Open access peer-reviewed chapter - ONLINE FIRST

Brazil’s Digital Politics and the Crisis of Democracy (2013-2018)

Written By

Hélder Ferreira do Vale

Submitted: 15 July 2022 Reviewed: 28 July 2022 Published: 07 September 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.106985

Democracy - Crises and Changes Across the Globe IntechOpen
Democracy - Crises and Changes Across the Globe Edited by Helder do Vale

From the Edited Volume

Democracy - Crises and Changes Across the Globe [Working Title]

Dr. Helder Ferreira do Vale

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Brazil is the fourth biggest digital democracy in the world, only after India, Indonesia, and the USA, with over one hundred and thirty million citizens having internet access. In Brazil, the more widespread internet and social media users have been increasingly associated with political polarization and antipartisanship. Also, wider access to digital information technology has meant that Brazilian internet users became more exposed to disinformation. In this context of polarization and antipartisanship, digital media helped to produce critical changes in the Brazilian political dynamics leading Brazil to a democratic crisis. This chapter explores the crisis of democracy in Brazil considering the country’s transition to becoming a digital democracy in 2014 when more than half of the population started having access to internet. To this end, the chapter process traces the critical political events that contributed to the Brazilian crisis of democracy as digital media normalized polarized and antisystem political discourses. This chapter concludes that digital politics poses considerable challenges to Brazilian democracy and proposes adequate institutional responses to digital social activism, suitable regulations of the new digital public spaces, and the elaboration of a new social contract to govern social and political dynamics considering the detrimental impacts of technological innovation on politics.


  • Brazil
  • digital democracy
  • digital media
  • crisis of democracy
  • political polarization

1. Introduction

How is digital politics being practised in Brazil? And how did digital media contribute to the democratic crisis in the country? In answering these questions, this chapter argues that Brazil is facing 2013 several political challenges and dilemmas, which are associated with digital media practices, e.g., information sharing and gatekeeping. This chapter holds that these practices were instrumental for political actors to adopt discourses, actions and measures detrimental to democracy.

Brazil is one of the biggest digital democracies in world with approximately 152 million citizens having access to the internet, which represents around 81% per cent of the country’s population [1]. For the great majority of Brazilians, the internet has become the main source of information. In 2013, for the first time, around fifty per cent of the Brazilian population started to have internet access and, in the same year, political polarization in the country started to take shape. Since then Brazil experienced several politically challenging moments: the emergence of nationwide mass protests demanding improvement of public services in 2013, the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016) in 2016, a large anti-corruption probe leading to the arrest of several high-profile politicians including former president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010), the collapse of representation of the main political parties in the 2018 national elections, and the constitutional impasses under far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro (2018-present). The cumulative effects of these critical moments indicate the existence of a democratic crisis in Brazil.

The crisis of democracy is understood as the result of the transformation of political dynamics in Brazil considering the use of digital information technology in shaping politics and policymaking. Considering these transformations, politics in Brazil increasingly became “digital” which means that digital media is a communication instrument through which politics and policymaking are exercised. The creation of new public space and the fragmentation of the public debate are among the critical features of digital politics [2]. In this new public sphere, it is possible to suggest that “the media serve as conduits of affective expression” ([3], p. 4). The participation of the different audiences through digital media takes the form of “affectively charged discourses” ([3], p. 4) that turn politics into an increasingly personal matter.

With changes in the public sphere, and thus the political environment, digital media became a medium of public engagement that considerably reduced participation costs while increasing the reach and effect of political activism [4]. Democracy and its institutions under digital politics became “ineffective” in responding to networked citizens and politicians. Furthermore, democratic institutions turned into a hurdle and thus a target of networked political groups.

The outcome of the delegitimization of democracy in Brazil has been the crisis of democracy that culminated with Bolsonaro’s election as Brazil’s president in 2018. This chapter argues that during the critical events which unfolded in a context of polarization and antipartisanship, digital media played a fundamental role in filtering and disseminating news. More specifically, the polarized information sharing and the gatekeeping behavior of the digital media functioned as mechanisms for the crisis of democracy in Brazil.

This crisis is characterized by the strengthening of anti-democratic values and behaviors as well as by the adoption of populist discourse and measures. This political phenomenon has more recently been referred to as authoritarian populism, which is described by the existence of leaders and citizens that value nationalism and tradition and promote resentment toward outsiders and traditional political elites [5].1 This chapter recognizes that Bolsonaro’s Brazil is part of this global wave of authoritarian populism, yet here this political phenomenon is simply referred to as the crisis of democracy.

Considering this context, this chapter explores how digital information technology contributed to the crisis of democracy in Brazil. With this objective, the chapter process traces the critical political events in Brazil since 2013 and associates these events with the use of digital information technology by digital media.2

The argument of the analysis is based on some assumptions. First, the emergence of digital politics is associated with new political dynamics which are mainly characterized by higher levels of political engagement through online political participation [9]. Second, although digital media has brought new actors and behaviors to mass communication, the traditional media remains influential in setting political agendas [10]. Third, ideological polarization influences behavior creating effective polarization. And fourth, in the Brazilian case, since 2008 voters and political candidates have been increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in election campaigns [11].

This chapter is structured in six sections, which include this section. The next section explains the main elements of the analysis and describes how the observed outcome, crisis of democracy, is related to a sequence of events in which digital media amplified its negative effects on democratic dynamics. The third section analyzes the media industry in Brazil to clarify the structure of media concentration in the country and its implications for the country’s political affairs. The fourth section focuses on Brazil’s digital media and analyzes its modus operandi. Highlighting the role of digital media, the following section process traces the critical political events since 2013 and identifies the causal mechanisms that were instrumental to the emergence of a crisis of democracy in Brazil. The final section concludes.


2. Framework of analysis

This chapter interprets the crisis of democracy in Brazil as the result of a sequence of critical events that were connected through the gatekeeping and sharing news behavior of the digital media.3 Specifically, polarization and antipartisanship were disseminated and amplified through digital media.

This analysis focuses on five critical events: the 2013 nationwide mass anti-system protests, the 2014 presidential elections, the large-scale corruption probe, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the 2018 presidential elections. Each of these events is related through a sequence that leads to the outcome of the crisis of democracy in Brazil.4 From the first event to the last event, it is possible to observe a decreasing regime and government legitimacy in Brazil which in turn culminated in the elections of Bolsonaro in 2018 and the substantial loss of votes of once politically established parties in Brazil (e.g., Workers Party - PT, Brazilian Social Democracy Party - PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party - MDB).5

Digital media, particularly online newspapers and social platforms has been active in distributing news associated with threats to democracy, which led to the normalization of extreme anti-system discoursed and attitudes that activated the mechanism of antipartisanship. This normalization was mainly realized through the distancing of the mobilized left from digital media following the 2013 events [14], the attempt of the media to depict the opposition to Bolsonaro as anti-system [15], and the radical-right wing activism initially perceived as a triumph of democracy ([16], p. 467).

As part of this news-sharing behavior, digital media normalized Bolsonaro’s populist discourse [15] and disseminated antisystem news that finds its support in the growing antipartisanship of Brazilians [16]. Digital media contributed to the context of political polarization, as the media exercise a gatekeeping role in filtering information to the public [17].

Figure 1 provides an overview of the process leading to the crisis of democracy in Brazil with the five events that are interconnected by the mechanisms of polarization and antipartisanship. Each event is consequential to the crisis of democracy because they are indirectly related to the outcome of the process. In other words, the cumulative effect of the events led to the Brazilian crisis of democracy.

Figure 1.

Sequence and mechanisms behind Brazil’s democratic crisis.

Political polarization is defined here as the hardening of the electorate’s preferences along diametrically opposed ideological orientations. The polarization of the political environment is among one of the triggers of the news-sharing institutions that attempt to target the more polarized preferences of readers to guarantee wider readership. With the increase of political polarization in Brazil, which is already present during the political discourses of presidential candidates during the 2014 elections [18], political dynamics, particularly voting behavior were subjective to social, moral, and religious values [19]. In this context, polarization has the potential to influence the behavior of the media in sharing news [17].

To explain the political polarization behavior of digital media, the chapter bases its analysis on the conclusions of [17] concerning news sharing in polarized social media contexts. This model proposes the following. In terms of gatekeeping, the editors of media organizations select news that appeal more to readers of extreme ideological positions. As such, over time, gatekeeping reinforces extreme positions. In terms of news sharing, these extreme readers pay greater attention to positions that are congruent to their ideological preferences and become active in sharing extreme news. News sharing is reinforced as there is further congruence among readers with the news outlets embracing more extreme positions. However, the size of the digital news outlet matters; the larger the news outlets, the less they engage with the gatekeeping and news sharing as described above because they have a reputation to preserve. Their reputation makes these large news outlets appeal more to an ideologically wider network of readers, which in turn allows these outlets to have a higher number of readers closer to the center of the political spectrum and be less dependent on the congruence of readers.

In addition to polarization, antipartisanship increased among Brazilians contributing to a context of greater hostility and delegitimization of democracy and its institutions. The major corruption probe, “Operation Car Wash” (Operação Lava Jato), which was a criminal investigation initiated by the Brazilian federal police in 2014, led to the indictment of high-profile politicians mainly from 2015 to 2017 decreased the level of confidence in political parties. Electorally, the most affected political parties in this environment were the Workers Party and the PSDB, which monopolized the presidential elections campaign since 1994 and elected all Brazilian presidents from 1994 to 2016. Although antipartisanship equally affected both parties [16], mobilization of right-wing movements, which started to emerge in 2013, became more articulated and influential over time [20]. In this volatile political scenario, the support for military intervention and the mistrust in key political institutions (e.g., judiciary, political parties, congress) was very high in 2018 [21].


3. Brazil’s media industry

Brazilian media conglomerates are in the hands of few families that detain considerable economic and political power. As a powerful player, Brazil’s mainstream media has been influential in the political affairs of the country. Historically, traditional Brazilian media has operated under a political bias that has its roots in the state concession of public operating licenses necessary for telecommunication companies to work in the sector. To understand the nature of the intricate relationship between media and politics in Brazil, this chapter provides a brief analysis of the structure and main features of media concentration in the country.

3.1 Media concentration

Ownership concentration is reflected in the influence of large broadcasting companies (e.g., Globo, SBT, Band, Record) in terms of their territorial reach and their audience share. In 2015, research carried out by Mídia Dados Brasil showed that only four broadcasting companies aired for more than 10% of the total Brazilian municipalities: Globo reached 98.6% of the Brazilian cities; SBT, 85.7%; Record, 79.3%; Band, 64.1%; and Rede TV, 56.7%. In addition to the monopoly of some TV networks over territorial reach, these networks are also leaders in audience rating. According to Kantar IBOPE, in 2016. Globo obtained on average 36.9% of audience share, followed by SBT and Record, which respectively reached 14.9% and 14.7% of total audience rating, and the remaining broadcasters had single-digit percentages [22]6.

As far as the printing press is concerned, approximately 50% of Brazilian readers consume content from only three companies, namely, Globo, Folha, RBS, and Sada [22]. Online media content is also dominated by groups, namely G1, UOL, R7, and IGm which all together concentrate 58.75% of the online media audience [22].

Mainstream media in Brazil has overwhelmingly sided with actors and institutions on the right of the ideological political spectrum [24]. Only over the past two decades, media establishments on the left of the ideological political spectrum have diversified a little bit the political orientation of the Brazilian media. The Spanish newspaper El País and the American news organization The Intercept started to produce local content in Brazil providing readers a perspective outside of the mainstream media.7 Also, since 2011, a left-wing news organization with a decentralized organizational structure, the Media Ninja, has been able to cover issues, problems, and concerns (e.g., gender, environmental, human rights) commonly overlooked by the traditional media.

Furthermore, this media concentration has important implications for the Brazilian democracy provided that it negatively affects political accountability and transparency of governments. Mainstream media in Brazil favors traditional values and a parochial political culture based on low appreciation for freedom of expression, individual rights, and open debate [26, 27].8 This tendency has been increasing with the growing participation of evangelicals in the telecommunication sector in Brazil. The mass media has been used as a mechanism for growing religious groups in Brazil to increase their public visibility and evangelize the public [29].

As a strong sign that Brazilian mass media is becoming increasingly religious, a study from the National Cinema Agency [30] suggests that from 2012 to 2016 the airtime religious content almost doubled in Brazil. In 2012, religious content corresponded to 13,6% of all aired content, while in 2016 this figure reached 21,2%. The TV channel leader in aired time dedicated to religious programs in 2016 was Rede TV with 43,41% of its broadcasting time devoted to religious programs while Record had 21,75%, followed by Band, with 16,4%, TV Brasil, with 1,66%, and Globo, with 0,58%.

3.2 Media and politics

In Brazil, the history of mass media concentration is closely connected to political dynamics. Many factors contributed to the close relationship between mass media ownership and politics; however, the necessity to obtain a public concession for TV networks and radio stations to operate is a leading factor [31].9 The state has been historically very present in regulating the telecommunication sector in Brazil, requiring economically powerful families to enter politics to obtain licenses to operate TV and radio stations. Indeed, the development of self-serving relationship between telecommunication tycoons with politicians has been almost a prerequisite to entering the telecommunication sector. That said, ownership of TV, radio, and newspapers in Brazil is an asset that wealthy families use to influence politics and shape the public agenda.

Brazilian national legislation sets clear limits on the ownership of telecommunication companies by elected officials. For example, Article 54 of the Federal Constitution prohibits congressmen and women to own any television or radio networks. Moreover, national decree 52.795/1963 forbids anyone who enjoys political immunity from prosecution to manage and directly oversee any radio-television businesses. However, the implementation of national legislation that formally prohibits the involvement of politicians in the media sector has been lex. As of 2018, thirty-two representatives and eight senators in the National Congress owned broadcasting companies.

The history of the influential Magalhães family, which today owns most TVs, radio stations, and newspapers in the state of Bahia, illustrates well the politics of mass media communication in Brazil. The family patriarch, Antônio Carlos Magalhães (1927–2007), started his political career and ownership of local communication companies in Bahia already during the Brazilian military regime (1964–1988).10 As Brazil transitioned to and consolidated its democracy, its political and economic power grew, particularly from 1985 to 1990, when Magalhães became minister of communications. In this period, he approved 1.028 public broadcasting licenses [32], which were used in exchange for personal benefits.

Under his mandate as communications minister, Magalhães granted several broadcasting licenses to members of his own family. To maintain the political influence of his family, he managed to win elections for many of his family members including his son and grandson. His grandson, Antônio Carlos Magalhães Neto, has been elected twice as a federal representative (2003–2007; 2010–2012) and as the mayor of Salvador (2013–2020). Magalhães Neto occupied these elected posts while being the director of a local broadcasting company, Rede Bahia. This tale reveals how business owners in the media sector have been an important asset for families to augment their power to the extent that an enthusiastic supporter of the Brazilian military regime such as Magalhães became one of the most influential elected politicians of democratic Brazil.

Other families that have built their political careers through control of local media include the Collor’s in the state of Alagoas, the Barbalho in the state of Pará, and the Jereissati’s in the state of Ceará. The Collor’s have built a local broadcasting empire in Alagoas which was critical for members of the family to monopolize local politics for several decades. As a result of the political power that the family exercised, a member of the Collor clan, Fernando Collor de Mello became the first Brazilian democratically elected president in 1989 with the end of the military regime (1964–1985). In 1992 Collor de Mello, who currently occupies a seat in the National Senate and faced an impeachment process in 1994 under accusation of corruption.


4. Digital politics and democracy

With the spread of digital communication technology and wider access to internet, for the majority of Brazilians online information is replacing television as the main source of news [33]. Nowadays Brazil is home to approximately 152 million mobile internet users, becoming in 2019 the fifth country in the world with the largest number of internet users [1].

The percentage of internet users that use online platforms to have access to news is high in Brazil. Compared to four other countries, namely Germany, Japan, the UK and the USA, Brazil is the second country, only after Japan, with the highest percentage of internet users, 44%, who search for news on social media platforms [34].

The growing presence of foreign big tech companies in Brazil tends to break the media monopoly of the largest traditional media companies in the country.11 In 2012, the top five most visited news and media publisher website in Brazil belonged to Brazilian media groups such as UOL, Terra, and Globo, and two were foreign, MSN and Yahoo [35].12 In 2022, Brazilian media groups have consolidated their lead, and only Yahoo is the foreign owned platform that remains of the top five list.

Under the massification of the internet and smartphones, internet users in Brazil became more vulnerable to disinformation. A particular feature of Brazilian internet users that contributes to the diffusion of fake news is their preference to predominantly use online time contacting people through social media, voice/video calls, and content sharing. In 2020, internet users in Brazil spent most of their time sending instant messages (93%), communicating through voice or video calls (80%), accessing social networks (72%) and reading news through online magazines, newspapers, and other news platforms (64%) [1]. Although the use of digital media is only the fourth most popular activity among Brazilian internet users, there is a substantial increase in this internet activity from 56% in 2019 to 64% in 2020 [1].

In 2020, social media has superseded TV as the main source of information in Brazil [36]. Particularly Facebook and WhatsApp became the main sources of news in Brazil. It is estimated that 54% of Brazilians use Facebook as a source of news, while 48% of the population relies on WhatsApp for news [37].13

News on politics and current events are primarily accessed through Facebook, although WhatsApp has become popular as users who share news coming from different sources [37]. Politicians and their aids resort to Twitter as part of their digital communication strategies to reach followers [38, 39]. In the political context under which these companies have grown in Brazil, they have functioned as a “filter bubble” and worked in favor of polarization. Indeed, digital communication technologies have created a type of “pernicious polarization” which has been characterized by delegitimization of ideologically opposing groups and by discrediting these groups [16]. The perception among voters of being exposed to disinformation is high in Brazil, but this perception is higher among right-wing voters, who report more the existence of disinformation, than among left and centrist voters [37].

It is important to mention that Google and Facebook have been committed to mitigating the problems of fake news in Brazil by undertaking major efforts to create a healthier media environment in the country (e.g., creation of fact-checking system, banning of purveyors of fake news). Google is engaging with local partners such as Lupa Agency and Futura Channel to launch initiatives like the project “Fake or News” with the purpose of bringing public awareness to the problem of disinformation.

Initiatives to combat fake news, nonetheless, should target socio-structural issues such as digital literacy, which in turn is associated with the quality of education and overall literacy rate. The low quality of education and high levels of functional illiteracy in Brazil create the perfect environment for fake news. According to the Indicator for Functional Illiteracy, which assesses functional illiteracy in Brazil, approximately 46% of the Brazilian adult population in 2015 was functionally illiterate [40]. This means that almost half of the Brazilian adult population faces problems interpreting written content which compromises their ability to assess and understand news.


5. The impact of the digital media on politics

As previously suggested, the process of democratic crisis in Brazil has two mechanisms that interconnect different events, building a sequence of events. The analysis below shows that this process was reinforced over time and there were several actors (e.g., activists, journalists, voters, politicians) using digital information technology to participate in and influence online debates and public opinion.

In the sequence of events, the mechanisms reinforced early events which indicate that polarization and antipartisanship were being magnified as time passed. As the magnitude of influence of each event increments over time, the events closer to the outcome are magnified. That said, the final event of the process, Bolsonaro’s election has a greater impact on the outcome than the previous events because the mechanisms have been magnified with the passage of time. However, earlier events despite their lower magnitude are necessary as initial triggers of the process. For example, the very first event in this chain, the nationwide mass protests, despite their lower magnitude were necessary to initially trigger the polarization and antipartisanship mechanisms. Differently, Operation Car Wash due to its large duration was concurrent to all the subsequent events, and therefore outlived the duration of all these later events such as Rousseff’s impeachment and the election of Bolsonaro. Therefore, Operation Car Wash is a causal event because unlike the previous events, which were consequential to the outcome, directly impacted the subsequent events and the outcome.14

In short, every single event contributed to the crisis of democracy and thus was relevant to understanding the crisis of democracy. However, each event fulfilled a specific function in the chain of events. Table 1 summarizes the manifestations of the polarization and antipartisanship mechanisms in each of the five events of the process of crisis of democracy in Brazil and identifies their specific functions.

EventsPolarization mechanismAntipartisanship mechanismFunction in the chain of events
Nationwide antisystem mass protestsWide use of digital media for political activismPolice and judicial repression against protests triggered antipartisan attitudes, particularly against the governing Workers PartyFunctioned as an initial trigger of the mechanisms
Reelection of Dilma RousseffUtilization of fake news and automated accounts in social platforms during the presidential elections campaignAntipartisan attitudes started to be consolidated against the Workers PartyAmplified the magnitude of the mechanism
Corruption probe (Operation Car Wash)Digital media associated Operation Car Wash with the Left through gatekeeping and news sharingLeaks to the media of judicial actions and court documents. The leaks mainly targeted the Workers PartyEvolved concurrently to the subsequent events and directly influenced these events and the outcome
Impeachment of Dilma RousseffThe dominance of ideologically extreme groups (particularly right-wing groups) and individuals in online debatesPro-impeachment supporters used online platforms not only to favor the impeachment of Rousseff but also to attack the Workers PartyAmplified the magnitude of the mechanisms
Election of Jair BolsonaroUse of violent rhetoric and the media’s normalization of this rhetoricMassive spread of fake news against candidatesConsiderably amplified the magnitude of the mechanisms over the outcome

Table 1.

Events and causal mechanisms.

Source: Own elaboration.

5.1 Nationwide antisystem protests

The June 2013 mass protests in São Paulo, which subsequently spread throughout the country, marked the use of digital platforms to disseminate ideas and news on a large-scale. These protests have their origins mainly on the Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre), which relied on activism on internet platforms to promote offline actions based on the demand for free transportation fares and for improved public services. The street protests often ended with clashes with the police and subsequent judicial actions against protestors leading to the criminalization of protests by state institutions [43]. Increasingly the movements and the protests attracted working- and middle-class support. Quickly the movement widened its demands. And its massive internet support favored the promotion of hashtags such as #PasseLivre (#FreeFair, the name of the movement), #ProtestaBrasil (#ProtestBrazil), and #BrasilAcordou (#BrazilWake-Up).

The mass anti-system protests represent a critical juncture in the process of crisis of democracy. This means that as belonging to a critical juncture period, the mass protests changed and established institutional parameters such as new behaviors, range of actors, and norms. That said, the causal mechanisms of polarization and antipartisanship were incipient at the time of the protests. Polarization started with the use of mainly Facebook and Twitter to mobilize citizens to protest, which at the time was an innovation in the history of social movements in Brazil [44]. Antipartisanship started in 2013 with the shift of focus of these protests from demand for better public services to anti-petismo (anti-Workers Party) [45].

As an initial event of a process, the June 2003 protests are linked to the subsequent events through these causal mechanisms. For example, the organization Free Fare Movement inspired the creation of other movements such as the Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre - MBL) and the Come to The Street (Vem pra Rua – VPR), which were critical for the polarization of the 2014 presidential elections and the impeachment of Rousseff in 2016.15 Above all, the June 2003 mass protests marked the presence of visible right-wing groups and the emergence of resentment against the Workers Party [46].

5.2 Reelection of Dilma Rousseff

Under a highly polarized presidential election [18], Rousseff was reelected in 2014. With less than 3% vote difference from her contender Aécio Neves, Rousseff’s victory was narrow indicating a fierce competition for votes. The electoral support for Rousseff’s party, the Workers Party, substantially decreased in most Brazilian states and municipalities.16

Rousseff’s reelection was marked by negative campaigns among candidates, fake news, and use of fake accounts on social networks [48]. During the campaign, some candidates resorted to fake news against other candidates. One of the most notorious cases of fake news during the elections was diffused by Rousseff’s campaign against the candidate Marina Silva, whose popularity was rapidly increasing among voters in the first round of the election but didn’t go to the second round and ended in third place.17

In the second round, the aggressive dispute for votes continued, and online social media, particularly Twitter, became instrumental to disseminate ideas and show support for the two candidates. The use of fake accounts on social media was specifically used with the intention to fictitiously show support for the candidates. Considering total twits related to the televised debate between Rousseff and Neves in the second round of elections, tweets and retweets from automated accounts (indicating the existence of a fake account) reached 19,41% for Neves supporters and 9.76% for Rousseff supporters [50]. In other words, Neves’ supporters were more able to manipulate the level of support than Rousseff’s supporters.

The mechanisms of polarization and antipartisanship were reinforced during the presidential elections. And as such, after the elections, the environment of political confrontation continued to compromise the governability of the country on several fronts. Politically, Rousseff’s government was unable to impose its political agenda. The leadership of Rousseff throughout her mandate weakened due to alleged corruption of close aids and politicians from her party and party coalition.18 Furthermore, polarization in the congressional arena created a stalemate in the approval of critical legislation. Socially, the crisis further deteriorated the confidence of citizens in public institutions, leading to higher levels of social and political discontent. Economically, the international financial community lost confidence in the ability of Brazilian authorities to control inflation and balance public accounts.

5.3 Corruption probe

The biggest corruption scheme in democratic Brazil, the corruption probe nicknamed Operation Car Wash was created in 2014 to investigate the overpriced contracts of the Brazilian state oil company, Petrobrás. Since 2003, several parties from different ideological orientations, together with the ruling leftist Workers Party, utilized public concessions and contracts granted to a few construction conglomerates to enrich politicians. These contracts were granted to a cartel of private companies that in return bribed public officials. Estimates indicate that the total amount siphoned off reach $2 billion (US dollar). The corruption resulted in an estimated loss of $50 billion US to Petrobrás [51].

This operation in two years since its creation put over 60 serving politicians from different political parties under investigation and condemned approximately 90 defendants with lengthy sentences. Never in the history of Brazil has a probe against corruption involved so many politicians, including the speakers of the lower and upper houses of the National Congress, and former president Lula da Silva.

Lula da Silva was indicted in 2016, convicted of money laundering and corruption, sentenced in 2017 to twelve years in prison, and imprisoned in 2018. Although he had ample rights to appeal, Lula da Silva and his followers claimed that their rights were not respected and that he was the victim of a broad political campaign against the Left. His trial was controversial because it was fast-tracked through the courts and confidential documents and information concerning the trial were often leaked to the media.

The belief that the judicial system was biased grew stronger over time. In 2018, a few days after Bolsonaro won the presidential elections, he invited the lead judge of Operation Car Wash, Sérgio Moro, to be justice minister of his government. After being in Bolsonaro’s cabinet for fourteen months, Moro resigned in April 2020 accusing Bolsonaro of attempting to illegally interfere in the affairs of the Ministry of Justice.

While a cabinet member, Moro’s credibility was affected by accusations of impartiality and misconduct as a judge of Operation Car Wash. In June 2019, the online newspaper Intercept published leaked Telegram messages between Moro and the lead public prosecutor of Operation Car Wash, Deltan Dallagnol. In the messages, Moro instructs and advises Dallagnol on how to investigate Lula da Silva. This scandal augmented pressures for the release of Lula da Silva from prison. In November 2019, Lula da Silva was released from prison after the Supreme Court overturned a decision that used to allow the arrest of defendants who have been convicted while waiting for their appeals to be reviewed. In March 2021, Lula da Silva’s conviction was annulled because a Supreme Court judge decided that the lower court that convicted the former president had no jurisdiction to try him.19

There were in total 14 political parties involved in the corruption scheme, yet the media overwhelmingly focused on the Workers Party. Brazilian media systematically made a strong association between Operation Car Wash and the Workers Party [52, 53]. Under a cascade of corruption news, digital media was essential in selecting and disseminating the news, and in this scenario, the media helped to frame the news against the Workers Party [54].

Public opinion surveys indicate that the population despite bias of the media covering corruption issues remained divided in relation to the long-term effect of Operation Car Wash. In the climax of the corruption probe, in 2017 with the arrest of Lula da Silva, public opinion was divided over the effect of the probe on future corruption; whereas 45% of citizens expected that corruption would decrease in Brazil, other 44% believed that things would remain the same [55]. Although oscillating over time, public support in favor of Operation Car Wash was high reaching 61% of the Brazilians in March 2019 [56].

5.4 Impeachment of Dilma Rousseff

The impeachment of Rousseff represents a rupture of a political mandate with important consequences for the Brazilian democracy. One of the main factors that influenced the impeachment of Rousseff in 2016 was the advancement of Operation Car Wash, which negatively impacted the popularity of Rousseff’s government.

The anti-corruption investigations made important advancements in early 2016, reaching former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was accused of personally benefiting from Petrobrás’ corruption. His involvement in the scandals weakened Rousseff, his political protégée and successor. At the time she became the most unpopular Brazilian president in decades, with a popularity rate that barely reaches 10% [51].

Rousseff had an unusual response to the intensification of the corruption investigations that accompanied the success of Operation Car Wash. Also, police intercepts of phone calls between the ex-president with Rousseff and several cabinet ministers disclosed their intention to influence the decisions of judges at the Supreme Court. She nominated Lula da Silva as a government minister to grant him legal privileges and shield him from being indicted. Court injunctions prevented Lula da Silva from taking office.

The involvement of Rousseff in the corruption scheme was never proven. However, the impeachment process went ahead under the accusation that Rousseff mismanaged public funds, thus violating public finance regulations. The street protests were critical to pressurize parliamentarians to impeach Rousseff. On March 12, 2016, more than 3.5 million pro-impeachment demonstrators marched throughout the country.

Following these massive protests, the National Congress started procedures for the impeachment of Rousseff, a move supported by 68% of the Brazilian electorate [57]. In the battle for political survival, Rousseff had little leverage power to maintain a shrinking coalition in the National Congress. Her party tried to mobilize the left popular base; however, this attempt was not very successful. Rousseff was formally impeached by the lower house in April 2016, and in September of the same year, the senate approved and confirmed her impeachment.

The use of hashtags from Twitter accounts shows that among those who were pro-impeachment, the legality or illegality of the process didn’t matter, and their messages contained elements of anti-petismo [58]. The hashtags suggest a greater capacity of pro-impeachment actors, who were mainly right-wind sympathizers, to share messages than anti-impeachment actors. In the pro-impeachment messages, in addition to the most common hashtags calling citizens to take the streets (e.g., #VemPraRuaBrasil #ForaDilma), there were hashtags created against the Workers Party (e.g., #ForaPT, #LulaNaCadeia).20 Moreover, the traditional media disseminated the perception that the country was collapsing under Rousseff’s government and that the impeachment process wasn’t politically motived [53, 59].

The mechanism of polarization appeared with the dominance of ideologically extreme groups and individuals active in online debates. Considering the pro-impeachment and anti-impeachment camps, messages on platforms from the former prevailed over the latter. The mechanisms of antipartisanship against the Workers Party were common among pro-impeachment supporters, although in principle what should be the target of the impeachment of Rousseff was the specific accusation against her.

5.5 Election of Jair Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro won the second round of presidential elections on October 28, 2018, with almost 60 million votes, or 55% of valid votes cast. He defeated his contender, the Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad, who received approximately 44% of the votes. After a radicalized and violent campaign, Bolsonaro’s victory marks the beginning of an authoritarian leadership style marked by divisive rhetoric, hostility towards democratic institutions and liberal practices, and violence against minorities [21, 46, 60].

The most relevant episodes of the campaign were the stabbing of Bolsonaro at a campaign rally and the decision of the Brazilian electoral court to ban Lula da Silva from participating in the presidential elections as a candidate. Bolsonaro, who trailed Lula da Silva by a wide margin throughout the campaign, saw a boost in the polls after he was stabbed on September 6, 2018. His attacker appears to suffer from mental health problems, but the attacker’s Facebook posts also showed outrage at both Bolsonaro and Brazil’s political system in general.

Subsequently, the election was thrown into further disarray a few days later when front-runner Lula da Silva, who remained jailed on corruption charges, was forced to withdraw from the presidential bid after electoral judicial authorities ruled that he could not stand for office due to his conviction. Public opinion was divided about the decision: 49% of the electorate supported Lula da Silva’s candidacy in the presidential elections, and 48% was against Lula da Silva’s right to participate in the presidential bid [61]. With less than a month to go before election day, the Workers Party chose Fernando Haddad, education minister under Lula da Silva’s government, to replace Lula on the ticket. Lula had been in first place with 37% of voter support, but his forced withdrawal put Bolsonaro into the lead.

Fake news in the 2018 presidential elections was valuable for the Bolsonaro campaign in at least three ways: to gather political support from one side of the polarize audience by disseminating disinformation about the other side, to further mobilize political supporters to participate in polarized debates, and as an attention diverting tool strategy to recurrent political scandals involving Bolsonaro and his family. Under these disinformation strategies, the Workers Party campaign, and in particular Lula da Silva, was the main target of fake news in the 2018 electoral year, which was disseminated by digital and mainstream media [42].

It is increasingly clear that Bolsonaro greatly benefited from fake news to win the 2018 presidential elections by resorting to demagogic rumors (e.g., the hacking of the Brazilian electronic voting system by the Venezuelan government) mainly disseminated through WhatsApp messages. According to the fact-checking organization Aos Fatos, on three critical days (October 14, 15, and 16) of the presidential election campaign of 2018, 1.504 WhatsApp accounts were sent to different WhatsApp groups 14.090 messages containing fake news against Bolsonaro’s political opponents [62].

There are strong signs that the method of spreading fake news during the 2018 presidential campaign was sponsored by several private companies such as Havan. The private sponsorship of any activity of political campaigns in Brazil is illegal because the Brazilian electoral legislation prohibits private donations to electoral campaigns.


6. Final considerations

The question of how the use of digital information technology under polarization and antipartisanship led to the crisis of democracy in Brazil was answered considering the role of digital media. As indicated in the analysis, Brazil’s crisis of democracy is intertwined with the country’s transition to becoming a digital democracy. With higher internet penetration in Brazil, digital media gained political prominence, and it normalized the polarized antipartisan political discourses and behaviors by filtering and sharing news that pleased the growing numbers of digital readers. Under digital media’s normalization behavior of ideological extremism, which functioned to further polarization and antipartisanship, it was consequential to the crisis of democracy that deepened during Bolsonaro’s government.

The chapter holds that five critical events built a chain leading to the crisis of democracy. These sequential events are the 2013 street protests, the 2014 presidential elections, the corruption probe Operation Car Wash, the impeachment of Rousseff, and the 2018 presidential elections. After describing the context against which the process of democratic crisis unfolded the chapter explains the mechanisms that reinforced polarization and antisystem actions.

The chapter suggests that Brazil became a fertile ground for radical social media activism, propagation of fake news, and utilization of automated social media accounts. In a polarized context, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp became instruments for the spread of false and misleading information. Brazil’s particular vulnerability to fake news greatly benefited politicians with authoritarian populist inclinations such as Bolsonaro, who never had a clear political agenda and a plan of action to solve Brazil’s problems. Once elected, Bolsonaro continued resorting to fake news to hide his lack of viable ideas to lead Brazil and to distract public attention in moments of crisis. Indeed, for a politician like Bolsonaro with a declining popularity rating throughout his mandate, the dissemination of fake news became an instrument of governability.21

The analysis has some limitations. First, it lacks a distinction between ideological and effective polarization, which is critical to understanding political participation and political dynamics in digital politics [64]. Second, antipartisanship is only broadly considered ignoring the differences between reactive and cultural antipartisanship [16]. And third, there is a wide number of players that participate in digital politics, whose actions and counter-reactions should be systematically mapped in the process leading up to the democratic crisis.

Despite these limitations, the chapter makes important contributions. First, it builds a stylized narrative connecting the different events that led to the democratic crisis in which digital media is a central player in the political outcome. Second, this chapter recognizes the multidimensional character of the democratic crisis in Brazil, yet it prioritizes digital information technology as being instrumental to the political changes in the country since 2014. Third, there are structural and institutional aspects that favored the emergence of new political dynamics (e.g., spread of fake news, political use of digital platforms, digital political strategies, radicalization of political discourse) and these new practices are associated with the emergence of the crisis of democracy. And fourth, the process of the democratic crisis was neither accidental nor orchestrated, instead it was contingent upon the interaction of actors, institutions, causal mechanisms, and context.

These contributions have implications for digital politics in developing countries. In terms of democratic political dynamics in the age of digital politics, digital social activism, which has been historically critical for socio-political transformations in the developmental context, changed the costs and benefits of collection actions. While the costs of participation through online digital technology have been reduced, there was the creation of incentives for more active participation of citizens with more extreme ideological positions. In this scenario of transformed state-society relations, state institutions should provide specific responses to the more radicalized forms of societal engagement. Future research should explore responses to accommodate this type of radicalized participation having in view the moderation of ideologically extreme preferences.

On the question of how to govern the new public space under the influence of digital media, state regulation of this space should be considered [65]. Although digital information technology has thrived under little regulation, its widespread use and socio-political impacts require regulation as [66] recommends: “Policies are needed to improve skills, address market failures, limit harms and reduce inequality […]” (p. 58) Regulation, for example, is needed to set limits to and responsibilities for the sharing of fake news. The social problems related to the propagation of misinformation (e.g., functional illiteracy, digital inequality) should be particularly considered in the elaboration of policies, norms, and legislation to control the spread of fake news. Furthermore, electoral legislation should consider the impact of digital information technology on electoral competition and establish limits and sanctions on platforms and social media users that misinform and disinform the public.

The recognition that a digital political reality has emerged [67] calls for a new social contract. This social contract would be rooted in the premise that we are in a new phase of the digital age in which technological innovation, digital media, and big data may be detrimental to social interest, particularly knowing that dominant global internet platforms are not easily regulated by national governments [68] and they don’t apply the principles of the rule of law [69]. For this new social contract to take shape governments should join efforts to coordinate a global response to ensure quality and equality of participation in the use of internet ([70], p. 231). In the task of creating a new social contract, individual citizens have their share of responsibility [71] as this new social contract would rely on the deepening of democratic values.


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  • In advanced democracies, authoritarian populism is often interpreted as the result of cultural backlashes [5] and of a crisis of state institutions, e.g., corruption [6]. In less advanced democracies, authoritarian populism has also been analyzed as a backlash, however with an additional cause, as the result of failed neoliberal economic reforms [7].
  • The type of process-tracing that this analysis pursues is that of induction, which means that there is an attempt to unpack causal and temporal mechanisms [8].
  • The analysis is methodologically based on the perspective that outcomes of a process are linked by causal mechanisms, which in turn are traceable through a comparative sequential method [12].
  • This sequence of events is built through the starting date of each event. However, as each event has a different duration, they can overlap with other subsequent events. This is the case, for example, of the corruption probe Operation Car Wash.
  • Data from [13] shows the weakening of democracy and its governments in Brazil provided that the country between 2015 and 2020 presented the lowest consecutive rates of approval of the national government. As far as the support for democracy is concerned, in the same period Brazilians’ support for democracy decreased in relation to previous years.
  • Although the audience share of broadcasting companies have not changed much over the past years, the top three broadcasters are decreasing their audience share ([23], p. 115).
  • The Portuguese edition of El País was published from 2013 to 2021. In an open letter to its readers, El País explained that the decision to halt the publication of the Portuguese edition was due to financial reasons [25].
  • It is possible to associate the Brazilian media with these general characteristics, as [28] suggests in reference to the Brazilian press. However, newspapers in Brazil have undergone different stages of transformation since the 1950s transiting from a conservative position to a more progressive one.
  • This license model created a dynamic in which politicians became increasingly involved in the concession of licenses and the media became more engaged in delegitimizing politicians ([31], p. 47).
  • Throughout his political career he had many influential public posts: deputy of the National Congress (1962–1967), mayor of Salvador (1967–1970), twice Bahia’s governor (1971–1975; 1979–1983), senator (1994–2001), and president of the Senate (1997–2001).
  • Foreign companies like Google, Facebook and YouTube help to diversify the number of companies providing online services in different categories ranging from search engine, media networking and streaming in Brazil.
  • The most visited news sites in order of ranking were by number of unique visitors were: (50 million), (46 million), (38 million), (32 million), and (28 million) ([15], p. 32).
  • An increasing number of younger adults are using Instagram as a platform to access news [37].
  • There is often a tendency to classify processes as either intensive or extensive [41]. Although the process traced here would be generally classified as intensive because there is a “tightly connected sequences of events” intermediated by causal mechanisms ([42], p. 459), the process here presents a complex causality provided that the Operation Car Wash considerably amplified the magnitude of the mechanism over the outcome of the process and directly influenced the outcome.
  • The original name of the organization was Movimento Renovação Liberal (Liberal Renewal Movement), which was created after the June 2013 protests.
  • Brazil is a federal country in which territorial politics play an important role in the electoral strategies of political parties [47].
  • The fake news spread about Silva was related to the disinformation that she had intention, if elected, to end the social assistance program Bolsa Família. The Bolsa Família was one of the flagships social assistant cash-transfer programs that was substantially expanded during the Worker Party’s government [49].
  • In the last day of the 2014 presidential campaign, the weekly magazine Veja published a special edition providing information about the large-scale corruption case involving the Workers Party.
  • The lower court that tried Lula da Silva was in Curitiba (state of Paraná). According to the Supreme Court judge, Edson Fachin, who reviewed the appeal, Lula da Silva should have been tried by a court in Brasília (Federal District), where he had his official residence.
  • Among the anti-impeachment sympathizers, the most common hashtags were pro-democracy and anti-institutional threat and rupture (e.g., #VemPraDemocracia #NaoVaiTerGolpe) [58].
  • According to a survey from [63], between January and June 2022 Bolsonaro’s negative evaluation rate among those who consider his government as “bad” oscillated between 46% to 48% of the voters. The worse rate since the beginning of Bolsonaro’s government was between September and December of 2021, when 53% rated Bolsonaro’s performance as “bad.” In the first month of his government, Bolsonaro’s negative rating reached 30%.

Written By

Hélder Ferreira do Vale

Submitted: 15 July 2022 Reviewed: 28 July 2022 Published: 07 September 2022