(De) constructing Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign

14 minutes to read
Ulisses Sawczuk da Silva


The word myth has several possible meanings. It can refer, for example, to a popular belief or tradition that has developed around someone. Nevertheless, a myth can also be “an unfounded or false notion” or a person or thing whose existence is imaginary or unverifiable (“Myth”, n.d.). According to Barthes (1991), myth is a type of discourse that relies on poor and incomplete images to empty reality and promote depoliticization. In Brazil, far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro has been nicknamed O Mito (“The Myth”, in Portuguese) by his supporters – a moniker which is often ironized by those who antagonize him. Bolsonaro’s victory in the 2018 Brazilian presidential election was indeed vested with a mythical – and almost surreal – quality, sending shockwaves through the country’s political landscape.

Bolsonaro: between medias

The former army captain’s political rise from a congressman of fascist leanings – and politically incorrect statements – to the president of the largest country in South American has astonished many and raised questions among scholars, the media and the general population of Brazil. Bolsonaro’s social media presence is often outlined as one of the main factors behind his electoral success (Goldstein, 2018; Maranhão, Coelho & Dias, 2018; Souza, 2019). With more than 13 million followers on Instagram, 9.7 million followers on his official Facebook fan page, and 4.7 million followers on Twitter, the politician’s use of new media cannot be disregarded as an unimportant component of his campaign strategy.

Nevertheless, social media are only part of the puzzle. Drawing from Chadwick’s (2013) notion of a hybrid media system, this paper argues that Bolsonaro’s victory was made possible by a complex assemblage of both new digital media and legacy media. Although historically it has been believed that newer media overtake and replace older media, in reality both types of media interact in complex ways, competing, complementing and mutually influencing each other (Chadwick, 2013). Therefore, the first section of this paper explores the complex interconnections between Bolsonaro’s social media usage and the news media's coverage of his presidential campaign between August 16th and October 26th, 2018.

Another important concept connected to the extreme-right politician’s electoral success is the personalization of politics. Mentioning the weakening of political parties and the increasing importance of individual politicians, Dumitrica (2014) connects these trends to the aura of authenticity which is attributed to social media. In such a context, politicians who have a strong presence in digital new media are often seen by the public as being more authentic than their rivals (Dumitrica, 2014).

With a little help from the traditional media

It is easy to understand why Bolsonaro’s use of social media has been recognized as crucial to his victory. Besides the aforementioned massive amount of followers the politician has on social media, during the first round of the election he was allocated only 8 seconds of daily propaganda on TV (“Bolsonaro terá 8 segundos”, 2018) – a consequence of his party’s diminutive size and lack of political alliances. Furthermore, although Bolsonaro participated in the two first televised debates, he decided not to attend any of the subsequent events. His campaign team initially argued that the debates were “fraudulent” (Maltchik, 2018) and later stated Bolsonaro was not in condition to do so after being stabbed on September, 6th (Azevedo, Trigueiro & Martins, 2018).

Bolsonaro has received a steady stream of coverage from legacy media since at least 2010

Considering that televised debates are often placed among the major events of an election (Benoit, 2007; Chadwick, 2013), it is unusual for a presidential candidate to skip almost all of them. Indeed, it was the first time that such practice was adopted in a Brazilian presidential election since the country’s redemocratization in the 1980s (“Ausência de debate”, 2018).

Nonetheless, Bolsonaro has received a steady stream of coverage from legacy media since at least 2010 (Piaia & Nunes, 2018). In that year, the then-congressman started regularly appearing on sensationalist TV shows where he was expected to entertain the public with his polemic and aggressive statements (Piaia & Nunes, 2018). Such exposure in the media greatly increased Bolsonaro’s popularity, giving him a base of supporters who would contribute to the successful launch of his social media profiles in June 2013.

Significantly, this was also a moment in which Brazil experienced a series of protests which took millions of people to the streets and caused social and political instability (Gortázar & Becker, 2018; Piaia & Nunes, 2018). The influence of TV on the politician’s online popularity is an early example of Chadwick’s (2013) assertion that old and new media adapt, coevolve and interact. Furthermore, the confluence of televised entertainment and politics illustrates the way in which political and media actors shape each other in the hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2013).            

To a great extent, the 2018 presidential campaign followed the same interactive dynamics. Bolsonaro, who is known for his offensive statements in both offline and online environments, made use of heavy attacks against the Workers’ Party and its candidate Fernando Haddad. In a video that was uploaded multiple times to the internet, garnering hundreds of thousands of views, the far-right politician urged his supporters to “shoot the Workers’ Party sympathizers” (“Campanha confirma vídeo”, 2018).

By extensively covering this and other controversial online statements, traditional media amplified Bolsonaro’s voice and gave him more prominence in the electoral scenario. Therefore, the contribution of traditional media to the construction of the former army captain’s mythical image cannot be disregarded. Such dynamics, however, are not a Brazilian exclusivity. Mentioning the “Obama is a Muslim” myth, Chadwick (2013, p. 152) stresses that professional news coverage is often hybridized with online propaganda.

On the other hand, Bolsonaro’s social media profiles also responded to content that had been originally aired or published on legacy media during the campaign. On October 24th, for example, the politician’s Instagram account published a screenshot taken from the online version of O Estado de S. Paulo – a prominent Brazilian newspaper (Bolsonaro, 2018c). The image contained a headline which read: “Prosecution accuses Haddad of corruption, criminal conspiracy and money laundering” (Bolsonaro, 2018c). Thus, the politician used a newspaper headline to try to confer credibility on the attacks he inflicted on his opponent.

Although political campaigns can certainly benefit from the affordances of the hybrid media system, they are subject to limitations

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s relationship with the media is complex and often contradictory. Similarly to Donald Trump, the Brazilian politician has repeatedly accused mainstream media of being controlled by leftists and biased against him (Enli, 2017; Goldstein, 2018). On September 28th, his Instagram account republished a message that had been originally posted on the politician’s Twitter profile and which read: “We are on the final stretch to the election. Once again, part of the same old media will launch their attacks in a useless attempt to deconstruct me. The system is agonizing, we will defeat it” (Bolsonaro, 2018b).

The above examples highlight situations in which the candidate’s campaign reacted to media coverage and vice versa. Nonetheless, the role of individual social media users should be taken into account when analyzing political campaigns, because the hybrid media system is also shaped by active audience members (Chadwick, 2013). Take for example the far-right politician’s interview with Jornal Nacional, the most popular television news program in Brazil. It ended up becoming one of the most commented topics on Twitter in the world (“Bolsonaro x Renata Vasconcellos”, 2018; Reis, 2018) and generating an immense amount of memes and posts (“Entrevista de Bolsonaro”, 2018).

It must be stressed, however, that while part of the memes supported the candidate, many of them ridiculed his performance during the interview (“Entrevista de Bolsonaro”, 2018). Therefore, although political campaigns can certainly benefit from the affordances of the hybrid media system, they are subject to limitations such as not being able to fully control the online environment (Chadwick, 2013).

Personalization or mythification?

As discussed above, the hybrid media system has played a fundamental role in Bolsonaro’s prominent political career. Nevertheless, his recurring electoral success is also a consequence of the phenomenon known as the personalization of politics. Over the last few decades, politics has become increasingly more individualized. Regarding institutional politics, this means that citizens pay more attention to politicians than parties and base their assessments of the former on their perceived leadership and human qualities (Dumitrica, 2014).

This is the outcome of trends such as the weakening of political parties, the increasing customization of life, the politicization of personal life and the individuation characteristic of neoliberal societies (Bennett, 2012; Dumitrica, 2014). In line with these developments, Bolsonaro is much more prominent than the political party he is a member of, the Partido Social Liberal (PSL). When the former captain joined the PSL, in January 2018, the right-wing party was of little importance in the political scene of Brazil (“O pequeno partido”, 2019).

Discussing the personalization of politics, Dumitrica (2014) explains that in order to be successful, contemporary politicians must be considered “authentic” by the public. This perceived quality is often related to the use of social media, because social media are frequently seen – due to technological determinism – as bearers of authenticity (Dumitrica, 2014). Therefore, several relevant politicians have taken advantage of these tools to portray themselves as genuine. One famous example is Donald Trump, the current president of the United States.

Enli (2017) argues that Trump was perceived as authentic during the 2016 electoral campaign due to the apparent amateurism of his social media usage. By publishing unprofessional tweets, the American presidential candidate succeeded in creating the image of an outsider and obtaining media coverage (Enli, 2017). The same could be said about Bolsonaro, who often uses his social media profiles to publish explicit offenses against his political opponents.

During the 2018 presidential election, the former army captain responded to a provocation by Haddad – who had suggested that the right-wing candidate was afraid of attending the debates – by tweeting a phrase which offended both the Workers’ Party candidate and former president Lula (who supported Haddad and was imprisoned at the time), which read: “You can be sure that your time is going to come, you corrupt prisoner’s bitch” (“Bolsonaro chama Haddad”, 2018). Unsurprisingly, the statement received vast coverage from the traditional media, proving the agenda-setting impact of social media platforms (Enli, 2017).

Social media are frequently seen – due to technological determinism – as bearers of authenticity

Bolsonaro’s strong personal influence is attested to by the fact that his supporters often refer to him as “The Myth”. The former army captain is seen by his voters as someone who, through strong leadership, could restore order and solve the ongoing economic, social and political crises of Brazil (Goldstein, 2018). During the presidential campaign, the conservative politician extensively exploited the use of nationalistic and religious imagery. One example is the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”, which was often featured on the pictures posted by the candidate on his social media accounts (Bolsonaro, 2018a).

While the mention of God can be related to Bolsonaro’s proximity to religious fundamentalists (Pasqualini, 2016), the first half of the slogan is quite similar to the Nazi-era motto “Deutschland über alles”. The flirtation with fascism is also present in the “finger-gun” salute that the candidate performed repetitively during the course of the campaign (Locker, 2018). The polysemic gesture could be interpreted in several different ways, including but not restricted to: a reinforcement of the candidate’s promise to take harsh measures against crime; a reminder of Bolsonaro’s pro-gun liberation stance; an allusion to his military background; and a demonstration of support for the former military regime of Brazil (Goldstein, 2018).

The ever-present gesture evokes Barthes’ (1991, p. 119) assertion that myths are based on the constant repetition of concepts (which can be, for instance, words or gestures). Besides the “finger-gun” salute, another important component of Bolsonaro’s campaign, repeated exhaustively, were his attacks on the left. He idealized and praised Brazil's military years, not unlike Trump’s references to the “great America” of the past (Goldstein, 2018). Meanwhile he demonized the left-wing, identified as the Workers’ Party, social movements and all the other “communists”, describing them as either a threat or the root of all evils in Brazilian society (Miguel, 2018). By adopting such strategy, Bolsonaro’s discourse matches Barthes’ (1991) definition of myth as a narrative that distorts reality, relying on caricature, pastiche and the use of symbols.

Finally, the personalization of politics and the “mythical” character of Bolsonaro’s campaign were perfectly blended in the aftermath of the attack the candidate suffered on September 6th in an as-of-yet not fully clarified incident. After being stabbed during a rally by a former member of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (“Socialism and Liberty Party”), the ultraconservative politician was hospitalized but did not stop being active on social media. His profiles often published pictures of the recovery process (Bragon, 2018; Philips, 2018). Such exposure reinforced the public’s perception of Bolsonaro as someone who is authentic to the point of sharing sensitive details of his private life. Moreover, the political exploitation of the attack added a new facet to the far-right candidate’s mythical image: that of the martyr, the warrior who is willing to die for his country while fighting the “evil left”.

Bolsonaro and the hybrid media system

Considering the historical relevance and unusual character of Bolsonaro’s victory, much more needs to be written about the 2018 election. Nevertheless, this paper sheds light on some significant aspects of that period. It is clear that Bolsonaro, similarly to other politicians, seeks to integrate his social media presence with exposure on legacy media and leverage the hybrid media system to his benefit (Chadwick, 2013).

Furthermore, the politician and his marketeers have been competent in exploring the candidate’s personal traits, successfully portraying him as an (anti-) hero – a mythical image which is reinforced by the coverage given to the former army captain by traditional media outlets. Bolsonaro’s persona blends exaggerated nationalism with religiosity, militarism and antileftism, among other characteristics. The ultraconservative politician’s success is, in great part, a consequence of his perceived authenticity – which is, in turn, connected to his intense use of social media. According to Enli (2017), social media are increasingly becoming direct sources of news, often bypassing mainstream media. This gives prominent politicians and their consultants more opportunities to spread their messages among voters, potentially reaching large amounts of people.

Nonetheless, the hybrid media system encompasses tensions and contradictions and, despite Bolsonaro’s success in winning the election, his victory might have come at a cost. By constantly attacking not only his political adversaries but oppressed social segments such as women, Afro-Brazilians and LGBT people, the politician has outraged millions of Brazilians. This resulted in the emergence of the movement #EleNão (“Not Him”), which started as a hashtag and developed into a series of protests that took hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in the weeks preceding the election (Hennigan, 2018). It is worth asking – and this might be a topic for further research – if these developments are connected to Bolsonaro’s floundering popularity in the first months of his presidential term (“Popularity of Bolsonaro”, 2019). 

Finally, Bolsonaro’s rise should not be seen as an isolated event, but rather as a consequence of political, economic and social factors such as the emergence of discourses which blend religious fundamentalism, anti-leftism and radical neoliberalism (Miguel, 2018; Rocha, 2018). The awareness of this intricate context might provide scholars with plenty of themes to explore in what concerns the rise of the extreme-right, not only in Brazil but also in other countries which have experienced similar developments.


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