On the eve of a new government in Brazil, Bolsonaro criticizes the press and journalists are targeted on social networks

Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro and some of his allies do not appear to have toned down statements against critical journalism since the election in late October.

In just the last ten days on Twitter, Bolsonaro has published or re-Tweeted ten posts with criticisms or detrimental statements about the traditional press. His son, Carlos Bolsonaro, a councilor in Rio de Janeiro and one of the main names among the allies of the president-elect, published or re-Tweeted 26 posts with similar content in the same period.

Some examples are statements by the son that part of the media is "rotten" and "cancer," while the father said that "most of the press ignores" the stabbing he suffered during the election campaign, and called repercussions in the press from declarations made by his allies “deliberate daily skirmishes.”

Two weeks before the inauguration of the new government, Bolsonaro also reverberated an attempt to delegitimize the traditional press through a scam targeting two Folha de S. Paulo reporters.

Journalist Patrícia Campos Mello has been the target of verbal assaults on social networks and has even received death threats for the October publication of a report on how companies are allegedly buying bursts of WhatsApp messages in favor of the president-elect, a violation of Brazilian electoral law .

Last Saturday (Dec.14), two months after the publication that put her on the radar of Bolsonaro supporters who attacked journalists on networks, Campos Mello began receiving messages from friends and acquaintances about two rumors about her that were circulating on social networks. The first said that she had been convicted by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to pay compensation to Bolsonaro for the October report and the second claimed that she had received a Folha award as "Keeper of the Truth."

The two lies started from two Twitter profiles that are said to be “humorous” and emulate the official profiles of the STF in the first case, and Mônica Bergamo, also a journalist and reporter for Folha, in the second.

The tweet about the false conviction was published on the night of the 13th and re-Tweeted 855 times so far, but also circulated as a meme on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, which leads Campos Mello to believe that there are thousands of shares . "'Ah, but it was a satire,' they say. But people thought it was true and they were cursing me: 'You're going to have to pay, you b****, 'you pay, you sh**** petista (Workers’ Party follower),'" she told the Knight Center.

The second lie, published on the morning of the 14th, seems to be inspired by the fact that Campos Mello was quoted by Time in the magazine's report on the tribute to journalists in its special edition that chooses the "Person of the Year" published last week. The journalists were chosen by the magazine, which described them as "Guardians of the Truth".

Campos Mello says online abuse had been on the decline since October, when a death threat targeting her and her six-year-old son led Folha to hire a bodyguard to accompany her. But Time's tribute, echoed by colleagues and admirers on social networks, and the two lies that began to circulate last weekend breathed new life into the reporter’s detractors on social networks.

One of the rumors also served as a campaign of discrediting the traditional press. Some journalists shared the tweet about the non-existent award congratulating Campos Mello, not realizing that it was a false profile of Mônica Bergamo - the picture was the same as the original profile and the name, "Mônica Bengamo," very similar to the name of Folha's columnist. Images of the tweets of journalists who fell for the “prank” were shared by several profiles, including that of the president-elect and that of his son Carlos.

"This soon became a 'look how the press believes in anything' post, and Bolsonaro himself re-Tweeted it. It is something that has a method, although it seems random," Campos Mello said.

For her, this new offensive is linked to the publication on the 13th of a report signed by her and her colleague Arturo Rodrigues, on the presence of bots and false profiles on Twitter dedicated to making posts of support for the president-elect. "It had been a long time since anything had happened. Suddenly, the day we do the story, false news comes up," the journalist said.

Campos Mello laments that this is "the new normal" for journalists on social networks. "If there are new threats I'll report them, but for now they're just calling me son of a b**** and telling me to f*** myself. It's sad, but I think this is the new normal. It is very horrible because it is a clear attempt at intimidation: you write a story and half an hour later the guys make up a lie and start bombing it. That's scary."

The account that propagated the lie about the false prize and that emulated the profile of the journalist Mônica Bergamo was suspended by Twitter, but there is already a new profile active in the same way on the social network. Campos Mello also states that she has already found and denounced two fake profiles imitating hers, which were removed. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," the reporter said. The account that emulates the official profile of the STF continues to be on the platform.

Twitter's communications adviser told the Knight Center that any user can report profiles and Tweets for violating the rules of the platform. These cases are analyzed and are subject "to the application of the appropriate measures," the company said.

Policy and intermediation

Researcher Esther Solano, a social scientist and professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) has studied Bolsonaro's electorate in the last year. "One characteristic of Bolsonaro voters is that they have enormous distrust of the big press," Solano told the Knight Center. "They consider that it is politicized, partisan and that it is persecuting Bolsonaro, because they do not want him [as president]."

For the researcher, the attacks on the press carried out by the president-elect and politicians in his orbit are an attempt to "potentialize mistrust [of his supporters] as a strategy to do politics.”

Such a strategy is "a photocopy" of what Donald Trump, the president of the United States, has done since 2016, the researcher recalled. "[Bolsonaro and sons] are copying a strategy of attack and demonization of the big press, so that people do not trust the information" that comes from traditional media, and of using social networks, especially Twitter, to communicate directly with their supporters.

In his address to the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) on Dec. 10, Bolsonaro stated that "popular power no longer requires intermediation: the new technologies have allowed a direct relationship between the voter and his representatives." This phrase caught the attention of journalist and researcher Eugênio Bucci, a professor at the University of São Paulo (USP).

This statement, along with Bolsonaro's criticisms of the traditional press, "are signs that he will want to surpass the role of the press and other institutions that mediate" between citizens and public authorities, Bucci told the Knight Center.

However, this "direct relationship" between rulers and the governed invoked by Bolsonaro is not as innovative as he tries to make it seem: Napoleon Bonaparte already set that tone as the emperor of France in the 19th century, notes the professor. "This has nothing to do with technology, it has to do with politics," he said.

"From here comes the expression 'Bonapartism' as a form of authoritarianism that is characterized precisely by surpassing the mediation of the institutions of a more or less democratic State," the professor explained. "Technology is a tool, a facilitator of communication, but it can both serve to improve mediation and to surpass instances of dialogue, criticism, questioning, and especially contestation."

Wanting to use Twitter to communicate with your supporters is not a problem, Bucci says. But the assertion that intermediation is no longer necessary "can also be read, considering the secondary signs, as a certain predisposition not to respond to questions."

He notes that "politics is mediation and intermediation." "Democracy is the result of dialogue, negotiations, compositions, and rules to deal with differences. In such a way that if there is no mediation, politics is not possible, let alone democracy. "

In this context, critical and independent journalism has a crucial role to fulfill.

"The work of journalists must now pay attention to this demand that the situation presents," Bucci said. "They will be working to oversee the Executive Branch as it has always happened, as well as the other Powers, but in a situation where this is an even more dramatic need. Awareness of this place can greatly help the work of the press, and the press in this context needs to seek all forms of compromise with society."