Will Whatsapp help bring about the return of “tropical fascism”?

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I recently went back to using Whatsapp, which like many people I find preferable to the puerility, seediness and unbounded fury inherent to Facebook. Plus Whatsapp is less vulnerable to the spread of black or grey propaganda and to the diffusion of fake news.

Or maybe I’m just not part of the right groups.

After all, while Facebook has introduced tools to report and remove bullshit news, such measures would not work on Whatsapp. It’s encrypted, for a start, so there is no way of flagging up dodgy material. It’s also more likely that participants in a Whatsapp group are acquainted with each other personally, so may be less prone to challenging one another’s opinions and risking the cohesion of the group.

Its relatively hidden nature makes Whatsapp particularly well-suited to political organisation among like-minded people. Not only is Brexit allegedly being coordinated via the app; according to a journalist who investigated it in some detail, the recent (and massive) Brazilian truckers’ strike was largely organised via Whatsapp. Its also very widely used by drug gangs to conduct and boast of their business dealings – between 2015 and 2016 judges blocked it three times in response to Facebook’s refusal to share information with state authorities. Its popularity (93% of mobile phone users are said to use it) that it may play a role in the upcoming presidential election, exerting an influence much harder to monitor and measure than that of Facebook or Twitter.

Following the successful intervention of fake newsters in the cases of Brexit, Trump and Grillo/Salvini in Italy, there is one candidate who will benefit enormously if similarly insidious tactics are used in Brazil: the far-right populist Jair Messias Bolsonaro. This ex-military man, supported by huge numbers of hyper-conservative evangelicals, is exploiting popular fury at corruption, unemployment and spiralling violent crime to prescribe extreme repression of all the usual targets: gays, feminists, supporters of affirmative action, liberals, the Left, “vagabundos” (criminals). He has repeatedly praised the military dictatorship which ended in 1985, and has said that “you can’t change anything in this country with voting and elections”, which is why he has repeatedly urged and practised the acts of terrorism in order to forward the interests of his “community” (the military).

Under relatively normal circumstances sch a character might remain marginal; with Brazil’s beloved former President Lula in prison on partially trumped-up charges, his successor impeached and what can euphemistically be described as a “technical” government in power (one presided over by a man whose own records of corruption and present conflicts of interest make Donald Trump seem like Caroline Lucas), Bolsonaro stands a very good chance of winning. He is currently second in the polls, which are led by…Lula, who can’t actually run for office, for fairly obvious reasons.

How does this relate to Whatsapp? Well, shortly before the US election of November 2016, a story went round social media claiming that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. By November 8, it had picked up 960,000 Facebook engagements. How does that relate to Brazil? Well, according to Lucinda Elliott of the Times, 8% of those intending to vote for Lula think that when his candidacy is (as it inevitably will be) annulled, he will give his endorsement to…Bolsonaro. It’s worth mentioning that an attempted terrorist attack on Lula supporters in Curitiba was carried out by someone shouting ‘Bolsonaro Presidente!’. The two men are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Lula was even jailed under the military regime that Bolsonaro seems to want to go back to.

So why would some wannabe Lula voters think that they were allies? Well, maybe they get their news via social media. Perhaps they ignore whatever journalists and media commentators have to say, and obtain information about current affairs from their friends on Whatsapp. It’s certainly not hard to imagine a faked video or statement circulating in the run-up to the vote in which Lula appears to lend his support to Bolsonaro.

Of course, it takes resources and expertise to conduct such misinformation campaigns. Elliott went to interview Bolsonaro’s son, and saw for herself that their campaign is currently being run on a shoestring. Until recently, at least, the Bolsonaros didn’t expect or even intend to win.

I’m not an expert on Brazilian politics. I’m no journalist and I don’t live there. Some of what I’m reporting here I’ve found online, some derives from a (fascinating) discussion this week at Canning House between Lucinda Elliott and the former FT Latin America bureau chief Richard Lapper, and what follows is what you might call informed conjecture.

In a range of countries around the world over the last few years the far-right has risen to (or close to) power. None of these cases has happened in isolation. For anyone who is still paying attention, the links between key elements such as Russia Today, Wikileaks, the Kremlin, the Mercers, and AggregateIQ, trace thick lines across the map of the world, from the UK to the US to Italy, France, and beyond. We now know for certain that one way in which the machinations of the global far-right alliance operate is via the enticement of hate-rich but cash-poor politicians such as Salvini and Le Pen into the megalomaniac pretensions of (most obviously) Vladimir Putin and Steve Bannon and his backers. Where the objective is not to actually seize power, it is to cause maximum disruption to the stable order of liberal democracy.

I wrote somewhere here last year that Trump is the sort of deranged demagogue which for many years the CIA imposed on Latin American countries, a central casting character from a magical realist novel, and thus his victory could be seen as a case of chickens coming home to roost. Those chickens have now let the coop and are flying round shitting all over the place and making enough of a racket to wake up the whole farm.  Bolsonaro has even been described as a “Tropical Trump”. If Trump’s backroom buddies around the world haven’t yet noticed what’s going on below the equator, it can only be a matter of time before they do so, and if they haven’t yet realised that Whatsapp, by far Brazilians’ favourite form of social media, represents a more powerful tool for election manipulation than Facebook and Twitter, then, well, I guess I’ve just pointed it out for them. Remember to give me appropriate credit at the end of October.

A couple of caveats are obviously necessary. Firstly, I’m not an expert in any meaningful sense. I’d be happy to be set right on any aspect of this. Secondly, there is also a chance that the Left (ideally, Marina Silva) could, Obama-style, use social media to its own advantage – Silva’s party is, after all, called ‘Rede’ (Network). I suspect, though, that the attachment that we progressives have to an increasingly forlorn institution formerly known as the truth might limit the effectiveness of her viral appeals.

As someone smart pointed out at last night’s event, who would want to be Brazilian President at this moment in time, with the economy sluggish as a midday cachaça drinker sleeping off a hangover, and staggeringly violent drug gangs taking over where the state has failed? It would appear to be a poisoned cálice. Maybe even only someone who wants power for its own sake, another Duterte, could relish the challenge ahead. hat said, Brazil’s situation is not all that different from Mexico’s, where at least the leading candidate for the Presidency is not, for once, and for all his faults, a violent reactionary fanatic. If AMLO should (and is allowed to) win in Mexico, that might change the international picture somewhat. He could conceivably turn out (very unexpectedly) to demonstrate some of Lula’s trademark political acumen, and there could be a limited repeat of the wave that bought Morales, Correa and Kirchner to power. None of those names exactly inspire confidence in 2018, but anyone remotely progressive would surely any one to a man who would make Donald Trump seem like Carmen Miranda. Personally, for what its worth, I think Marina Silva would make an ideal Brazilian President. Whether news of my endorsement will set Brazilian social networks alight remains to be seen. It’s worth remembering, to be fair, that my powers of political prognosis são uma bosta.

(P.S. I now see that someone else (a professional journalist working for an actual news organisation, no less) has had much the same idea. Maybe, er, read that instead.)

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