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Are Brazil’s Businesses Cheating to Help an Extremist Win the Presidency?

A Brazilian newspaper says private companies have illegally spent millions to put Jair Bolsonaro, a free-market homophobe who talks fondly of military dictatorship, into office.

Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Until this week, Jair Bolsonaro, the retired army captain leading the race for the Brazilian presidency, seemed like he would cruise to an easy win over his opponent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT). Bolsonaro’s free-market proposals, including mass privatizations of state enterprises, appeal to investors. His attacks on human rights and due process, on the other hand, have alarmed others. Recent polls showed Bolsonaro with a double-digit advantage over Haddad ahead of election day on October 28. 

Bolsonaro’s support—which has only grown despite homophobic remarks and open nostalgia for Brazil’s twenty-one-year military dictatorship—rests primarily on rabid anti-PT sentiment. Resentment of the country’s most popular party, marred by scandal in the past decade, has been diligently stoked through Facebook, Twitter, and, most prominently, WhatsApp, the free messaging service owned by Facebook. Indeed, WhatsApp, which is enormously popular in Brazil, has been the main driver of Bolsonaro’s histrionic campaign. Images that a sophisticated eye might clearly identify as having been doctored circulate freely among Bolsonaro supporters, reinforcing a visceral hatred of the PT and underscoring Bolsonaro’s image as a stern but honest alternative. One crude photoshop job shows the cover of a book written by Haddad, followed by pages wherein he appears to a defend incest, and call for murdering opponents.

Now, it seems that aspects of the social media campaign may in fact have been illegal. On October 18, the newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported that during the campaign, private companies have spent $12 millions reais ($3.2 million U.S.) to disseminate hundreds of millions of anti-PT messages through WhatsApp. Amounting to an undisclosed donation to Bolsonaro’s campaign, such spending would have violated Brazilian electoral law. Bolsonaro so far hasn’t denied the allegations. Instead, he’s described the measures as entirely voluntary and unconnected to his campaign, although one witness described Bolsonaro asking explicitly for such support at a dinner with wealthy followers. Meanwhile Luciano Hang, a vocal Bolsonaro supporter who owns a chain of department stores, said that paying to inflate posts across social media networks would have been redundant.  As he told Folha: “I just did a [Facebook] live here and it’s already reached 1.3 million people. Why would I need to [pay to] spread it?” On Thursday afternoon, Bolsonaro tweeted that the PT simply did not grasp that people would take such steps to voluntarily support his campaign.

For Bolsonaro, the allegations could be crippling. His appeal rests on his supposed incorruptibility—his purported rejection of under-handed means to secure political power, which he alleges is common practice for the PT. The PT won the last four presidential elections only to see its most recent standard-bearer, Dilma Rousseff, impeached in 2016 on charges of financial mismanagement.

Yet a great many Bolsonaro supporters have embraced the radical right-wing congressman, who has served in the legislature without distinction for almost three decades, with a zeal bordering on the fanatical. They may accuse the media of conspiring against their candidate, perhaps with the intention of shoring up Fernando Haddad. 

Contextual evidence should make this narrative implausible: Haddad is no media darling. He has campaigned on diversifying Brazil’s notoriously oligarchical media landscape and his party is universally reviled in the editorials of mainstream publications. The notion that Folha would concoct this story only to favor Haddad may prove too far-fetched for some Bolsonaro supporters. This does not necessarily mean that they will reconsider their support for Bolsonaro, but it may lead to an acknowledgment that their candidate is not a squeaky-clean paragon of morality, a concession to reality that would improve the current political debate in Brazil. 

For his part, Fernando Haddad, who has spent weeks publicly wondering who was financing the successive waves of fake news against him, has pounced on the allegations. Along with the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) of Ciro Gomes, who finished third in the first round of voting, Haddad’s party has filed charges with the Superior Electoral Court to annul Bolsonaro’s candidacy.

It remains unclear how quickly Brazil’s highest court for electoral matters will move to address the explosive findings. Brazil is hardly the only country at present where the role of online networks in extreme right-wing candidates’ campaigns has come under scrutiny. But in a country already polarized between those who oppose granting any quarter to far-right extremists and those who abhor the PT, tensions will almost certainly climb even higher with this new report. The revelations offer a distant hope for anyone concerned about an extremist like Bolsonaro taking command of the largest Latin American nation, and the ninth largest economy in the world. Only ten days until the vote, it’s possible not much will change. But there is now a sliver of a chance that Bolsonaro’s march to the presidency might be arrested, undone by a giddy reliance on the electoral potential of social media.