Perspectives September 22, 2022
Brazil’s Democracy Confronts the Looming Threat of Election Denial
The courts, social media platforms, and others must work together to combat disinformation promoted by the incumbent president.
Worrying global trends in electoral disinformation are converging in Brazil in the run-up to general elections on October 2. Incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party faces a challenge from former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the leftist Workers’ Party. Bolsonaro is harnessing social media to amplify his efforts to preemptively cast doubt on the integrity of the balloting, and suggesting that he might not accept unfavorable results. The tactic is much like one employed in 2016 and 2020 by former US president Donald Trump, whose example helped to popularize it among some world leaders.
This is not the first time Bolsonaro has resorted to election-denial techniques: federal police in Brazil determined that he had a “direct and relevant” role in spreading disinformation about electoral processes in the 2018 general elections, in which he ultimately won the presidency. But with polls indicating that he is more likely to face defeat this year, Bolsonaro is poised to test the resilience of Brazil’s democratic institutions in new and alarming ways.
Casting doubt on electronic voting
During this election season, Bolsonaro has put Brazil’s electronic voting machines in his crosshairs. The president has doggedly asserted, without evidence, that the system is unreliable and vulnerable to hacking, seeding the idea that fraud is all but inevitable in October.
Both Bolsonaro and military commanders, whose political support he has long cultivated, have called for parallel recounts and the use of printed ballots—an option that is not currently available, as Brazil’s direct-recording electronic voting machines lack paper backups for potential audits. However, research has shown that the electronic voting system, which is overseen by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), dramatically reduced election fraud after it was adopted in 1996.
While Bolsonaro and his allies recently reached a possible agreement with election officials that would allow for limited testing of voting machines before October 2, there is concern that, as in the United States, opening up machines to politically motivated audits on such short notice before an election could actually weaken election security.
The uncertain role of the military
Bolsonaro’s efforts to present the military as a neutral election arbiter has added to fears about a potential coup or political violence instigated by members of the security forces who back the incumbent. He has tripled the number of military personnel in civilian posts during his tenure, maintains close relationships with military officials because of his background as a paratrooper, and has spoken fondly of a return to Brazil’s military dictatorship, which endured for two decades until the restoration of democracy in the 1980s.
Some military commanders have sought to tamp down these concerns by affirming their commitment to an election in which every Brazilian can be sure that “their vote will count,” but the situation bears an eerie resemblance to Myanmar in 2020. In the run-up to those elections, military-aligned candidates and their supporters flooded social media with fear-mongering content about impending voter fraud, while the military simultaneously engaged in domestic disinformation operations that promoted the idea of the armed forces intervening to “protect” election integrity. Less than three months after the elections, those early indications of military overreach on social media culminated in the February 2021 coup against Myanmar’s elected civilian leaders.
Brazil’s democratic institutions are certainly more robust than those in Myanmar, and they have shown considerable resilience in the face of Bolsonaro’s attacks on the judiciary, opposition leaders, and the media. However, social media activity offers an important window into emerging political movements, and according to some civil society groups, the warning lights are flashing red in Brazil. A recent report from SumOfUS detailed how online platforms are being used to “push election lies and grow Brazil’s own ‘Stop the Steal’ Movement.”
The recent murder of a member of the Workers’ Party, coupled with physical attacks on Lula’s campaign events, suggests that inflammatory narratives about a “stolen” election could be used to mobilize Bolsonaro’s most fervent supporters for large-scale violence. Even if an organized military coup is avoided, a scenario in which Bolsonaro refuses to accept a defeat at the polls could be destabilizing, potentially prompting clashes between Bolsonaro supporters and security forces, armed violence by far-right Bolsonaro supporters within the security forces, and lasting social rifts regarding the legitimacy of the new government.
Coordinating responses to election denial
To prevent a breakdown in Brazil’s constitutional order, the country’s democratic institutions must work together to quickly debunk baseless claims of election fraud. The TSE has shown itself to be a promising leader in this effort. It has created a transparency committee to address charges of fraud in the electoral system, along with various civil society partnerships focused on mitigating the most pressing digital threats to election integrity, like disinformation and gender-based harassment of female candidates. The court has also established cooperation agreements between itself and a number of social media and messaging platforms to facilitate exchanges of reports on election-related disinformation. To ensure that these reports are actionable for all stakeholders, social media companies should heed calls from civil society to enlist more in-house experts who understand Brazil’s past military rule and the ways in which that history has shaped this year’s political polarization and extremism.
A preview of what an effective, coordinated response to Bolsonaro’s election denial might look like next month emerged in July. Following a gathering of more than 70 diplomats during which Bolsonaro repeated conspiracy theories about electronic voting machines, Brazilian public prosecutors, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the head of the TSE issued statements repudiating the president’s attempts to “destabilize and discredit the electoral process and its institutions.” Buttressing these statements from key democratic actors within Brazil was the US embassy’s assurance that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are “a model for the world.”
Democracy’s resilience depends on the ability of its various, decentralized components to rally to the defense of any single institution that comes under attack. To turn back an antidemocratic assault on Brazil’s elections, the judiciary, civil society, the media, and tech companies must commit to working together to ensure that Brazilian voters have access to reliable information and are protected from online harms—including disinformation, intimidation, and incitement—that could have grave consequences for their political rights and physical security.
Philip Friedrich is the senior research analyst for technology and elections at Freedom House.