Brazilian Bots are Targeting the U.S. Election Process to Help Trump
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Twitter accounts supportive of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are trying to undermine the credibility of the U.S. presidential election, joining Russian, Chinese and Iranian efforts at sowing discord.
By Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
The posts are often in Portuguese, but they share common English hashtags, such as #BidenWasNotElected.
Since 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked systematic election influence campaigns on social media traced to Russia. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, they warned that China and Iran were increasingly joining the game. But there’s a fourth set of external actors on Twitter actively trying to hurt the credibility of the election results — and they’re from Brazil.
Between 1,500 and 2.000 Brazilian Twitter bots are currently engaged in spreading disinformation and fake news about electoral fraud in the U.S., tweeting in both English and Portuguese and often tagging real Twitter users, according to an analysis by AI-monitoring group BotSentinel. Other experts suggest the number might be higher, behind only Russian, Chinese and Iranian bots.
[The interference] can be seen … as a demonstration of the Brazilian government’s alignment with Trump and its populist political agenda.
Milton Deiró Neto, international relations researcher
These bots are amplifying conspiracy hashtags created by genuine users to create a volume of posts that is then further projected by the media as representative of popular sentiment, says Caio Machado, a lawyer and researcher on data protection and disinformation. But unlike the Russian, Chinese and Iranian bots, say experts, the Brazilian influencers aren’t seriously trying to cover their tracks, with some even using the family name of President Jair Bolsonaro — a Trump ally who has yet to accept Biden’s win — in their handles.
“Brazilian bots have not sought to hide their national origin, as do Russian or Chinese bots, who pretend to be American,” says Milton Deiró Neto, an international relations researcher at Brazil’s SENAI-Cimatec Defence and Public Security Research Centre.
Unlike Russian, Chinese and Iranian bots, the accounts from Brazil don’t have roots in sophisticated intelligence operations but in partisan politics. They appear to be extensions of the same organized network of websites, blogs and social media accounts that in Brazil have targeted opponents of Bolsonaro. Critics have accused Bolsonaro’s son Carlos of running this so-called office of hate. The president and his allies have opposed a legal probe into the misinformation campaign.
Such a targeted campaign by Brazilian bots to influence the U.S. elections “is not common, not least because Twitter as a political tool is something new,” says David Nemer, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Like Barack Obama in the U.S. in 2008, Bolsonaro was the first leader in Brazil to rely on Twitter as a key campaign tool in 2018.
Nemer offers two possible explanations for the interest of pro-Bolsonaro accounts in the U.S. elections and their readiness to be identified as supporters of the Brazilian president. Their own leader is in power — and is witnessing a surge in popularity. “Pro-Bolsonaro bloggers are increasingly without ‘enemies’ for polarization,” he says. Demonstrating their ability to stir controversy places them in the Twitter market as players for hire by others. Nemer calls it the “economics of attention.”
Second, he suggests, “Trump’s defeat is a defeat of Bolsonaro’s narrative.” Unlike other world leaders — even those seen as close to Trump such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — Bolsonaro has publicly taken on President-elect Joe Biden. Criticizing Biden for comments on deforestation in the Amazon, Bolsonaro said: “When the saliva runs out, there must be gunpowder.” Almost a declaration of war, the statement was seen by experts as representative of his frustration at losing his closest global ally. The Brazilian bots’ actions, says Deiró, “can be seen … as a demonstration of the Brazilian government’s alignment with Trump and its populist political agenda.”
Nemer doubts that such coordinated action would make much difference in America’s internal politics. “Brazil is on the periphery of American attention,” he says. Machado says that while it’s possible these bots are connected to the “office of hate,” it remains difficult to establish with authority. And while they help amplify the claims of fraud leveled by Trump and his allies, Machado says it’s clear that Brazilian bots are secondary players in the spread of misinformation in the U.S.
On Nov. 21, Trump himself tweeted a video from One America News of an interview with Brazilian blogger Allan dos Santos, owner of a pro-Bolsonaro website that has been accused of spreading misinformation. Nemer, though, says he saw little traction for dos Santos’ claims of election fraud in the U.S. on social media groups of Trump supporters, including on platforms like Parler that have gained prominence among conservatives who accuse Twitter of censoring them.
The attempts to spread fake news and misinformation about the U.S. election might also be a test run for Brazil’s own presidential election, in 2022, when Bolsonaro will seek reelection and might need to question the legitimacy of the vote, both Deiró and Nemer suggest. The president suffered major losses in local elections in November.
The Brazilian bots acting in the U.S. serve as a propaganda tool to show the union of the global far-right. Trump’s decision to retweet the dos Santos interview underscores that, says David Magalhães, a professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Right-wing populists have long shared a political discourse. Now, it seems, they also share supportive bots.
- Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, OZY Author Contact Raphael Tsavkko Garcia