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Politics on social media may be exciting and even fun. But is it good for democracy?

Jair Bolsonaro’s sweeping victory in the 2018 Brazilian elections took many people by surprise, within and outside Brazil. Yet from another angle, this success is just another chapter in a wider global story of radical right-wing populists rising to power over the past decade or so. Indeed, parallels between Bolsonaro’s political style and that of other leaders such as Donald Trump or Narendra Modi are striking, suggesting that their electoral efficacy may have stemmed, at least in part, from similar media infrastructures. Many scholars in anthropology and allied disciplines, myself included, have been following one clue in this respect: the increasing digitalization of electoral campaigns and of voter choice and behavior.

A long-time member of Congress from Rio de Janeiro who gained media visibility in free-to-air TV shows and on the internet by “speaking his mind” against political correctness and “breaking taboos” concerning military rule in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro ran virtually his entire 2018 presidential campaign on digital media. On Facebook, his personal page had more engagement than any professional media outlet. Bolsonaro, his family (three of his sons are also politicians), and others on the rising “New Right” became highly popular internet celebrities, boosted by supposedly spontaneous profiles and pages—some of which were recently removed by Facebook and Twitter—that helped spread the candidate’s word to virtually all segments of the Brazilian population. These profiles and pages did not deploy conventional political language, but rather the straightforward, fun, sometimes outrageous, and always charismatic language of internet and entertainment cultures. On the messaging app WhatsApp, official and unofficial pro-Bolsonaro content spread like wildfire, from large public groups of up to 256 users to people’s private groups and personal chats.

Credit: Emily Thiessen
Illustration of people looking at their phones.

As the formal round of televised debates began, Jair Bolsonaro’s performance was ambivalent. Not as resourceful and professional as most of his adversaries, he claimed to be guided by three simple principles, which cameras captured written down on the palm of his hand: God, family, nation. Bolsonaro only attended the first such debates, however. In early September, one month from the first round of the elections, he suffered a knife attack during a street rally that kept him off the campaign trail for weeks. Yet it was precisely at this moment that his voter intention figures took off. How to make sense of this apparent paradox?

Bolsonaro’s bid worked not just due to a bold, ingenious digital communication strategy, but because the environment in which elections played out had changed. The 2018 elections took place in the aftermath of five years of deep political and economic instability in Brazil, fueled by massive antiestablishment protests in 2013 (see Dent and Pinheiro-Machado 2013) and one presidential impeachment in 2016 under corruption charges (see Ansell 2018). But something else happened during this period: the massification of smartphones and along with them the zero-ratings apps Facebook and WhatsApp. As one Facebook user put it bluntly as the prospect of Bolsonaro’s victory became unavoidable: what the legacy media and other political forces failed to understand was that for many Brazilians at that point WhatsApp was the internet. And this terrain had been virtually taken over by Bolsonaro.

The details of Bolsonaro’s victory unveil some of the deeper challenges that the mediatization of electoral communication on social media and associated voter choice and behavior pose to liberal democracies’ traditional model of political representation. In particular, it foregrounds the role of what scholars of new media have been calling context collapse: how “contextual porousness is exacerbated by the affordances of social media and the dynamics of networked publics” (Davis and Jungerson 2014, 479). While some convincingly argue that the colonization of all social spheres by neoliberal economic rationality sowed the seeds for the rise of illiberal politics in the West and elsewhere (see for example, Brown 2019), others foreground how digitalization furthered this process by collapsing key differentiations that sustained liberal democracy in the past: between public and private spheres; representative and represented; person and office; authenticity and fabrication; spontaneity and control; human and nonhuman agency; and between the spheres of politics, religion, science, economy, entertainment, kinship, and so forth (Chun 2016; Mirowski 2019).

Bolsonaro’s campaign claimed its impressive efficacy for being freely conducted by common citizens in street rallies and especially on online platforms that were popular at the time, including Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. Ongoing electoral and criminal investigations in Brazil are showing that such efforts may have been boosted by an invisible influence operation led by digital communication experts in what the press has been calling a “hate cabinet.” The jury is still out as to who led and paid for such an operation, but both quantitative and qualitative evidence assembled thus far suggests that Bolsonaro’s social media campaign was not entirely bottom-up and organic (see Tardáguila, Benevenuto, and Ortellado 2018).

Politics and entertainment, fact and fiction, collapsed into a campaign where voters were called on by their peers to join in a life-and-death struggle to protect the country from a common enemy or to help Bolsonaro win what felt like a highly competitive FIFA World Cup final.

Analyses of metadata from pro-Bolsonaro public groups on WhatsApp conducted by multiple Brazilian research teams disclosed the operation of a multicentered, segmented network set up on the app in order to bulk-message unauthored and unreferenced memes, video, audio, long and short texts, and links to fishy “alternative media” sites paid for by interest-based ads (Machado 2018). Yet the architecture of such digital environments often made it difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate between authentic and automated behavior, spontaneity and manipulation. On Facebook and Twitter, bots spoke and behaved just like Bolsonaro’s followers, and vice-versa. On WhatsApp, context collapse between public and private, once pillars of the liberal public sphere, was especially disruptive. Users received a flood of supposedly spontaneous political memes, audio messages, and videos featuring ordinary folks from peers and private groups of family, friends, neighbors, and other personal relations. This was before the app started to flag “forwarded” messages, so it was often impossible to discern between original and shared content. Cryptography made sure peer-to-peer messaging was kept hidden from public view, while in practice WhatsApp operated less as a one-to-one private messaging app than as a kind of “dark” social media (Evangelista and Bruno 2019).

As with all populist leaders, Bolsonaro’s political communication also sought to collapse differences between representative and represented, leader and followers. Social media environments afford this unmediated effect; in fact, its marketing-based architecture is meant to do just that. Close, personal, even intimate relations between influencers and their fan base are a pillar of the contemporary influence industry. Today’s consumers (or more accurately, prosumers) no longer trust artificial, manipulative mass marketing; they want to make an “authentic” choice. The same holds for contemporary politics. Bolsonaro presented himself as a true embodiment of the Brazilian people, with all his flaws and incapacities, opposed to an elite of highbrow professional politicians and experts. He might not know much, but at least he was honest and authentic.

It was digital media that made this connection between populist leader and “the people” real. On WhatsApp, voters shared personal messages and demands requesting that they be forwarded “until it reaches the president’s smartphone.” On Facebook and Twitter, Bolsonaro made sure to respond directly to fans on a regular basis. In this, he was no different from other successful celebrities and digital influencers, who must continuously perform authenticity and spontaneity, regularly crowdsource content from followers, enact personal relations with them, and carefully manage the loop between self and fan base. To stay afloat in a highly competitive online attention economy, influencers must provide ever more new content to keep followers from disengaging. The pro-Bolsonaro campaign did just that, by providing a regular flow of entertaining content, and enveloping voters in an atmosphere of permanent threat. Each day, voters received audio messages on WhatsApp of supposed whistleblowers denouncing schemes by the mainstream media, some foreign power, or the Brazilian Left. Alarmist messages announcing fresh “news” would link to YouTube channels specialized in conspiratorial narratives ranging from George Soros’s plans of global domination, to Islamic terrorists conspiring with Venezuela to kill Bolsonaro.

Digital architecture afforded the sharing not only of political content between leader and followers, but of the populist grammar itself. The “reverse engineering” I did of the underlying design of pro-Bolsonaro content bulk-messaged on WhatsApp revealed highly recurrent patterns, reminiscent of digital marketing but with a populist twist toward building what Ernesto Laclau (2005) describes as equivalence against a common enemy (see Cesarino 2020a). Binary memes would construct a black-and-white world where the only alternative to Bolsonaro’s victory was its opposite: the economic, security, and moral chaos wrought by the Left. Gestalt-based color and image association, heavy reliance on audio and visual language, and reverse mimesis of the enemy (same form with inverted content) enticed audiences toward visceral belonging to one group, and equally visceral repulsion toward the other. This grammar, I have suggested, was itself replicated subconsciously, by mobilizing people through both negative and positive affect, emerging socialities, and deeply embodied personal and group identities (Cesarino 2019; 2020b). Politics and entertainment, fact and fiction, collapsed into a campaign where voters were called on by their peers to join in a life-and-death struggle to protect the country from a common enemy or to help Bolsonaro win what felt like a highly competitive FIFA World Cup final. And indeed, his campaign successfully appropriated Brazil’s utmost symbol of patriotic pride—the national soccer team’s yellow shirt—as its own.

In democratic societies, Web 2.0 has ushered in a crisis of public trust in established institutional mediations of professional journalism, academia, science, the courts, and representative politics (see for example, Graan, Hodges, and Stalcup 2020). In such moments of crisis when established structures fail to guide people’s cognition and behavior, the nature of politics itself changes, seeming to revert to what anthropologists may call “elementary forms.” People turn to affect and morality to make political judgments; to what they can see and hear for themselves (which increasingly means online videos) (see Zoonen 2012); to what makes sense in terms of their immediate experience and personal trajectories; to the opinion of those around them, including group-think across like-minded (and often algorithmically formed, see Lury and Day 2019) online communities and echo chambers; to “spontaneous” narratives on YouTube claiming to reveal some truth hidden behind a veil of deception cast by hypocritical and parasitic elites; to mystical and theological ways of explaining political casualties; and even to narrative frames taken from TV shows, streamed series, movies, or sports. Criteria for judging politics collapses with those prevalent in other social spheres, such as personal and kin relations, religion, digital influence marketing, or the entertainment industry.

Each day, voters received audio messages on WhatsApp of supposed whistleblowers denouncing schemes by the mainstream media, some foreign power, or the Brazilian Left.

At a deeper level, many such elementary forms of enacting politics resonate with concepts from nonliberal perspectives on modern politics such as Ernesto Laclau’s structural theory of populism, and even with “classic” anthropological theory elaborated in order to make sense of political and epistemic forms in nonmodern societies. This happens not just because paradigm crisis leads individuals to look for less-mediated access to the “real,” as Thomas Kuhn (2012) famously argued, but because the current architecture of the internet is designed to extract precisely such elementary forms from cognitive layers concerned with formation of habit, embodied memory, and affect (see Chun 2016). By collapsing differences between public and private, human and machine, individual and collective cognition (see Lury and Day 2019), digitalization challenges the model of subjectivity, choice, and behavior that has sustained liberal democracies for centuries. Bolsonaro’s case illustrates well these challenges, and how certain emergent political forces—the so-called Alternative Right or New Right—have mustered these structural changes to their own advantage.

Finally, by collapsing a wide range of categorical differentiations that have historically sustained liberal representative democracy, digitalization helps bring about context collapse between religious and secular politics and temporalities (Reed 2019). As Bolsonaro’s physical body was removed from campaigning in the aftermath of the knife attack, the “glorious body” of the people (Kantorowicz 1997) swiftly took his place in a holy battle for the nation’s future, to be waged on a messianic temporality of impending destruction. The body of the nation and the body of the leader became each other’s metaphors, to the point of collapsing differences between them. As the late Venezuelan anthropologist and pioneer in populism studies Fernando Coronil put it, “Violence pushes the limits of the permissible, opening up spaces where customary and unexpected meanings and practices are brought together in unprecedented ways, illuminating hidden historical landscapes in a flash. … Individual biography and collective history seem momentarily united, as history and the body become each other’s terrains” (Coronil and Skurski 1991, 290). On WhatsApp and social media, an atmosphere and rhythm based on permanent threat to Bolsonaro’s life was henceforth established. Images showcased the stark contrast between the green and yellow shirt he was wearing when stabbed and the red blood of the wound—the knife happened to pierce Bolsonaro’s stomach right by the word “Brazil” (the shirt read “Brazil is my party”) (see Maia 2018).

From this moment onward, pro-Bolsonaro memetics summoned his followers to act as self-appointed “Jair’s marketing agents,” “Jair’s army,” “Jair’s shield,” “Jair’s electoral inspectors,” and “Bolsonaro’s robots.” They readily took over the camping on his behalf, and were kept busy executing small commands such as online cancelling campaigns or inspecting voting machines on polling day. What I call the “king’s digital body” was thus formed: a kaleidoscopic, segmented structure combining the kind of microtargeted, personalized marketing basic to the contemporary internet’s data economy with the kind of mass marketing required to win a majority-based presidential election. Bolsonaro’s and his followers’ identities became simultaneously more than one, and less than many (Lury and Day 2012): a fractal topology that bypasses representative democracy’s separation between person and office, collapses contextual differentiation between politics and other social spheres, and thus challenges some of its deepest organizational foundations.

Emily Thiessen is an illustrator and climate justice organizer living in Lekwungen Territories/Victoria, BC. She holds an anthropology degree and has a fire for creative troublemaking. You can see her work at


Letícia Cesarino

Letícia Cesarino is associate professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. She holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. Her current project probes the epistemic and political effects of digitalization and neoliberalization in Brazil.

Cite as

Cesarino, Letícia. 2020. “When Brazil’s Voters Became Followers.” Anthropology News website, September 14, 2020.

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