayer (PL-GO), Bia Kicis (PL-DF) and Marcel van Hattem (NOVO-RS) stood out in the debate. On the government’s side, Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR) and Senator Humberto Costa (PT-PE) were the highlights, but with a significantly lower level of engagement than their counterparts in the opposition.

 

Figure 06 - Religion
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Religion, particularly Christianity, also appeared as a major topic driven by Congress representatives on Facebook. There were two main approaches to this topic: one limited to posting prayers and biblical passages, and another promoting a certain level of politicization of religion.

Federal Deputy Fábio Teruel (MDB-SP) was central in this context, standing out both in terms of volume of posts and in level of engagement. To illustrate this, he was responsible for 99 out of every 100 publications that stood out in terms of engagement, spreading biblical content in the form of various prayers. The deputies Padre João (PT-MG) and Diego Garcia (Republicanos-PR) were also very active in this topic, spreading similar publications to Teruel’s. However, even though these types of content with no explicit political association appear frequently, it is worth noting that the publication that stood out the most in terms of engagement made a move to use the Bible for political purposes. Deputy Sóstenes Cavalcante (PL-RJ) was the author of that post, mobilizing biblical precepts in order to criticize homosexuals.

Figure 07 - Economy
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Discussions related to the economy played an important role in boosting representatives on the government’s side, who saw higher levels of engagement than the right in this topic. Publications praising measures of the Lula administration were prominent, such as the adjustment of the minimum wage and the tax reform in particular, which these representatives see as an important legacy of the government. The reduction in fuel prices was also a highlight, reinforcing the positive discussion about the government. José Guimarães (PT-CE), André Janones (Avante-MG), Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR) and Glauber Braga (PSOL-RJ) obtained the most reach.

Although the opposition did not stand out in this topic, it demonstrated its position against the government’s economic measures emphatically. One of the topics mentioned the most frequently was President Lula’s alleged attack on Central Bank President Roberto Campos Neto as a way of signaling an alleged weakness of the government regarding the economy. The main idea in circulation was that the government is acting irresponsibly when it came to the country’s finances and performing unrestrained public spending in order to wrongly achieve higher popularity ratings. Marcel van Hattem (NOVO-RS), Dr. Frederico (PATRIOTA-MG) and Filipe Barros (PL-PR) stood out within this argumentative line.

 

Figure 08 - Israel-Hamas War
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The war between Israel and Hamas was a highly politicized topic within the congressional debate. Right-wing representatives mobilized the discussion on the conflict to attack the current government, while the left – which had almost no significance in this debate – pointed out a lack of commitment to human rights. Right-wing representatives were a major highlight and demonstrated their support for Israel emphatically, attempting to associate Lula and the left with Hamas, which is allegedly a “diplomatic shame” for the government. Federal Deputy Abilio Brunini (PL-MT) achieved a high level of engagement by publishing an alleged Bill equating support for Hamas with the promotion of Nazism and terrorism.

The federal deputies Carla Zambelli (PL-SP) and Clarissa Tércio (PP-PE), as well as Senator Magno Malta (PL-ES), obtained their highest levels of engagement in posts demanding justice for the Jews residing in Israel. In particular, Malta emphasized an alleged mismanagement of Lula regarding the conflict, claiming that the president has a disrespectful worldview towards the Jewish community. It is worth noting that left-wing representatives did not explore the topic very much, and when they did, they focused on the importance of understanding the situation from the Palestinians’ point of view.

Figure 09 - Health care
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Congress representatives approached the topic of health care through two major agendas: advocating for a salary floor for nurses and commenting on the health situation of representatives and other political players, such as President Lula and former President Bolsonaro. There was a notable attempt to humanize Lula and Bolsonaro as a way of bringing them closer to their respective political sectors. In general, health care was one of the few topics where the government and its allies predominated. Representatives allied with the government had a significant level of engagement in messages wishing health improvements for others and indicating their support for the National Congress Bill regarding the salary floor for nurses, described frequently as a victory of the Lula administration. A secondary highlight were messages supporting the Brazilian universal healthcare system (SUS). Ana Paula Lima (PT-SC) and Túlio Gadêlha (REDE-PE) stood out the most among government allies in this topic.

Carla Zambelli (PL-SP) focused on creating emotional appeal with the audience, which led to the post with the highest level of engagement in this topic, sending prayers to Bolsonaro after a bowel surgery. A surgery that Lula underwent on his hip was also a prominent subject, not only because of the good wishes he received from the governmental sector (such as Randolfe Rodrigues – REDE-AP), but also with informative publications made by the opposition (such as Filipe Barros – PL-PR). The publications also contained messages of appreciation for health professionals, with references to celebratory dates such as Doctor’s Day.

Figure 10 - Climate change
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

The floods in the South and Southeast regions drove the debate on climate change, which was more balanced between government and opposition representatives. The right focused on attacking the government, and did not show propositions or support towards the victims of climate events. Users criticized Lula’s absence and ridiculed the presence of Janja da Silva in a video that shows people booing the first lady and calling for Michelle Bolsonaro.

The argument raised by the opposition was that Lula allegedly has no popularity, interest or ability to deal with the situation, as pointed out by Bia Kicis (PL-DF) and Senator Flávio Bolsonaro (PL-RJ). Representatives on the government’s side attempted to emphasize the Federal Government’s measures to mitigate the consequences of the rains. Generic posts containing thoughts about the environment were also prominent among the government and its allies. In particular, representatives from São Paulo, such as Tabata Amaral (PSB-SP) and Luiza Erundina (PSOL-SP), stood out by discussing the state’s problems and demanding that Governor Tarcísio de Freitas take action regarding access to water and prevention of natural disasters.

Figure 11 - Drug decriminalization
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

This topic had a relatively balanced distribution in terms of number of posts across the political sectors. However, in terms of engagement, the opposition predominated by far in this debate. The general narrative was that the Executive and the Judiciary branches are allegedly overruling the Legislative branch in order to promote crime through support for drug decriminalization. The pages of right-wing representatives promoted the idea of carrying out a referendum as a way not to “submit” to the alleged authoritarianism of the institutions, especially regarding the Supreme Court.

There was a significant highlight of a so-called “drug support kit”, a name used in a high reach video made by Federal Deputy Marco Feliciano (PL-SP) in reference to a campaign to promote awareness regarding damage control in the context of drug use in the Olinda Carnival. In general, the posts showed a direct political dispute between the government and the opposition, which mobilized arguments of high moral and religious tone to criminalize ideas and initiatives associated with the debate about drug decriminalization.

Figure 12 - Technology
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Digital accessibility and innovations associated with artificial intelligence (AI) were key topics in the congressional debate on technology. Center representatives predominated widely in this debate, which, unlike other topics, did not show a direct political dispute between political sectors. Most of the posts referred to the announcement of initiatives and discussions regarding the potential implementation of technologies at a larger scale in the country, such as optic fiber, satellites and 4G coverage. Some of the posts sought to associate Congress representatives with innovation, technology access and modernity, and there was a wider association of their respective political sectors to that agenda.

On the government’s side, the expansion of internet access stood out in posts made by Lindbergh Farias (PT-RJ) and Rogério Correia (PT-MG). In the opposition, Senator Marcos Pontes (PL-SP) stood out by focusing on the same agenda. In the center, which dominated the mentions to the topic, Ismael Dos Santos (PSD-SC) and Dimas Fabiano (PP-MG) stood out by discussing artificial intelligence. Regarding AI in particular, some posts focused on presenting the concept in a didactic way, while others proposed deeper discussions about related challenges and advancements, such as the damage caused by algorithmic racism, the consequences of work automation in employability, and its potentially positive impact on health and education.

Figure 13 - Cycling activism
Period: February 1 to October 31, 2023

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV ECMI

Representatives in different political sectors (mostly in the center) drove the topic of cycling activism in order to debate strategies to optimize urban mobility in large cities. It is worth noting that members of the Congressional Front in Defense of Cyclists and the Bicycle Economy (Frente Parlamentar em Defesa do Ciclista e da Economia da Bicicleta) influenced the mobilization around this topic to a large extent, particularly Federal Deputy Juninho do Pneu (UNIÃO-RJ), one of the major names within the scope of this debate.

In general, the representatives presented cycling as a healthy lifestyle that could help improve traffic and public health issues. In this context, the publications contained images of Congress representatives involved in sporting activities in order to associate themselves with an idea of strength and health, as well as several posts related to events and celebrations such as World Bicycle Day. There were references to Bills seeking to expand infrastructure and access to bicycles, such as the mandatory installation of bicycle racks in public buildings as well as exemption from the tax on industrialized products and toll fees.

3. Conclusions

Based on the analysis of around 213 thousand posts published on Facebook by federal deputies and senators between February 1 and October 31, 2023, this study helped understand a few of the dynamics related to how Brazilian Congress representatives in the current legislation participate in the online environment.

The first finding was that many of the dynamics mapped in the national political scene also appear on Facebook, particularly the polarization. Within this scope, it became clear that Congress representatives with higher online reach in terms of posts and engagement are usually those who feed this polarized logic and represent practically antagonistic political sectors. That is the case of players such as Carla Zambelli (PL-SP), who has a high level of engagement, and Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR), who produces a considerable volume of posts.
However, there is one aspect that seems to be able to escape this logic, illustrated by the profile of Federal Deputy Fábio Teruel (MDB-SP), a representative with a significant lead in terms of engagement. Teruel was able to stand out by exploring religious content very frequently.

Through this strategy, the center deputy obtained great numbers in his publications without adhering to the polarization dynamics and negative campaigns adopted by some of the other deputies and senators. Even though his case is an exception to the trends mapped in this study, it could indicate how other communicative strategies can also find support and a good reception by the online audience.

There were also other agendas mapped in the congressional debate. These agendas are related not only to wider topics such as women’s rights and climate change, but also to topics prompted by specific episodes, such as the war between Israel and Hamas and discussions about censorship in the context of the Fake News Bill.
Among those topics, it is worth noting that women’s rights and religion are the only topics that also appeared in the 2022 electoral period, considering a previous study about the behavior of elected representatives while the race was still ongoing. On the other hand, topics that were relevant at that time, such as corruption, did not appear among the highlights this time.

In summary, this study helped understand how political events reverberate on social media, as well as the impact that actions by Congress representatives in the digital sphere contribute to the political debate more broadly.

4. Editorial Staff

Research Coordination
Marco Aurelio Ruediger
Amaro Grassi

Researchers
Renato Contente
Leticia Sabbatini
Laura Pereira
Lucas Roberto da Silva
Polyana Barboza
Thais Rabello
Mariana Carvalho

Technical Review
Renata Tomaz

Graphic Project
Daniel Almada
Luis Gomes

 

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