On Sunday, Brazilian supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the presidential palace, the country’s seat of Congress, and various other federal buildings. The scenes, which echoed the Jan. 6 riot in the United States Capitol almost exactly two years ago, shared a similar motivation: claims of a stolen election.
Since Bolsonaro’s October loss to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s right-wing factions have taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s playbook and baselessly claimed foul play and election fraud. Those claims have proliferated on social media platforms like Twitter, where Elon Musk’s acquisition may have added fuel to the fire that burned over into a riot in Brasilia.
Following the completion of the purchase, Musk fired huge swaths of both Twitter’s domestic and international staff — including, as reported by The Washington Post, the majority of the company’s Brazilian employees. According to the Post, any and all employees charged with moderating content for incitement of violence and misinformation had been fired by early November, leaving behind only a handful of salespeople. The takeover has since coincided with an engagement boom for Brazilian right-wing accounts on the platform.
Bolsonaro has long been a fan of Musk. In May of last year, he appeared next to Musk at a meeting touting a partnership between Brazil’s government and Starlink, calling the Tesla founder’s potential takeover of Twitter “breath of hope” from a “legend of freedom.” Throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro had raised the specter of election fraud, relying heavily on unfounded claims that voting machines could be rigged or tampered with, and that election officials were able to manipulate vote tallies at will. His October defeat prompted a spike in narratives of election fraud and calls for a coup against Lula on Twitter and across other social media platforms, according to an analysis by DFRLab.
This afternoon the platform is saturated with pro-insurrection content.
— John Scott-Railton (@jsrailton) January 8, 2023
Musk seemed to take particular interest in the workings of Brazil Twitter’s content moderation strategies after taking over the platform. Twitter was compelled in 2020 by Brazilian Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes to block 16 accounts Bolsonaro-linked accounts that had been accused of disseminating false information. In 2021, Bolsonaro attempted to ban social media companies from removing accounts that violated platform rules, including false claims about elections.
Despite the unique relationship between Twitter and Brazil’s legal system, Musk has repeatedly attempted to lay blame for Brazil’s content moderation decisions exclusively at the feet of the company, and personally assumed the role of moderator since his takeover. According to The New York Post, Musk’s interest in Brazil extended as far as personally overseeing content moderation decisions, and “constantly calling balls and strikes,” days after the election took place, as claims of election fraud snowballed online.
He’s made his interest public, too. In November, Musk responded to a claim from right-wing commentator Paulo Figueiredo Filho, grandson of Brazil’s former military president João Figueiredo, that the company was “imposing a draconian ideological censorship” on Brazilian users, promising to investigate the claim. In early December, weeks before the rioters smashed through police lines at the Brazilian capital, Musk tweeted that he had seen “concerning” tweets regarding Brazil’s election, telling followers that it was “possible that Twitter personnel gave preference to left wing candidates.” In another December tweet, Musk responded to a complaint of repression from a Brazilian right-wing media outlet by stating that “Twitter may have people on the Brazil team that are strongly politically biased,” despite having reportedly gutted the team in November.
Musk’s treatment of a volatile political climate abroad echoes his domestic strategy for election integrity. Since his takeover of the platform, Musk has worked with right-wing-aligned American media figures to portray content moderation, particularly as it pertains to election misinformation, as a form of election manipulation and censorship in its own right. Musk also reinstated the accounts of prominent conspiracy theorists, including Trump in the United States, and several prominent Brazilian accounts previously banned for election misinformation
The connection between the American and Brazilian right, then, could not be more clear. English-language hashtags used to promote the conspiracy, including “#BrazilianSpring” and “#BrazilWasStolen” have become ubiquitous throughout the protest movement. Protesters held up English-language banners over Brasila stating “We Want The Source Code,” a reference to voting machine conspiracies.
American far-right figures involved in the planning of the events of Jan. 6, 2021 seized on the discontent from Bolsonaro’s supporters to foment another attempted coup, this time on an international scale. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon heavily boosted claims of electoral fraud regarding Brazil’s election, dedicating multiple episodes of his radio show to claims of Brazilian election fraud and writing on the social media website Gettr that “Lula stole the Election… Brazilians know this.” Fox Host Tucker Carlson used his show to help legitimize claims of election fraud and censorship. As the capital was stormed on Sunday, Jan. 6 rally organizer Ali Alexander called on the rioters in Brasilia to “do whatever is necessary.” Bannon cheered the rioters as “Brazilian Freedom Fighters.”
Bolsonaro absconded to Florida in the aftermath of the election, where he is likely insulated from the fallout of his supporters actions and is accessible to American allies. Several American politicians including Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have called for Bolsonaro to be extradited or returned to Brazil.
Brazilian authorities have arrested more than 1,000 protesters in the aftermath of the riots. Images of the destruction, vandalism, and violence perpetrated by the rioters have circulated online. In a statement that felt like the embodiment of “too little too late,” Musk expressed his hope that “the people of Brazil are able to resolve matters peacefully.”