The destruction of the Brazilian congress by supporters of the former, and now self-exiled, President Jair Bolsonaro is yet another example of the power and real consequences of misinformation and deceit peddled on the internet.
Viewing events from the afar, it’s easy to be bewildered by the fact that someone like Bolsonaro was elected in the first place – remember, this is the ‘leader’ directly responsible for thousands of deaths as a result of his mismanagement of the Covid crisis, who gave open slather to loggers, trashed the Amazon and bullied its Indigenous people, among many other egregious acts. A poor imitation of Donald Trump, Bolsonaro stoked hatred and division, and like the Orange One, had little regard for the idea of democracy and its institutions. Drawing on Trump’s denialist playbook, Bolsonaro went on to dabble in conspiracy theories similar to those that gave rise to the January 6th insurrection, the outcomes of which are plain to see.
I’m as doubtful and concerned as many people are about the exercise of democratic governance in many countries, knowing full well how powerful entities pursue their interests through elected assemblies. But what we’re witnessing now, I believe, is not only the erosion of liberal democracies around the world, the rise of cruel ethno-nationalism and far right obscurantism, but the spectre of violent overthrow fuelled in large part by the malevolent and lurid stuff peddled on social media platforms. Outrage and anger are driving this self-referential phenomenon, generated in large part by long held frustrations and perceived assaults on national and cultural identity.
All this of course is reflective of deep structural changes stoked by geopolitics, individualistic economic orthodoxy, and the abusive and self-serving actions of power elites. The latter has contributed to a deep distrust of governments and democratic institutions, brought on by the demonstrable secrecy, manipulations and downright lies of political leaders and their enablers.
What has emerged over recent years, care of the rise of social media, is a lethal cocktail of half-baked conspiracy theories allied to sectional, high-octane political ideologies. This has in turn prompted multiple hyper realties that ultimately, have given rise to deeply flawed characters like Trump and Bolsonaro who are regarded by millions of people as national saviours and heavenly messengers. They are, in fact, representatives of class interests and sectional power. They’re tolerated as long as they deliver.
Barrel-chested machismo, a sense of perceived victimhood, and the need for national redemption through popular mass movements are the narrational props sold to supporters. And they lap it up, perhaps hearing in these individuals the deep discontents they have, often quite legitimately, long harboured.
But worryingly, the personal failings of celestial appointees like Trump and Bolsonaro, the actual effects of their policies, the legitimacy they accord to violent nationalist groups, is overlooked in favour of tropes that suggest a return to a mythical golden age. The underpinnings of structural discontents are, of course, much more complex than such stories suggest.
The tales told via social media, the florid representations of inglorious leaders with scant regard for democracy are the bedrock of the violence we are now witnessing. Delusion looms large here. One of the most bizarre examples of this is a Bolsonaro supporter who, despite all the evidence, continued to describe yesterday’s violence and destruction as a “peaceful protest”. The next line, surely, is to claim that the pictures we are seeing on TV are a left-wing media beat up.
The fact that nearly half of all those who voted in the Brazilian election did so in favour of Bolsonaro, and that well over seventy million people voted for Trump, should send a shiver down our collective spine. What we’re witnessing now is the inevitable outcome of deep structural fissures and social media campaigns that at their grizzly heart, are about imposing political worldviews and sectional interests on nation states, irrespective of who actually votes. Nihilistic right wing political movements driven by misinformation, lies and epiphenomenal anger are now revealing themselves, just as the actions of right-wing Republicans in the US are doing what they can to undermine voting rights.
For such movements, democracy, even of the most basic sort, simply gets in the way.