Illustration Credit: Rayma Suprani
On September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, right-wing activists and self-proclaimed Bolsonaristas rallied in support of President Jair Bolsonaro, his beleaguered administration, and his escalating attacks on the country’s supreme court and other institutions. An estimated 150,000 of Bolsonaro’s most loyal supporters converged on the capital of Brasília, bearing banners—in English, French, and even German, apart from Portuguese—calling for the dissolution of the Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF), the reimposition of military rule, and the execution of Bolsonaro’s political enemies. In some parts of the city, demonstrations turned violent, with demonstrators clashing with police, overpowering barricades, and blocking access to government buildings.
With Bolsonaro and his government flailing as he approaches the final year of his mandate, hemorrhaging popular support amid economic tumult and scandal, critics from Brazil and beyond have argued that the September 7 protests bode poorly for the possibility of future anti-democratic power grabs—especially after Bolsonaro, speaking to a parallel rally of supporters in São Paulo, vowed that “only God will take [him] out of Brasília.” A statement issued by a group of more than 150 heads of state, ministers, and lawmakers from 26 nations—among them, former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, former President of Paraguay Fernando Lugo, former President of Ecuador Rafael Correa, former President of Colombia Ernesto Samper, and former Leader of the United Kingdom Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn—described the rallies as an “imminent threat to Brazil’s democratic institutions,” drawing parallels to the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Opposition figures have depicted the rallies as a sign of consummate desperation, with Bolsonaro—beset for months by sinking poll numbers and approval ratings—attempting to muster his loyal base in order to show that he is still capable of mobilizing a mass political movement. Recent polls show that Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva—who served as president from 2003 until 2010, and who is widely viewed as Bolsonaro’s likely 2022 opponent (although he has not yet officially declared his candidacy)—is leading Bolsonaro by nine percentage points, with the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT) icon appearing within striking distance of claiming a first-round victory.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has signed an executive intended to change the rules of digital content moderation in Brazil, a move that some argue could hinder efforts to combat disinformation and misinformation. Bolsonaro contends that the new legislation limiting the power of technology companies to remove content protects the freedom of speech and combats the “arbitrary removal” of social media accounts. Under the new order, social media platforms will have to provide “just cause and motivation” before removing content; however, it remains unclear as to how this decree will be enforced. Bolsonaro’s successful presidential campaign in 2018 was fueled in part by the spread of false, misleading, and doctored content, especially through the popular messaging platform WhatsApp. More recently, Bolsonaro and his allies have been accused of utilizing WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube to spread misinformation pertaining to Bolsonaro’s unevidenced claims of the Brazilian electoral system’s vulnerability to massive voter fraud, and promoting the dubious use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, and the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin as treatments and prophylactics for COVID-19. A Facebook spokesperson voiced concerns about the change in content moderation policies, calling it “a violation of constitutional rights,” while opposition forces are already preparing a legal case to challenge the presidential decree. Alessandro Molon, a Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB) lawmaker, current Leader of the Opposition in the lower Chamber of Deputies, and the former rapporteur to Brazil’s “Civil Rights Framework for the Internet” (Marca Civil da Internet, or MCI), has argued that the decree’s objective “is not to protect freedom of expression […] What [Bolsonaro] wants is to prevent the disinformation and hate speech that he and his supporters disseminate from continuing to be removed from the platforms.”