Brazil Riots Are Chilling Reminder of the Power of Toxic Disinformation

Silhouettes of Brazilians with the flag of Brazil

Propelled by lies that the recent presidential election had been stolen, a mob descended on Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. The rioters, supporters of ousted President Jair Bolsonaro, swept through the National Congress, the presidential palace and the Supreme Court.

The parallels to the Jan. 6 insurrection were impossible to ignore. In both the United States and in Brazil, almost exactly two years later, an out-of-power president sowed doubts about the legitimacy of the voting system and whipped supporters into a frenzy that exploded in violence.

Britta Crandall, visiting assistant professor of Latin American Studies, noted in an interview right before the 2022 election that such an uprising was not only possible, it was likely. 

Crandall shares her thoughts on Sunday’s riots:

What do you see when you watch the footage of the riots? 

The world saw the culmination of pressures that have been building since well before Brazil’s presidential election last fall: an outgoing president who refused to concede defeat, who didn’t attend his successor’s inauguration, and who continued to describe himself as the legitimate president on social media. 

He consistently sowed doubt in the validity of elections and after defeat, urged supporters “not to throw in the towel.” Protestors had been camping out in front of military bases for weeks now, urging the military to overturn [current president] Lula da Silva’s victory, and had been publicly planning the protests for weeks on social media. 

So Sunday’s violence sadly came as no shock. It has justifiably been compared to Jan. 6, but in ways it was more devastating, not least because protestors invaded not just Congress, but also the presidential palace and the Supreme Court. 

What does this mean for Lula’s administration?  

The violence in Brasilia reveals what Lula already knew–governing this deeply polarized country will be inordinately difficult. 

He can’t go back to the glory years of the early 2000s when Brazil experienced impressive economic growth combined with popular income distribution policies, contributing to his 80% popularity rating when he left office in 2011.  

Given the divisions in the country, the dominance of the right in Congress, and the enormous challenges facing Brazil, not least of which are education, environmental protection, inflation and debt, Lula’s term was never going to be as easy as his previous two.

Although it looked very similar to Jan. 6, how might the aftermath differ from that in the U.S?

One major difference is that the protests–which were more widespread and better coordinated than those on Jan. 6–are still ongoing. As of Monday afternoon, Bolsonaro supporters were trying to block both major highways as well as access to oil refineries in at least four Brazilian states.

The immediate response has also been more drastic. The Supreme Court ordered the pro-Bolsonaro governor of Brasilia to step down for 90 days. And Lula announced that security in Brazil’s Federal District would be controlled by the central government until Jan. 31. 

What does this portend for other democracies around the world? 

It’s a chilling reminder of the toxic effect of online disinformation, and the threat that poses to democracies worldwide. Brazil is just one more example of social media-fueled violence and extremism.