Millennial authoritarianism rises in Brazil as Bolsonaro takes on TikTok

On June 19, the day Brazil reached 500,000 official Covid deaths, President Jair Bolsonaro posted a TikTok video of him riding a horse and waving to a crowd to Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

There was barely a mask in sight.

Bolsonaro’s TikTok audience is exploding. His subscribers on the youth-dominated site have grown to more than 340,000 at a rate of nearly 50% in the past month alone. Bolsonaro is trying to make authoritarianism cool. In his TikTok profile created last June, the far-right populist president posts videos where he goes on a diplomatic mission, visits his mother, plays with his staff and engages in the traditional politics of hugging children and give long motivational speeches.

Bolsonaro is nicknamed the “Tropical Trump”. Along with similar governance styles, the two leaders rose to power by attacking the press as fake news and Big Tech for persecuting them. While Trump was in power, Bolsonaro made no secret of his admiration and turned to the American for instructions. Since Trump’s failure to win re-election, however, Bolsonaro has gone looking for role models.

He found what he was looking for in the young men’s aisle.

Ahead of the October election, Bolsonaro is adjusting his strategy to emulate the social media tactics of El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, who calls himself “the coolest dictator in the world”. Salvadoran scholar Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez coined the term “millennial authoritarianism” to explain the rise to power of 40-year-old Bukele.

Bolsonaro is 66 years old. Yet the term applies to him too, argues Vitor Machado, a political researcher at the Federal University of Paraná in southern Brazil. Millennial authoritarianism is a political strategy, Machado says, that encompasses authoritarian behavior, populist appeals and a modern, youthful personal brand built primarily through social media. Bolsonaro has associated his online identity with his millennial sons — who are politicians themselves — while honing his social media narrative to resonate with millennials.

Speaking the same language as young people has become a key tactic for many Latin American leaders, regardless of their ideological leanings – from leftists such as Chile’s newly elected Gabriel Boric, to authoritarians such as Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras.

For Brazil, where Bolsonaro is widely seen by political scientists as a threat to the future of democracy, the president’s ability to manipulate youth sentiment with his new social media trend has dramatically changed the electoral calculus.

“I only see three options: jail, death or victory,” Bolsonaro said when asked about the upcoming elections at a meeting of religious leaders last September. More than once, the president has threatened a military coup if he loses his mandate. Although after recent clashes with the Supreme Court – which is currently reviewing five criminal investigations against the president – he played down his threat. “Who hasn’t told a little lie to their girlfriend? If you didn’t, the evening wouldn’t end well,’ he said to laughter from an audience of allies.

The Bolsonaro family on TikTok

When searching for “Bolsonaro” on TikTok, dozens of related hashtags came up, including “bolsonaro2022” and its less popular counterpart “bolsonarocorrupt”. The total posts tagged “Bolsonaro” have, collectively, over five billion views. And, although TikTok has a delicate relationship with political content due to its moderation guidelines, Bolsonaro does not appear to be dividing opinions.

The platform seems to be on its side: the first 15 hashtags that appear are either positive or neutral.

“Populist discourse is easy to understand and offers simple solutions,” says Veridiana Cordeiro, one of the leading researchers in digital sociology and artificial intelligence at the University of São Paulo. According to Cordeiro, millennials seek unconventional forms of political and civic engagement, and being active on social media is one of them. “Flashy and performative posts are what lead to membership on social networks. Bolsonaro has managed to gain popularity with this type of political strategy”.

Bolsonaro only follows four people on TikTok: Senator Flávio Bolsonaro who joined the platform last May and is known in Brazil as “son 01”; councilman Carlos Bolsonaro who joined last October and is known as “son 02”; a Wolverine cosplay; and a Brazilian magician.

Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, “son 03”, does not have a TikTok profile and has even advocated for the app to be banned in Brazil.

Meanwhile, the president is not following the 23-year-old “son 04”. It’s confusing because Jair Renan was the first in his family to create a TikTok account, last March, and has the highest number of followers: almost 430,000. In his posts, he is an ardent supporter of politics. from his father.

In a video, he makes fun of Chinese products and criticizes their quality. In another, he appears in a shooting range, playing with guns of different models.

“Not only Jair Renan, but the whole family fuels millennial authoritarianism,” explains Machado. Jair Renan’s half-brothers, Flávio and Carlos, also have their share of popular posts. Flávio regularly shows videos of Bolsonaro engaging in “cool activities” like driving a federal police sports car and playing football with Arab sheiks.

Brazil has 160 million social media users, more than any non-Asian country except the United States. Brazilians also score high in terms of time spent on social media, reaching almost 4 hours a day, behind the Philippines and Colombia, according to We Are Social.

The time Brazilians spend on social media has helped Bolsonaro in the past. In 2018, the year he won the election, the Supreme Electoral Court granted him just 48 seconds a week of unpaid campaign ads on public radio and television. Bolsonaro was affiliated with the Social Liberal Party and, due to the party’s low representation rates, was given less exposure time than his main opponents – leftist Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party and centrist Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party.

Following these disadvantages on broadcast media, Bolsonaro ran his presidential campaign on social media and won. He now has social media accounts in conservative social networks such as Gettr and Parler. In fact, he is the only active global leader on both outlier platforms.

These apps have grown rapidly in Brazil promising a hands-off approach to censorship and the spread of misinformation. According to data company Sensor Tower, downloads of Gettr and Parler in Brazil are the second highest of any country, just behind the United States.

Yet they are tiny compared to the number of Brazilians using Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok and other major apps in Brazil. TikTok alone has almost 5 million users. Millennial authoritarianism has therefore become a crucial element of his candidacy for re-election.

This puts Bolsonaro in a sort of vise, says Issaaf Karhawi, a researcher at the University of São Paulo who specializes in social media. Although hostile to the biggest social media platforms, he depends on them to mainstream his online engagement. Karhawi says Bolsonaro and his family have built a social media juggernaut around them – a community that started with 8 million followers and now, four years later, has grown to more than 42 million, almost twice as many. more than his top five potential opponents in the next election.

Bolsonaro’s political brand comes at an opportune time to capture the vote of young Brazilians. Research suggests millennials are disillusioned with liberal democracy and increasingly open to undemocratic forms of government. “Unlike their parents who experienced an authoritarian regime, millennials grew up in a democratic government and find themselves politically disillusioned and disengaged,” says Cordeiro, a digital sociology expert at the University of São Paulo, who affirms the lack of a living memory of the army. the dictatorship is decisive in Brazil.

Bolsonaro uses this “hazy memory” to promote national-first, socially conservative and ethnically majority policies and messages and is able to leverage the divide common to social media and populist politics. “If we continue to observe the prevalence of polarized attitudes among millennials, we may increasingly have fertile ground for populist politics,” Cordeiro said.

Fake news as a strategy

Discrediting legitimate media reports as “fake news” has been a central part of the Bolsonaro administration. The president frequently encourages his followers to follow him on his social media so he can circumvent the press, control his image and shape the political narrative around him while disavowing democratic institutions.

He is also accused of spreading disinformation and misinformation. A federal police case examines the so-called “Office of Hate”: an online pro-Bolsonaro apparatus believed to be run by Bolsonaro’s sons and a group of young supporters bent on attacking government opponents and journalists.

In congress, lawmakers have tried to find solutions, introducing at least 45 bills aimed at curbing the spread of fake news. The proposed measures are diverse. Some would allow users who share fake news to be prosecuted as criminals; and some pressure tech platforms to ban Bolsonaro, his family and supporters – like what happened with Trump in early 2021.

Aware of the possibility of losing his profiles on major social media channels, Bolsonaro is taking his own countermeasures. In September 2021, he signed an executive order prohibiting social media platforms from banning users or removing their content without a court order. It was the first time that social media companies had been prevented by a national government from removing user content from their own platforms.

The executive order was ruled unconstitutional days later, but it set Bolsonaro on the path to using every tool and maneuver at his disposal to protect himself and his allies on social media.

The researcher also says that while Bolsonaro has had a good run on social media, his strategy is dangerous. “When we see a president communicate almost exclusively on social networks, we gradually observe a disavowal of democratic institutions, more precisely of the media, both traditional media and institutional or governmental media”, explains Karhawi. “There is no individual capable of embodying politics, the media and the truth.” – Rappler.com

Fernanda Seavon is a Brazilian journalist and photographer who reports on the intersection of culture, social issues and technology.

This article was republished from Coda Story with permission.

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