In Hunt for ‘Office of Hate,’ Brazil’s Supreme Court Closes In
(Bloomberg) -- It’s known as the “office of hate.” And like all good conspiracies, there’s no hard proof it actually exists.
The alleged clandestine network of bots, businessmen and bloggers is said by some lawmakers and Brazil’s biggest newspaper to rain vitriol on all who oppose President Jair Bolsonaro -- whether it be a super-star judge who jumps ship, a health minister who won’t toe the line on the administration’s covid strategy or a journalist who pens a critical article.
Now, the Supreme Court is trying to unmask pro-Bolsonaro social-media attack dogs after saying it found “serious evidence” pointing to the group’s existence. The president blasts the effort as an affront to free speech and a political witch-hunt by a deep state cabal. The top court, which took the unusual step of launching its own investigation, alleges the “office of hate” may have weaponized fake news in a coordinated bid to topple opponents, institutions and perhaps even democracy itself.
There are “two or three campaigns every day in real time on every issue,” said Marco Aurelio Ruediger, director of the Department of Public Policy Analysis at Getulio Vargas University, known as FGV, in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s spontaneous, but also professional.”
The Supreme Court investigation set in motion an interstate raid last month of properties linked to a far-right blogger, three high-profile businessmen and a dozen others. The case builds on two more probes already under way: One ordered by the nation’s electoral watchdog and another by Congress.
Social Media Muzzle
Combined, the probes target the very way Bolsonaro communicates and energizes his base. Rulings against him could not only muzzle the social media machine that helped shoot him to power, but could also be grounds for impeachment.
“All these people were decisive in the construction of Bolsonaro, decisive in the creation of his persona, and decisive in keeping him in power,” said Thomas Traumann, a communications consultant who served as spokesman to former President Dilma Rousseff. “They are his private army.”
The Presidential Palace declined to comment for this article.
Nations everywhere are struggling under a barrage of fake news, social-media attacks and how to balance it all with free speech. Twitter bots played a big role in the U.S.’s 2016 vote, from alleged Russian social-media interference to pro-Trump hashtags getting five times as much traffic from automated accounts on election night, according to one analysis.
But in Brazil, the Supreme Court’s decision to wade into politics via a direct investigation is fueling allegations by Bolsonaro and his supporters of judicial overreach. The 11 justices could eventually rule and hand down sentences based on a probe they are overseeing, while evidence uncovered in the process may be used in the Electoral Court case that could potentially invalidate results from the 2018 presidential vote.
Bolsonaro’s genius as a politician has always been that he speaks directly to the people, largely eschewing TV and radio. The strategy helped the 65-year-old former army captain and little-known lawmaker win over virtual legions of followers as a tough-talking, traditional-value-protecting outsider on live streams and YouTube shows.
“While others were struggling to adapt their political machinery to a digital world, Bolsonaro was born from it,” said Manoel Fernandes, director of Bites, a Sao Paulo-based data-analysis firm.
With Brazil’s economy sliding back into recession, Bolsonaro is under fire for a series of crises: the coronavirus pandemic that has sickened more than 1 million people; public clashes with governors who advocate lockdowns that he abhors; an exodus of ministers; and accusations he interfered with a corruption probe involving his son, Flavio Bolsonaro, a Rio state lawmaker. (Flavio’s former aid was arrested in the case on June 18.)
As the controversies swirl, Bolsonaro and his supporters are stepping up the fiery rhetoric. He’s convened rowdy demonstrations in front of the court in Brasilia. “Enough, dammit!” Bolsonaro said at the presidential palace the day after the raids. “I respect the constitution, but everything has its limits.”
A Buzzword Is Born
Initially bandied around informally in anti-Bolsonaro circles, the “office of hate” joined the broader public’s lexicon as Folha de S. Paulo popularized the term to describe the president’s Internet savvy advisers who pull the strings behind smear campaigns. In late 2018, Brazil’s largest daily reported that Bolsonaro allies had hired online influencers and digital marketing firms to send bulk social-media messages to dominate the political conversation.
The news report triggered the investigation by the Electoral Court, which is seeking to determine if Bolsonaro supporters paid for his messaging and didn’t declare it -- a violation of campaign financing laws. Congress launched its own probe into fake news in September that could lead to legislation to curb disinformation.
Folha in April reported that the federal police had identified another Bolsonaro son, Carlos, his former campaign manager, as orchestrator of the smears, allegations he denies. “We are the people most attacked daily on social media,” he said on Twitter the day of the May raids.
Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who heads the investigation, wrote in a May 27 decision green-lighting the raids and seizure of computers, smartphones and bank records that there was evidence, including testimony from two lawmakers formerly allied with Bolsonaro, of a “criminal association” dedicated to mass dissemination of fake news. The attacks, he said, damage the image of the high court and jeopardize “the rule of law.”
Bolsonaro, nor his son, were directly linked to the alleged “office of hate” in the Supreme Court document.
In a highly publicized case last year, after a court ruling that led to the release of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was convicted of corruption, one Twitter user posted, “May they rape and kill the daughters of the Supreme Court justices.” Justices have cited that tweet in their investigation as well as others in recent rulings. “The time has passed to bring in the armed forces,” one Twitter user said. Another declared: “THE DICTATORSHIP IS COMING!”
Many of the attacks are said to be volleyed about on Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp, the ubiquitous group chats that Brazilians prefer over more public forms of social media. Facebook declined to comment.
In the week after the raids, the five most-shared YouTube videos on WhatsApp groups were from far-right bloggers or Bolsonaro-friendly outlets, according to a study by FGV’s Department of Public Policy Analysis. In a June 2 sample on Twitter, pro-Bolsonaro users engaged in political debate represented 14% of profiles, but accounted for 36% of all interactions.
WhatsApp has said that during the 2018 election, it banned some 2 million accounts a month associated with businesses using bots to send out mass messages, a violation of its policy.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court justices ruled in a unanimous vote that the investigation should move forward.
“We are taking this to the end,” Justice Gilmar Mendes said in interview on June 6, before the decision. “We must try to institutionalize the fight against fake news, and improve systems of control.”
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