SÃO PAULO, Brazil — On June 13, members of “Brazil’s 300,” a militia of radical far-right supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, launched fireworks in the direction of the Supreme Federal Court building in Brasília, simulating a bombing. “Get ready, Supreme [Court] bandits … you are leading the country to communism,” one of the leaders, who broadcast the protest live, said. “It’s over, damn it!,” another protester said, echoing the words the president had used to condemn an investigation by the Supreme Court against some of his supporters, who are engaged in disinformation campaigns and threats against the justices.
Where did this hatred of Brazil’s highest court come from?
In the months leading up to the fireworks incident, thousands of social media accounts, many of them fakes linked to supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro or far-right bloggers, posted threats against the Supreme Court justices. They called for the court to be abolished, or for a return to a military dictatorship. One of the president’s followers even talked of killing and dismembering the justices and their families. It was only a matter of time before the animosity spilled into the street.
This toxic environment has been fomented by what Brazilians call the “office of hate,” an operation run by advisers to the president, who support a network of pro-Bolsonaro blogs and social media accounts that spread fake news and attack journalists, politicians, artists and media outlets that are critical of the president. The office of hate does not have an official title or budget — but its work is subsidized with taxpayer money. It’s unclear how many people work for this office, or who they are. In fact, Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies deny that it exists. But the seeds of hatred and division it is sowing threaten to undo our democracy.
The Bolsonaro administration is currently facing three investigations directly linked to this hate machine. One Supreme Court inquiry is investigating attacks on members of the court financed by business leaders and disseminated by the pro-Bolsonaro network, while another is examining the financing of demonstrations calling for the closing of Congress and the judiciary. Four inquiries in the Superior Electoral Court are looking into the use of mass-messaging disinformation and defamation campaigns through WhatsApp during the 2018 election campaign, which was allegedly funded by business leaders.
On July 8, Facebook removed dozens of accounts, some used by employees of Mr. Bolsonaro and his sons. Tércio Arnaud Tomaz, a special adviser to Mr. Bolsonaro, who is believed to run the office of hate, administered some of the accounts.
I am sadly all too familiar with the office of hate. For the past two years, I have been covering disinformation and politics. I also became one of its targets in 2018, when I exposed in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that business leaders had been paying for the dissemination of millions of fake messages via WhatsApp to influence the presidential election that year.
As a result, I have faced a violent onslaught of crude threats and personal attacks. Trolls and even politicians have shared memes where my face appears in pornographic montages in which I am referred to as a prostitute. People send me messages that say I should be raped. I am suing Mr. Bolsonaro, his son Eduardo, and a pro-Bolsonaro blogger for moral damages for repeatedly stating or implying that I offer sex in exchange for scoops.
I am not alone. Many respected female journalists in Brazil have also been the target of misogynistic attacks. The press, along with the courts and Congress, is one of the last barriers containing the president. But I’m not sure for how much longer we will be able to resist Mr. Bolsonaro and his followers. The increasingly aggressive rhetoric and actions on the part of the president, his children, and allies serve as a green light for pro-Bolsonaro militias to progress from insults to injury.
On May 25, journalists were subjected to a vicious torrent of abuse from his supporters at the presidential residence in Brasília. Footage taken that day shows reporters being called extortionists and crooks. One woman is seen shouting: “Scum! Trash! Rats! Bolsonaro until 2050! Rotten press! Communists!”
Journalists, of course, are not the only ones being targeted. Over the last year, the office of hate has pitted Brazilians against one another, and against those who have served as checks and balances against Mr. Bolsonaro’s authoritarian rise. It has eroded their trust in the institutions designed to protect the county’s democracy.
The group was behind a smear campaign that labeled Sergio Moro, the lead judge of Brazil’s landmark Car Wash corruption investigation and the former star justice minister, as a “traitor” and “communist.” Mr. Moro resigned in protest in April, and denounced the president’s meddling in a Federal Police investigation to shield his sons and allies from criminal investigations. Shortly after he quit, memes threatening Mr. Moro flooded social media from fake accounts.
With the spread of the coronavirus, fake news and bogus cures began to proliferate on social media, often via federal lawmakers with hundreds of thousands of followers. Mr. Bolsonaro has thwarted social distancing guidelines put in place by governors. Accounts linked to advisers like Mr. Arnaud Tomaz claimed that the reaction to Covid-19 was exaggerated and that hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug heavily promoted by Mr. Bolsonaro as a coronavirus cure, could kill the virus.
In April, the government created the “Scoreboard of Life,” on Facebook and Twitter, which logged only the number of patients who have recovered. Then in June, the Ministry of Health removed the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths since the pandemic’s onset. Instead, a chart showed only the cases and deaths reported in the previous 24 hours. The Supreme Court later ordered the government to stop concealing data.
But the coronavirus is not deterred by political agendas. The “little flu,” as Mr. Bolsonaro has referred to the virus that he and his wife contracted in July, has already killed more than 94,000 Brazilians — the second-highest death toll in the world. The president’s fake news campaign has sent thousands of people to an early grave.
Beyond smear and disinformation campaigns, the office of hate’s purpose is far more nefarious: to weaken Brazil’s democratic institutions. Investigations by the prosecutor general revealed that some pro-Bolsonaro legislators are spending cabinet funds on marketing agencies that use social media to promote protests against the Supreme Court and Congress, and in favor of military intervention in politics.
This incitement is intended to convince supporters that Supreme Court justices are dictators, and that the press and Congress are preventing the president from governing, and are plotting a coup. He may be laying the groundwork to justify a military intervention on his behalf. And in a young democracy like Brazil, institutions can be more fragile than they appear.
Though Mr. Bolsonaro was democratically elected, he has professed admiration for the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Long before he ran for president, he said a civil war would do the job that the military regime didn’t. He also said he would shut down Congress if he were president. During the 2018 presidential elections, his sons and followers printed T-shirts with the face of Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the dictatorship’s master torturer — a figure celebrated by the president.
Mr. Bolsonaro has tried to make good on his vision. In an effort to bypass Congress, he has signed a record number of executive orders and bills designed to do away with the independence of public universities, which he describes as dens of communism; restrict access to information, weaken unions and newspapers. He has threatened to disobey the judiciary’s rulings.
He has said that he wants to arm the entire population, so that people can defend themselves against the “dictatorship” of the Supreme Court and governors. “I want everybody to have weapons because an armed population will never be turned into slaves,” he said during a cabinet meeting in May. He later signed an executive order making it easier to import guns and increasing the amount of ammunition a person can buy in a year. In any functioning democracy, all this would amount to a call for insurrection.
The president and his cronies would like nothing more than to silence all of those who shine light on the darkest recesses of his government.
This incitement is intended to convince supporters that Supreme Court justices are dictators, and that the press and Congress are preventing the president from governing and plotting a coup. Attacks such as the one against the Supreme Court and the aggression against a photojournalist in a protest against Congress and in favor of military coup are a sign that the office of hate is somehow succeeding in its call to insurrection.
Last Wednesday, two men in a car outfitted with speakers showed up outside the home of Felipe Neto, an actor, writer and extremely popular YouTube star. They accused Mr. Neto of destroying the “most important institution of all, which is the family,” in an effort to intimidate the actor, writer and popular YouTuber. One of the men who threatened him had participated in the fireworks shooting at the Supreme Court in Brasilía carried out by Brazil’s 300. Days earlier, Mr. Neto called Mr. Bolsonaro “the worst pandemic president” in a video that ran in The New York Times Opinion section. The attack is yet another example of how the vitriol propagated by office of hate is increasingly extending beyond the internet.
If there is any hope for our young democracy, we must remain vigilant and continue to hold this government accountable. It’s not just lives of Brazilians that are at stake, but the very institutions — Congress, the judiciary, academia and the media — that for the time being have managed to forestall the rise of authoritarianism.
Patrícia Campos Mello (@camposmello) is a journalist at the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo and the author of the forthcoming “Máquina do ódio,” about disinformation campaigns and Bolsonaro. This article was translated by Erin Goodman from the Portuguese.
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