Online conspiracy theories and false claims about Brazil’s election results fueled riots in the nation’s capital last weekend as extremists followed the digital playbook used in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Researchers and advocates warned tech companies for months to take action to mitigate the likelihood of real-world harm in Brazil. Now they say mainstream giants’ efforts to curb the spread of content fueling the riots are too little, too late — a pattern they say is familiar for Silicon Valley.
And with social media companies lacking what they deem adequate safeguards, experts warn the uptick of political vitriol online threatens to give rise to similar events again in the future.
“When we are seeing this kind of content, this kind of attitude, being repeated over and over again. It’s extremely concerning,” said Flora Rebello Arduini, campaign director of the advocacy group Sum of Us.
“History is repeating itself, not in a positive way,” Arduini said.
On Sunday rioters supporting Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro, attacked Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace, fueled by false narratives that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stole the country’s October election.
Much like the attack on the U.S. Capitol two years ago, the Brazilian riots came after extremists boosted those narratives online, planting the seeds for calls for violence.
For the past year, Bolsonaro’s networks were active online reinforcing discourse against the legitimacy of electoral ballots and “questioning the electoral process in its whole,” said Nina Santos, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brazilian National Institute of Science & Technology for Digital Democracy. That laid the groundwork for a scenario like the violence that broke out over the weekend, she said, with rioters calling to “back the power of the country” that they believed was “stolen.”
In some cases, the voices boosting that discourse were actually the same ahead of the Brazilian and Jan. 6 riots. Meghan Conroy, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab who previously worked as an investigator with the House select committee probing the Jan. 6 attack, said some of the “key players who really spearheaded the narratives” around the Jan. 6 rioting “played a huge role in fomenting those same conditions with regard to the Brazilian election.” Right-wing influencers and media personalities, such as Steve Bannon and Alex Jones, used their online presences to boost false narratives about Brazil’s election.
The imagery coming out of the Brazilian riots on Sunday mirrors that seen on Jan. 6, “and that’s not accidental, they were inspired,” said Conroy.
Another similarity between the events, Conroy said, was a failure by social media companies to adequately address the rhetoric that fueled them. Although platforms took action ahead of and following the riots in Brazil, as they did in the weeks surrounding Jan. 6, “those steps fell short,” she said.
“[Former President Trump and Bolsonaro] have engendered undying loyalty and support enough so where their supporters will storm federal buildings, to disrupt the democratic processes or to protest democratic outcomes. But social media platforms, online forums and messaging apps house the disinformation and the means of coordination, and I don’t think that those riots would have happened without social media,” she added.
A group of more than 100 civil society organizations published an assessment in September of policies from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, as well as message-sharing platforms WhatsApp and Telegram, ahead of Brazil’s October election.
With the exception of Twitter, no platform had a policy in place to prevent calls to insurrection against the democratic order or interference in the peaceful transmission of power, according to the assessment.
Since the release of the report, Twitter switched ownership, went private and rolled back many of its prior content moderation policies after Elon Musk closed his $44 billion acquisition of the company. It is not clear what measures Twitter may have put in place ahead of or following the riots in Brazil under Musk’s control, and a spokesperson for Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Sum of Us research conducted between September and December also found platforms failed to mitigate the spread of false narratives online.
Content was able to spread widely online once the riots got underway last weekend as well. Police appeared to have suppressed much of the violence by Monday. But before they did so, extremist influencers’ livestreams of the attacks on government premises were posted on mainstream social media platforms, accumulating hundreds of thousands of views, according to a Sum of Us report published Wednesday.
Researchers analyzed five livestream broadcasts from far-right YouTubers taking part in the riots and mapped how the content was posted across other platforms, mainly Facebook.
One extremist influencer livestreamed the riots on YouTube nonstop for more than five hours. Their account was taken down on Monday, but before then garnered 670,000 views on the riot content in less than 24 hours, according to the report.
During the invasion, a Sum of Us researcher opened their personal YouTube page and was actively recommended that livestream on their home page without ever having searched for the influencer’s channel before, according to the report.
The same influencer’s Facebook page was still up as of Friday with similar video content.
The report also identifies content of the riots on TikTok, with at least one video there gaining up to 1.5 million views. The TikTok content identified was all removed this week. A spokesperson for TikTok declined to comment further on the report.
YouTube and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said in statements that the company is removing content that supports or praises the actions of the rioters invading government buildings.
YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi said the platform terminated more than 2,500 channels and removed over 10,000 videos related to the Brazil election, “the vast majority with fewer than 100 views.”
According to YouTube, the channels and videos mentioned in the Sum of Us study are under review, but the platform previously removed content from several of the channels mentioned.
A Meta spokesperson said the situation in Brazil is being designated a “violating event, which means we will remove content that supports or praises these actions.”
In addition to focusing on what content is removed online, platforms also need to focus on how fast they allow certain content to spread without vetting, said Damon McCoy, an associate professor of computer science at New York University and a member of the school’s Cybersecurity for Democracy research team.
“When they see something spreading quickly on their platform, they could slow down the spread of it until they have a human reviewer that can review it. I think that approach might be better than just simply focusing on taking down the content, because the reality is that the algorithmic feeds spread this content very quickly over the platform,” he said.
Experts who spoke to The Hill broadly pushed for platforms to employ content moderation teams that not only understand the languages posts are being made in, but also the cultural nuances that could allow posts to bypass policies with keywords used within context for native audiences.
Alex Krasodomski, a senior research associate in the Digital Society Initiative at Chatham House, said platforms can make policy changes that make them “more inhospitable” to certain groups, such as right-wing extremists, but there will always be alternative spaces where those groups can go.
Since Jan. 6, there’s been a rise in alternative platforms that brand themselves as having minimal content moderation rules to court right-wing users — including Trump’s own Truth Social. They lack the broad user base of mainstream sites, but allow false narratives to breed within right-wing echo chambers.
Another obstacle confronting efforts to stem the spread of these claims is the “hyper mainstream” nature of the movements behind them, Krasodomski said.
In dozens of countries, it is “either the person in charge” or “main opposition” who is spearheading these theories, he said — including Bolsonaro and Trump. The same trend is apparent across Europe.
“There are a lot of people out there questioning whether the democracy that they live in is working for them, and many of them have enormous amounts of political power. Trying to sort of sift that and say, ‘well, no, this bit’s misinformation’ is a really difficult thing to do. And I don’t envy the platforms tasked with trying to deal with that,” Krasodomski said.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva