The role of social media platforms and messaging apps in Sunday’s political violence in Brasília is under the spotlight after experts highlighted their use by Jair Bolsonaro supporters to question the presidential election result and organise the protests.
Facebook and Instagram’s owner, Meta, has said it will take down content that praises the storming of government buildings in Brazil’s capital, amid claims that tech firms had not done enough to head off the attacks or quell disinformation.
Nina Santos, a postdoctoral fellow at Brazil’s National Institute of Science and Technology in Digital Democracy, said the insurrection by radical Bolsonaristas was organised first on private messaging networks, such as Meta-owned WhatsApp and Telegram, before moving to public platforms for more visibility.
“There are strategies for this movement to be visible to those who are interested in it, but for it to remain under the radar of general monitoring efforts,” said Santos, citing the use of the expression “Festa da Selma” as a code to mobilise protesters without raising suspicions.
Meta is monitoring the use of Festa da Selma, which has appeared online as a deliberate alteration of the word “selva”, which means “war cry”, while “festa” means party. Protesters had been encouraged online to attend a “Festa da Selma” in Brazil’s capital.
“These [social media] platforms argued that they had emergency protocols to put in place in cases like what happened [on Sunday], but what we observed was that either [these protocols] don’t exist, or they weren’t put into use. Because there were videos, live transmissions with thousands of people watching, videos calling on people to take to the streets, which remained online for more than five hours,” said Santos.
Meta said it had flagged Brazil as a “temporary high-risk location” before the presidential election, in which Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva unseated the far-right incumbent, Bolsonaro, and had been removing content advocating invading congress and the presidential palace.
“We’re also designating this as a violating event, which means we will remove content that supports or praises these actions. We’re actively following the situation and will continue removing content that violates our policies,” said a Meta spokesperson.
Nevertheless, another Brazilian social media expert said platforms had contributed to the spread of attempts to discredit Lula’s victory. “Social media played a fundamental role in implementing this narrative [of electoral fraud], convincing people, keeping them mobilised, and also as a way of organising this entire [Bolsonarista] movement,” said Rose Marie Santini, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and director of its NetLab social media research centre.
A spokesperson for WhatsApp said: “We’re monitoring the developments and at the disposal to cooperate with local authorities.” WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted, which means they cannot be intercepted and read by anyone apart from the sender and receiver, including by the messaging service itself. TikTok and Twitter have also been approached for comment.
The upheaval at Twitter after Elon Musk’s acquisition of the site has left it severely understaffed in a number of areas, including moderation. In November, it was reported that the company had laid off all of its staff in Brazil, where it is used by about half of all adults. After that month’s election, as Bolsonaro supporters began to follow the playbook laid out by Donald Trump in 2020 and publicly questioned the election results, Brazilian civil society groups found there was no one at Twitter to contact, according to a report in Ars Technica.
The social network has also laid off most of its communications staffers, adopting the public relations strategy of Musk’s car company, Tesla, and channelling all statements through Musk’s own Twitter account. A Twitter message sent to the chief executive has not been acknowledged. In December, Musk himself lent credence to conspiracy theories from Bolsonaro supporters, tweeting: “I’ve seen a lot of concerning tweets about the recent Brazil election. If those tweets are accurate, it’s possible that Twitter personnel gave preference to leftwing candidates.”
“Twitter may have people on the Brazil team that are strongly politically biased,” he added a few weeks later.
Social media’s role in violent political protests has been under increased scrutiny since the US Capitol riot on 6 January 2021, which led to Trump’s accounts being banned on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and the suspension of his YouTube channel. Meta banned Trump for two years after ruling that his posts in the run-up to the violence in Washington represented “a severe violation of our rules”. The company is set to rule this month on whether to reinstate him.