After the 2022 Brazilian General Election and the violent riots led by supporters of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro on January 8th, 2023, the acute nature of Brazil’s political crisis highlights how tech and media power asymmetries have real consequences for the civic information space and on the most marginalized groups in Brazil.
To understand the information crisis in Brazil during the 2022 Elections and the subsequent violent attack against democracy on January 8th, it is necessary to unpack how the participatory networked propaganda ecosystem (where precarious work takes place), commercial media concentration, and AI obscured platform decisions – harm marginalized communities and suppress urgent matters from public debate —such as environmental racism, climate reparations, and territorial and indigenous rights.
Brazil’s long road to January 8th connects cross-cutting issues in media and technology
The current media and information crisis has its roots in the Brazilian dictatorship era, from 1964 to 1985. After Brazil’s transition from military rule to a democracy, institutions such as the media, government, and the judiciary system that were complicit in the dictatorship acted to suppress meaningful access to the truth of what happened in those years. Since the end of military dictatorship, access to information and the appropriate treatment of the violent legacy of military rule in mainstream media has often been undermined due to the connections still in place in Brazilian civic and democratic institutions. An important factor in maintaining a Brazilian information crisis is the lack of diverse perspectives reflected in Brazil’s current media landscape.
A digital public sphere that became a propaganda marketplace
The internet ecosystem has been turned into a propaganda marketplace by the major tech platforms, which incentivize a variety of behaviors by groups and individuals that degrade the public discourse. Building on the long tradition of internet and media studies, I call the process of turning all aspects of our social interactions into digitally traceable sources of profitability through the logistics of recursive computation, the algorithmization of life. Big tech platforms have spent a considerable amount of their resources creating the conditions for data extraction at social networking sites or in messaging apps to work like a marketplace. Subsequently, the digital public sphere is now a multi-platform marketplace building in its contingency of immersive and participatory design affordances.
The labor force behind the propaganda marketplace
Influencers, politicians and PR agencies realize this propaganda cycle depends on a robust engagement machine. That’s where the automation features of the platform infrastructure affordances come in. If someone wants popularity, influence, and media impact, “real” followers or engagement is not a problem when it’s possible to just buy these services from click farm providers. Overall, the exploitation of a precarious labor force to satisfy big tech machine learning systems harms marginalized communities and individuals in Brazil, and has contributed to the growth of the far-right propaganda and disinformation industry.
Ignoring the writing on the wall
Unfortunately, before the 2022 Brazilian election, tech companies ignored warnings discussed at successive meetings and in numerous public reports about the dangers of the massive distribution of false content on the electoral system and incitement of violence against political figures.
During and after the election, Brazil’s Digital Rights Coalition (CDR), a network of entities that brings together more than 50 academic and civil society organizations in defense of digital rights focusing on access, freedom of expression, protection of personal data and privacy online, prepared a technical document calling out the role of social media platforms to protect election integrity.
Global concerns and hyper-local pathways for media and tech reparations
In order to address the information crisis in Brazil and produce a healthy public discourse that can help heal its democracy, it is necessary to take a critical approach to media and tech, backed by research and with this social-historical context in mind. The pathways to building a stronger democracy are hyperlocal due to the shared need to reclaim history in the context of capitalism and racial subjugation. Leveraging community based journalism practices grounded in the many ways that regular people communicate and connect in Brazil must be addressed so we don’t reproduce the same colonial paradigms regionally.
The information crisis at the core of the Jan 8th events highlights the cumulative social relations deeply affected by algorithmic design that has increased polarization in Brazil. Far-rights groups were able to organize for months, recruit new members, and monetize content on social media platforms. Over all, from mass organizing to mass action, disinformation at scale on social media platforms was a tool weaponized by anti-democratic groups.
It is crucial to advance such initiatives if we are to address the true underlying problems in Brazil’s information ecosystem, and produce a more meaningful and inclusive public dialogue that advances democracy. In the wake of the January 8 attack, it is crucial that this work begins in earnest.
Regattieri would like to thank Becca Ricks (Mozilla Foundation), Koliwe Majama (Mozilla Foundation) and Rafael Grohmann (Toronto University) for their generous review of and contributions to this essay.