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


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.)

Three people I met in Brazil

Although Brazil is officially my favourite country in the world, I’ve only ever actually spent about three weeks there, which kinda puts me in the same category as that fabled tourist who ‘loves Brazil, but has only seen four square miles of it’. In my defence, I do have a Master’s degree in Brazilian and Portuguese Studies, which she almost certainly doesn’t, but then again, to be scrupulously fair, she does have the unfair advantage of never having existed, so she sort-of wins.

I existed in Brazil in November 2010, but apart from this, and this (and, er, this), I’ve never got round to writing about the country, partly because it’s such a vast, complex and dynamic place that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’m starting at a fairly random point by writing about three people I happened to meet on my holiday, all of whom just so happen to be men and all of whom taught me something remarkable that has stayed with me. That doesn’t mean that these are the only or most extraordinary people I met, but as they almost say in Portuguese, when it comes to both writing and scratching your arse, the difficult thing is getting started.

The first was a middle-aged German who had set down his roots there and who was therefore, annoyingly for me as a self-appointed expert on Brazil, a self-appointed expert on Brazil who actually lived in Brazil. I got talking to him in a tiny bar in the Pelourinho in Salvador de Bahia, where travellers stroll around to the sound of practising Oludum drummers and small children plaintively asking for milk powder which they can then sell to buy crack. In the course of our short conversation the German kept reaching out to touch my arm, just above the elbow, almost falling off his barstool to do so. It suddenly struck me that I’d witnessed Brazilians performing the same gesture thousands of times, to the point where, without realising it, I’d started doing it myself. The fact that he made the gesture in a way which drew attention to it, whereas when I did it I did so without even noticing, gave me some hope that I was managing to fit in (it is my lifelong ambition, along with fathering a child with a perfectly round head (tick!) and winning the Nobel Prize for Blogging, to be mistaken, just once, for a Brazilian). I found it curious that it had taken another foreigner to teach me something so basic. Touch is very important in Braxil – it can be intrusive or seductive, and sometimes both. It’s part of that willingness to connect which I personally find extremely endearing. I once read about a study of how many times friends make physical contact over a coffee in different countries. The statistics were remarkable: for Brazilians it was roughly 100, in the UK about ten, and in Japan (a culture ostensibly very different from Brazil, although I tend to think there are certain unacknowleged points of comparison) zero.

On a beach somewhere to the north of Salvador I met a guy who lived in a house made of plastic bottles. I don’t remember how we got got talking; maybe he asked me for the empty bottle I was holding so he could start to build an extension. He made a living-of-sorts selling handicraft to tourists, of whom on that undeveloped stretch of coast there were few, although there were a couple of fledgling resorts. (Also, in an encouraging sign of an upturn in economic activity, two suspected drug dealers had been shot dead the previous week just next to where the bus stopped on the coast road (or so I was told by the taxi driver who kindly advised me not to walk up to the village but to allow him to let me pay him to transport me instead)). My new friend had taken full advantage of the subsidies that various PT governments had provided. He was extremely enthusiastic about the changes that Lula had wrought in his life and vehemently insisted on taking me to see where he lived. Sadly, partly because it was getting dark and partly due to a near-death experience I’d had in Salvador a few days previously (nothing to do with the German), I declined, although we did drink a bottle of cachaça and I did pay him over the odds for a couple of carancas and various other nicknacks, so we both stumbled away materially replenished and very, very drunk.

In Rio, within a couple of hours of my arrival in the country, overlooking Lapa with a jetlag-relieving drink in my hand, I fell into conversation with the young guy manning the hostel bar. He must have noticed my Portuguese accent, one which to Brazilians sounds distinctly yokelish. Moving on from the icebreaking topic of how unwittingly hilarious Portuguese people are, we got onto the related subject of colonialism. It turned out that one of my favourite Brazilian films (‘Central do Brasil‘) had been the subject of a thesis he had written. It’s the story of an older woman (whose surname is Guimarães, which is significant, as that’s the city where Portugal was ‘born’) living in Rio, where she witnesses the accidental death of the mother of a young boy from the Northeast. She takes it upon herself to rescue the young boy from the dangers of the streets and takes him to track down his father up north. It’s therefore mostly a roadtrip and (my new best friend explained) an exploration of the tangled relationship between the spinsterish colonial power and the orphaned colony, and thus about identity, my very favourite subject. It was a joyous hour or so of intense conversation, a meeting of rapidly addled minds as the Brahma bottles clinked and the maconha fumes fumed. I didn’t know at that point that my nbf was to lose his job the very next day, sacked by the expat owner for spending too much time, er, fraternising with the clientele. At the time, gazing over the undulating contours of what was clearly the friendliest and most picturesque city on earth, I found myself thinking, this is going to be the greatest holiday of my life. It wasn’t, for various reasons, but still.