The images of that fateful day, 8 January 2023, are still vivid in my mind. It was Sunday, I was at my house in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil, and I turned on the TV live as usual. The scenes I saw on CNN were ones of barbarism and destruction at the Three Powers Plaza, in Brasília. While watching the images of the police allowing a free passage to the horde of Jair Bolsonaro supporters, I felt fear and outrage. They destroyed all the buildings of the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court and the president’s house, the Planalto Palace.
According to Alexandre de Moraes, Minister of the Supreme Court Federal (STF), at least 140 of the 1,500 Bolsonaristas arrested for the attacks are accused of terrorist acts, criminal association and threat and incitement of violence. For Moraes, the crimes are “very serious” and were committed “evidently out of step with the guarantee of freedom of expression”, provided for in Article 5 of the Constitution.
But it is precisely freedom of expression that Bolsonaristas claim as an argument for – and justification of – their dissemination of hate speech and fake news, acts of racism or any type of violent action. And now, after the arrests of the perpetrators of the attacks in Brasília, they claim to be victims of “censorship”.
In the days leading up to the attacks, inflammatory rhetoric intensified on social media and included a series of thinly veiled metaphors. The main one was an invitation to “Selma’s Party”.
“Selma” is a play on the word selva, which means jungle in Portuguese, and is also used by the Brazilian military as a greeting or war cry. This vocabulary is the result of long exposure to a sea of fake news broadcast on Bolsonarist’s profiles and channels, especially on WhatsApp, Telegram, YouTube and Twitter, always in the name of “God, homeland and family” – that’s why they self-styled as “patriots”. The daily gaslighting is also promoted via TV channels, radio and Jair Bolsonaro himself, who has long been raising doubts about the electoral process and promoting the cult of violence and destruction of the “enemy”.
It became so serious that even I began to worry about what would happen on 31 October 2022, the day of the elections: social media posts said that anyone who voted for Lula would be identified by their hair or the colour of their clothes and would die. (Those who are Bolsonaristas usually wear the shirts of the Brazilian soccer team.)
The result of this social media intoxication is a subsect of people who are detached from reality: of these some think that the elections were rigged by the STF, that Lula is dead and the person in his place is a double, that Brazil will become a communist country. They even prayed collectively to be saved by extraterrestrials and, of course, said that the attacks in Brasília were carried out by “infiltrators of the left”. It’s a collective psychosis.
By inverting rational logic, the Bolsonarist discourse sounds like a delirium, and it is tempting to classify it in the realm of the ridiculous. But the concrete results of the denial of reality and the proclamation of hatred have now come to fruition.
Today, by saying they’ve been censored, the Bolsonarist camp is basically calling for revenge. They say they are victims of political persecution and that the Lula government and the STF are disrespecting the Constitution, which, by the way, had copies stolen and torn in the attacks. They’ve been led down an even darker path, saying that Brazil is living under a dictatorship. Censorship, whether real or imaginary, has become a useful tool for a Bolsonarist who wants to continue promoting chaos.
That said, the response to the attacks has been troubling. On the surface, it seems reasonable for the STF to repress disinformation and suspend profiles on social networks, even more so now, after the attacks. The justification for suspending Bolsonarist profiles has a legal basis in the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (Law 12,965/2014).
In addition to suspending profiles, the STF and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) have ordered the removal of posts (especially on Twitter) that attack democracy and spread conspiracy theories. Among them was the influencer “Monark” (1.4 million followers) and Nikolas Ferreira, a federal representative from the state of Minas Gerais, with two million followers, both of whom were suspended from Twitter for their perceived role in the coup.
There is also the “Democracy Package”, launched on 26 January. It is a series of measures prepared by the Minister of Justice, Flavio Dino, including the regulation of social networking platforms to curb “political crimes” and ban content judged undemocratic. It is not yet known what the criteria will be, but it is clearly a proposal to limit freedom of expression and the plurality of speech online. This set of measures will be sent to the National Congress for a vote.
On the surface reasonable yes, but in reality the “deplatforming” is dangerous because it already serves as a basis for the extreme right to say they are being persecuted and censored, and this gives even more fuel for a violent civil insurrection with military support. Also where will it end? Where is the line?
Of course it’s not easy to decide the limits of free expression at this moment. Still, have authorities got the balance right? Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, I’ve never come across such a fine line between liberty and punishment, as well as surveillance on social media – and I fear where it will lead.
On 12 December, 2022, the date of Lula’s inauguration as president-elect, hundreds of Bolsonaristas promoted a riot in Brasília, culminating in the invasion of the Federal Police building and burning of vehicles, including several buses, one of them hanging on the side of an overpass where traffic was flowing. Then, on 24 December 2022, a truck loaded with explosives was located near Brasília airport. The man behind the truck bomb confessed to being a Bolsonarist and said the act was planned by a group that had been camped in front of the Army General Headquarters for more than two months.
The military has been accused of assisting in the execution of plans by the far right. Even President Lula himself claimed that there was “evidence” of collusion between them and Bolsonaro’s supporters.
If you say this to a Bolsonarist though he will laugh in your face and say it’s all a lie from the media. He will believe that the people dressed in green and yellow in Brasilia, on 8 January 2023, were members of the left who wanted to carry out a “self-coup” days after being victorious in the elections in a pledge to crack down on Bolsonaro supporters.
This is the abyss Brazil has plunged into since Bolsonaro lost the election. On top of refusing to accept defeat, he has sought refuge in the United States since 29 December 2022, maintaining a strategic and deliberate silence for his supporters. Meanwhile, faced with immense challenges – maintaining democratic values while punishing those who broke the law – Lula finds himself walking in cotton shoes on glass. It’s hard work and the events of early January are not over yet.