If voters anywhere deserve to be distrustful of politicians, it is in Brazil. Two presidents have been impeached in recent years, a third is in prison for corruption, and more than 100 other politicians have been fingered for corruption. Crime is up. The economy is stagnant. And only 13 percent of voters are satisfied with their democracy.
Yet as Brazil prepares for a presidential election on Oct. 7, voters have decided to vent their frustrations – not so much in protests or large rallies as on social media. The use of social media has greatly altered the public discourse in an election seen as the most consequential since the first democratic election in 1989. Brazil has become a test case of what happens when citizens take charge of distributing information about candidates, replacing the role of journalists and political parties.
The South American giant is a world leader in social media use, according to a Euromonitor survey. While it is Facebook’s third biggest market, the most popular platform is WhatsApp, used by more than half of Brazil’s 210 million people. The encrypted messaging service is designed to reach people a user already knows. In Brazil, that means voters are relying on WhatsApp to connect with like-minded voters rather than persuade those they disagree with.
The result is the creation of political silos of intense anger. “Today, separating rationality from emotion is becoming almost impossible in Brazil,” writes Portuguese journalist Manuel Serrano. “Reason is increasingly unable to moderate political debate.”
Emotions are so high that an attacker tried to kill the leading candidate, Jair Bolsonaro of the far-right Social Liberal Party, on Sept. 6. From a hospital, Mr. Bolsonaro now campaigns over social media to his 8.5 million followers. But in a sign of how much fake news dominates social media, of the 1.7 million mentions on Twitter about the attack, more than 40 percent doubted that it happened.
The polarization of Brazil led a former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to make a public appeal for voters to use the campaign to build cohesion. He asked that people talk to all members of society, not only those they agree with. In addition, Brazilian news organizations as well as Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) have been working to counter fake news and hate speech that appears on social media.
With a long history of elected leaders lying to them, Brazilians might be excused for their internet eruption in this campaign. When political institutions fail voters and create distrust, the public sphere – which is now largely social media – can serve as a warning system. A society must then create new ways to mediate differences between citizens.
In a democracy, voters claim a right to choose their leaders. But they in turn must choose to use the contest of ideas and candidates by ensuring they have an overarching conception of the collective good. Traditional media and political parties may have failed Brazilians. But it is not clear social media is the best alternative to rescue a divided society.