Bolsonaro holding a cell phone with his right hand in front of his face

The hate machine: how Bolsonaro makes use of algorithmic knowledge

15 minutes to read
Larissa Andrade Pereira

Behind emblematic political figures from our times - such as Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán - there are communication experts aware that message is constructed through interaction and communication, whether online or offline. In fact, post-digital societies have watched the rise of new possibilities for the production and circulation of discourse, while the far-right has adapted to new digital platforms by changing the form, content and strategies of the political discourse (Maly, 2021). Journalist Campos Mello (2020) named “hate machine” the communication strategies of populist governments, which make use of digital media and its algorithms to spread political propaganda and to remain popular. This paper aims to illustrate how Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro - and the “hate cabinet” - make use of algorithmic knowledge in order to circulate his message and ideology in the hybrid media system.

Political message in the hybrid media system

The study of political communication in contemporary societies requires a broad understanding of the media landscape - that is, taking into account the integration of “old” media such as newspapers, television, radio, and the “new” media delivered digitally. In this sense, the notion of a hybrid media system explores interactions among legacy media and new media, as well as the connections between its multiple mediums, channels and actors (Chadwick et al., 2015). It is not about a replacement from older media to newer media, but an interacting and mutually influenced relationship.

In this context, political figures make use of the hybrid media system to spread political message. In politics, however, message “(...) does not refer to a politician’s communication about issues so much as what the politician seems to communicate about his or her identity or personal values” (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012, p. 2). A politician’s message is, then, constructed through the combination of his or her story, image, identity, as well as the issues or the agenda. As suggested by Lempert & Silverstein (2012), political message can be understood as a brand: this brand is thus launched in the media, in order to be consumed, reproduced and also [re]constructed by actors of the hybrid media system.

Bolsonaro attending a rally in support of his government.

In Figure 1, a post from the president’s personal Instagram account from July 14, 2021 spots him attending a demonstration of supporters. Bolsonaro wears a leather jacket with his name, the Brazilian Republic’s coat of arms and the following slogan embroidered on it: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”. Viral during the 2018 presidential race, the slogan indexes nationalism while relying on religion to create a sense of unity and belonging - that is, an articulation of nationalism and religion for evoking a common feeling and defining the “us”. Such slogan also reminds a famous slogan from the Nazi regime - “Deutschland über alles” (Germany above everything). As for the leather jacket - a symbol of the 1960s counterculture - it communicates rebelness, as Bolsonaro's image is often associated with someone willing to challenge the rules of politics.

Supporters carry the national flag, which has been associated in the last years with a new right-wing movement that stands for the renovation of politics. Bolsonaro, then, puts himself as this figure: a rebel outsider who is willing to face the old political elite - even though he had been a congressman for almost three decades. In the meantime, issues announced in the post refer to tax cuts, destatization, and a law project in the matter of supersalaries. In capital letters, then, it says: “Brazil won’t be a new Cuba”. Lastly, the post invites users to join Bolsonaro’s Telegram network for daily updates about the government.

Figure 1 illustrates Bolsonaro’s brand: a nationalist and religious image carried with virility and rebellion by a man who flirts with fascism while setting the country free of the left. In fact, the issues allude to a clear neoliberal agenda of tax reductions and privatizations, appealing to an economic policy that has been characterized as fiscal populism while Brazilian economy struggles, the 2022 presidential elections approaching, and the government’s popularity reaching its lowest level of approval (19%) in November 2021.

By the time this paper was written, more than one million and a hundred thousand users liked the post on Instagram, while nearly twenty-six thousand commented, with most reactions varying amidst “my president”, “we are with you”, or “myth”. Regarding the mythical image of populists, da Silva (2020) identifies it as constructed by many different actors: the politicians themselves, supporters, detractors, newer and older media. Bolsonaro is indeed known by supporters as “O Mito” (The Myth), and his offline actions - such as attending motorcycle rides and far-right demonstrations - complement and influence his online activity (da Silva, 2020) in the construction of political message.

In fact, Bolsonaro receives intense coverage from legacy media, which had an important role in his increased popularity since at least 2013 (da Silva, 2020). A couple of years later, legacy media keeps contributing to the construction (and consolidation) of the president’s message by giving incessant visibility to his online and offline activities - whether meetings with supporters, participation in far-right rallies, interactions on digital media, polemic and aggressive statements - which illustrates the importance of “older” media in the hybrid media system. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, constantly attacks legacy media and draws accusations of biased information broadcasting.

Bolsonaro's post on Instagram attacking a brazilian newspaper.

In Figure 2, Bolsonaro reposts on Instagram a news item from Brazilian newspaper Estadão, covering the low-adherence of a demonstration in support of the government. Then, it is asked: “Did anyone know about this ‘act’? Shitty press”. It is thus the interaction among older and newer media that should be taken into account when analysing the construction of Bolsonaro’s message in the hybrid media system, as suggested by Chadwick et al. (2015).

Ideology, populism and algorithms

If politics is about communication, communication in our times takes place in a hybrid media system operated by an algorithmic logic - that is, a logic in which visibility is algorithmically organized. In digital media, algorithms perform the role of content mediators: they not only filter and prioritise content as “most relevant” or “trending topics”, but also “(...) (re)shape and reorganize the communicative structure of the ‘input’-discourse” (Maly, 2018), as discourse is framed according to the structure of posts in each platform. This way, by having agency, algorithms influence the distribution of discourse and ideology in contemporary society (Maly, 2021).

As a consequence, the uptake of political communication in a hybrid media system is key for someone’s visibility. Here, uptake refers to the fact that, in the digital era, users are not only consumers of discourse but also [re]producers and [re]appropriators, having an important role in the dissemination and reproduction of ideas. In this algorithmic logic, the uptake of ideas realizes visibility, while political figures need visibility to circulate their ideology.

In this context, ideology refers not only to specific sets of symbolic representations - the “-isms”, such as liberalism, socialism, fascism - but is a general phenomenon of socially structured ideas that guides the behavior and thought of a social political system. Ideology, then, refers to a series of normalized, hegemonic ideas that actors reproduce and pass through.

Post from Bolsonaro’s Twitter account.

Figure 3 is a post from Bolsonaro’s personal Twitter account which illustrates the circulation of ideology in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro claims that there have always been two great challenges: the virus and the economy. While the left and the media, frequently positioned as a homogeneous group of enemies of the government, would promote a “demagogic politicization” of the virus, his government would be a “non-ideological” actor.

The prioritization of the economy is, then, placed as neutral, normal, unquestioned, as carried by the institutional campaign “O Brasil Não Pode Parar” (Brazil Cannot Stop) released in government social media, as a slogan against restrictive measures and general social distancing, which was later prohibited and suspended by the judiciary. Placing the economy as an equally important challenge as the Covid crisis, and claiming that “Brazil cannot stop” is of course an ideological position: a neoliberal one, that is normalized by the government whilst accusing the left of being ideological.

Bringing the analytical framework of the hybrid media system into the discussion, then, contemporary production of ideology should be understood as a result of the interaction between humans, non-humans and algorithms in the digital sphere, since political figures need interactions to reach visibility, at the same time that interactions need visibility to spread their ideas. That’s why it is important to be popular.

Still regarding figure 3, user @cacauenkdoo reacts “We are together, president. Those who are not satisfied, go to Argentina”. It is through this uptake of ideas that government claims become normalized - claims that would once shock civil society and provoke revolt, but end up being reproduced in digital media. In this sense, the interaction between Bolsonaro, the platform and supporters’ reactions provides not only visibility for the post, but also a normalization of such ideology among followers.

Bolsonaro's algorithmic populism

The analysis conducted so far on Bolsonaro’s message and online/ offline activity leads to the question of whether or not to frame him as a populist figure. Although populism has been used for a wide range of different figures, common understanding of the concept presupposes a leader who claims to represent the voice of the people against an established elite. The new context of digital media and web 2.0, however, sheds light on the contemporary material side of populism: the embeddedness of populist discourse in digital media (Maly, 2018). This way, Maly (2018) proposes understanding populism as a digitally mediated communicative relation - a special form of relation politicians engage in in order to normalize and reproduce their ideology. Once again, interaction is key, since politicians need large audiences to legitimize and normalize their discourse (Maly, 2018).

Such a theoretical framework helps understand Bolsonaro’s activity in digital media: when, in Figure 1, Bolsonaro announces tax cuts and guarantees Brazil won’t be a new Cuba, he claims to know the needs of the people and to defend them in the name of the sovereign People - a nationalist discourse in which there is a homogeneous national group with common interests and needs. As of the uptake of this discourse, supporters seem to appropriate the message: a user named @magnopng wrote “My Captain, you are God's Envoy to help this nation! You are the CHOSEN!”. Congresswoman Caroline de Toni also comments “President Bolsonaro is truly committed to defending our freedom and changing the leftist landscape that our nation has been handed over for decades. (...). Let’s pray for the president and for Brazil”. Such a comment reached more than six thousand likes and several replies on Instagram.

Likewise, Bolsonaro places the media and the left as established elites who threaten the sovereignty and the interests of the People, e.g. in Figure 2 by alleging that the press broadcasts fake news regarding a demonstration of supporters, or Figure 3 by accusing the media and the left of promoting a demagogic politicization of the coronavirus crisis. Users reproduce the discourse: @edinhogjunior reacts “Brazilian media is garbage”, while @tamiko.ka claims “FAKE of the communists. This is what the enemies of this rich nation think”.

It is in those reactions that Bolsonaro is not only constructed as a 'populist' - a leader of the people - but also that his ideology is constructed as a normal way of seeing the world, Brazil and 'the others' - the left, the opposition. All those who do not support Bolsonaro are not part of the People, they are enemies of the nation.

Algorithmic activism and the Bolsonarist hate machine

Behind populist figures from our times, there are communication strategies aware of the importance of such communicative relations. In this sense, the far-right has well adapted to this new algorithmic reality. Maly (2021) argues that the hybrid media system is an important factor in explaining the rise of the far-right in the last decades, and online activities such as meme-culture, digital harassment, trolling, conspiracy theories, influencer culture for metapolitical goals, consist of orchestrated communication strategies for spreading ideology and mobilizing citizens.

Such strategies are called by Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello (2020) “the hate machine”: after publishing an article in October 2018 detailing the illegal strategy of financing fake news on WhatsApp against Partido dos Trabalhadores (Labour's Party) - from Bolsonaro’s opponent on 2018 elections, Fernando Haddad, and also from former president Lula - Campos Mello saw herself as the target of the hate machine. Attacks such as digital harassment, slandering, threats to leave the country and fake news dissemination were aimed at the journalist, while hashtags such as #CadêAsProvas (#WhereAreTheProofs) were quickly spread on Twitter and reached trending topics. Such digital reactions seem to be isolated, spontaneous, fanatic activities on social media, even though they are not.

The hate machine, as suggested by Campos Mello, is the communication strategy of populist far-right governments in this new algorithmic reality. Aware of the importance of audience, politicians engage in digital content with the purpose to be liked, retweeted, shared, commented: such interactions are important for a perception of popularity, and are also algorithmically important to reach out to even-larger audiences (Maly, 2018). Such dynamics generate a phenomenon Maly (2018) identified as algorithmic activism - a digital form of activism dedicated to interacting with posts in order to trigger the algorithms and to push popularity. Since interactions between older and newer media create new repertoires of engagement and new perspectives of what counts as political participation (Chadwick et al., 2015), digital activists are crucial to the spreading of a message by interacting, reproducing and (re)appropriating such discourses.

The Bolsonarist hate machine is a complex and multifaceted strategy connecting Bolsonaro’s official channels, his closest advisors - widely known in Brazil as “the hate cabinet” and headed by president’s son Carlos Bolsonaro -, and consolidated networks of supporters. It all starts with high visibility in social media: with 19 million followers on Instagram, 11 million on Facebook and 7 million on Twitter, Bolsonaro’s profile is also registered in the new platform GETTR, founded with the principles of free speech and rejecting political censorship and “cancel culture”, configuring a new hub for far-right activists due to lack of content moderation.

By recurring to platforms such as GETTR, far-right figures - whether activists or politicians - attempt to build an audience on those environments as a strategy to prepare for potential de-platforming in other spaces with content moderation (Maly, 2020). In fact, Facebook and Instagram deleted a live from Bolsonaro’s profiles in October 2021, in which the president was spreading fake news regarding Aids and Covid-19 vaccine, while Youtube temporarily suspended his account.

Messaging platforms are also a crucial part of such strategy by gathering supporters and coordinating the spread of message through memes, conspiracy theories, negationism and disinformation: Bolsonaro regularly advertises the government channel on Telegram, recently reaching 1 million followers on the platform - which has become a permissive medium for dissemination of fake news and disinformation. As of WhatsApp, dominant messaging platform in Brazil, supporters also join groups highly organized by networks of supporters spread through federal states, as the example of website ZapBolsonaro. Digital contents launched in such groups are massively broadcast and quickly overcome the environment of supporters’ groups, being spread through the hybrid media system. By the logic of algorithmic activism, such connections are crucial for the operation of a hate machine by spreading political message and ensuring a constant mobilization of supporters.

Digital activists and supporters, on the other hand, take part in such a strategy by intense creation of content and reproduction of discourse in social media. Several accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, TikTok engage in the [re]production and [re]appropriation of Bolsonaro’s message through the creation of digital content aligned with the platforms algorithmic distribution of content - that is, contents shaped in order to stay relevant, to be distributed and to generate interaction. Take as an example the Instagram profile @gdooficial with nearly 440 thousand follower, in Figure 4, that names itself as "Gabinete do Ódio" (The hate cabinet) and produces content dedicated to meme-culture, digital trolling and negationism.

Instagram profile of an activist.

Personalist figures also mobilize in social media: Figure 5 shows a woman who identifies as mother, conservative and patriot, whose profile picture brings the image of the president himself, while account name and cover picture state “JB22” and "JMB2022" - allusions to Jair Bolsonaro’s reelection in 2022. This user joined Twitter in July 2021 and has already reached milestones of more than 25 thousand tweets and more than 12 thousand followers, showing an intense - and politicized - digital activity.

Twitter profile of an activist.

This way, through intense activity, creation of content and [re]production of discourse, digital activists and supporters participate in the hate machine by ensuring the great visibility and spread of Bolsonarist message and ideology in the hybrid media system.

Anatomy of the hate machine

This paper aimed to illustrate how Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro - and the “hate cabinet” - make use of algorithmic knowledge in order to circulate his message and ideology in the hybrid media system. Data shows that the Bolsonarist hate machine operates through the interaction between humans, non-humans and algorithms, starting from the president himself, who engages in a (digitally mediated) populist relation in order to legitimize and normalize his discourse, as well as to constantly mobilize supporters. By gathering a large interactive audience, Bolsonaro builds a perception of popularity at the same time that reaches out to even-larger audiences.

Activists and supporters are also a crucial tool to the spreading of the president’s message, since interactions between older and newer media create new repertoires of engagement and new perspectives of what counts as political participation (Chadwick et al., 2015). Activists engage in constant, orchestrated, intense digital activities, which have been called algorithmic activism (Maly, 2018), having the ultimate goal of driving populist’s popularity. Through this dynamic, the hate machine spreads Bolsonaro’s message, normalizes his ideology, mobilizes supporters, forges popularity and enhances visibility.



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