On the cutting edge of insurrectionist terrorism
What happened in Brazil yesterday wasn't a replay of January 6th, it was an escalation.
Yesterday, thousands of supporters of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Three Powers Plaza in the country’s capital city, Brasilia, which is where the country’s Supreme Court, presidential palace, and congress are located.
The reactions from Americans watching the Brazilian carnage unfold were immediate and unanimous: The January 6th insurrection is happening all over again. Which is, of course, exactly how Americans react to anything outside of America. “Oh, that country’s thing is definitely inspired by our thing,” etc.
The truth about what led to yesterday’s right-wing uprising in Brazil is more complicated, though. And rather than looking at it as a replay of what America has already gone through, I think it’s better to view it as one version of what could still yet happen in the US if we don’t address the factors that led to January 6th.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil over the last few years. For readers who may not know, my girlfriend lives in São Paulo and, as luck would have it, I’m actually writing this from there right now. I flew in this morning and I’ll be here for a few weeks. I have yet to encounter any protesting Bolsonaro supporters, or Bolsominions as they’re more commonly called, though they did manage to shut down one of São Paulo’s major highways last night. Either way, I’m very familiar with them.
I’ve interviewed many of them. They also typically make themselves pretty visible, thanks to their de facto uniform, a yellow and green Brazilian Football Confederation jersey. And while Bolsominions are similar in many ways to the MAGA movement — yes, there is a Bolsonaro shaman, but, no, he wasn’t in Brasilia yesterday — their goals, motivations, and aesthetics have key differences.
Trump supporters dream of bringing America back to a vague fictitious past, some combination of the Reaganite 80s and a 1950s America that only existed in magazine ads. Bolsominions are much more specific. They want to bring back a military dictatorship and they’re not afraid to say it.
There are strains of America’s right wing that fantasize about a military takeover expunging their various political enemies. This is a huge thing, especially, for QAnon supporters, who spend all day posting online about putting random celebrities in military tribunals. But it’s far less vague of a goal for Bolsominions, many of whom remember Brazil’s last dictatorship, which began with a coup d’état in 1964 and ended two decades later in 1985. And like all effective populists, Bolsonaro knew how to tap into the nostalgia the bored middle class had for that era and repeatedly praised Brazil’s dictatorship days during his campaign in 2018.
It seems like the plan on Sunday was for his supporters to create so much anarchy and chaos that the military would have to step in and take control of the country, just as they did in the 60s. This led to a particularly embarrassing moment in Brasilia yesterday when Bolsominions cheered for the military when they showed up, only to be immediately arrested by them.
Now, there are plenty of Bolsonaro supporters who believe all kinds of absolutely absurd internet horseshit. And you can see evidence of that at their manifestations. One OSINT researcher spotted the English phrase “We want the source code,” written on a protestors’ banner yesterday, which is a reference to a conspiracy theory about the source code of the country’s voting machines. But you don’t really need to weaponize misinformation as much if your political base is comfortable admitting very publicly and loudly that they want the military to overthrow the government. Which is exactly what one Bolsominion told police, according to a report from CNN, after he was arrested in Brasilia with a cache of weapons. He said he wanted to “provoke an intervention of the armed forces.”
Also, unlike January 6th, where many protestors could feasibly argue that things just happened to spin out of control — Trump loves plausible deniability — there were no such illusions about what Bolsonaro’s supporters were trying to do yesterday.
Brazilian journalist Carlos Alberto Jr noted back in December, that, because Bolsonaro went completely radio silent after his loss at the polls in October, his supporters began trying to decode clues about what he wanted from his Telegram updates. Which is similar to QAnon in function, but Brazilians haven’t really needed all the extra bull shit 4chan lore to organize like this. And the riot yesterday had way less of a gleeful Comic Con vibe than January 6th did.
Also, while the most shocking images came out of Brasilia yesterday, this was not a one-location event the way January 6th was. Bolsominions have been shutting down highways, amassing weapons, and experimenting with low-level attacks on the country’s infrastructure since Bolsonaro lost the election on October 30th. Most of these Freedom Convoy-esque incursions have resulted in little more than public humiliation and a few Bolsonaro supporters getting their asses kicked for causing a traffic jam before an important soccer game. (There was also the one guy who got stuck on the windshield of a semi.) But yesterday, the stakes were raised considerably.
As thousands of protesters rioted through congress, smashed up priceless artifacts, and shit on a desk (NSFW), Bolsominions in other cities tried to hijack the country’s supply chain by occupying oil refineries.
Because this was a multi-pronged attack on Brazil’s democracy, it was also organized differently to January 6th. After years of investigation into how Trump supporters gathered at the Capitol two years ago, the consensus is that it was a combination of unmoderated Facebook Groups, sabre-rattling influencers, and alternative right-wing social networks like Parler, in conjunction with militias, far-right activist Ali Alexander and his “Stop The Steal” group, and Trump, himself. The plan was to bring together all the disparate factions that had aligned themselves during the Trump presidency under the pretext of a rally and let them loose upon Washington.
Bolsonaro, however, isn’t in Brazil right now. He’s been in Florida for the last few weeks, eating depression meals at KFC, staying in a house with a Minions-themed bedroom, visiting Mar-a-Lago, and, presumably, contracting new COVID-19 variants. So instead of a rally being the focal point, very literal calls to “take over the country” spread across decentralized messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.
These messaging apps are the main way Brazilians interact with the wider internet. Viral content travels via an undercurrent of text forwards and chain letters in group chats. This makes easily-screenshotted memes, image macros, and short-form videos from apps like TikTok, which can be easily downloaded and shared natively inside WhatsApp, particularly sticky.
According to Brazilian factchecking site Aos Fatos, the main platforms for organizing yesterday’s attempted coup were messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp and short-form video apps TikTok and Kwai, which is another Chinese video app that has become particularly popular in Brazil in recent years. Influencers on the short-form video apps demanded their followers invade congress, with some videos receiving almost a million views. Those videos were then downloaded, and spread across messaging apps.
There’s also the YouTube element. During the Bolsonaro administration, YouTube in Brazil morphed from a place for niche nerd content and lifestyle influencers and into a gigantic Joe Rogan machine. Last year, Brazilian news outlet UOL found that a network of a dozen right-wing channels were making millions of dollars a year promoting authoritarian content. And Bolsonaro anchored much of his campaign last year around YouTube ads.
In October, following Bolsonaro’s defeat at the polls, YouTube representative Ivy Choi told me that the platform would “continue to prohibit and remove ads that promote demonstrably false claims that could undermine trust in elections, including false claims about election results.” Which may be true for ads, but doesn’t appear to be true for user content. Aos Fatos also found that almost half of the livestreams from Brasilia yesterday were monetized.
As I said at the start, Americans have a very bad habit of viewing anything happening in other countries, particularly ones in the Global South, as a replay of what we’ve already been through. There is an assumption, especially from US media, that we are on the cutting edge of everything — even insurrectionist terrorism, apparently. In my experience, the opposite tends to be true actually.
It should unnerve you that everywhere you look right now countries around the world are pushing back against Big Tech. Whether it’s the EU fining Meta for data privacy violations, Meta being sued by groups in Kenya and Ethiopia for fueling sectarian conflicts, or Brazil’s electoral court creating strict laws around how quickly election misinformation has to be removed from public platforms, many countries are finally saying enough is enough. Many countries, that is, except the US. And we are running out of time to do something about it. It feels like America is actually the country least prepared for the existential fight against authoritarianism that lies ahead.
For instance, Brazil’s current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or “Lula,” reacted quite differently yesterday than the US government did two years ago. Lula declared that the rioters were terrorists and triggered a state of emergency and arrested over 1,000 of them immediately. I told a few Brazilian friends this morning that we let our insurrectionists go home afterwards and they looked at me like I had just grown a second head.
What happened in Brazil yesterday is an undeniable escalation of January 6th. It’s what happens when the companies that run our internet platforms don’t feel any need to moderate them at all anymore. It’s what it looks like when the mask finally drops. It’s what it looks like when the right wing finally says what it is they want and doesn’t feel the need to hide behind frog memes and Fox News clips and fake outrage and violent message board fan fiction anymore.
"..“Lula,” reacted quite differently yesterday than US President Joe Biden did two years ago. Lula declared that the rioters were terrorists and triggered a state of emergency and arrested over 1,000 of them immediately. I told a few Brazilian friends this morning that we let our insurrectionists go home afterwards.."
I am pretty sure Biden was not president 1/6/2021 so had no power to order anyone to do anything..
"It’s what it looks like when the right wing finally says what it is they want and doesn’t feel the need to hide behind frog memes and Fox News clips and fake outrage and violent message board fan fiction anymore."
You just got done saying that the US has a tendency to map what happens here onto other countries and vice versa, and this is the conclusion you come to?
The Right in the US doesn't want a military junta running the country, Ryan. In fact, "The Right" doesn't want any one thing; it's currently the Big Tent side, so treating it like a monolith with uniform desires and motivations is a category mistake to begin with. It'd be like saying all LGBT people want access to HRT, when in fact, that's a preoccupation of *some* members of the "T,' not anything the rest of the acronym is into.
Primarily, the common frustration uniting the Right is resentment of the undeniable monopoly on access to cultural and state resources held by the Left, not lust for political violence. In fact, as the underdogs in this stupid holy war most of us don't want but feel boxed into by activist crybullies, we'd prefer you quit hysterically shrieking about how we want to murder you in your beds (the fringe Right think *your* fringe wing is far more likely to murder *us* than the other way around, with the enthusiastic support of your corporate/intelligence wing, TBH, but that's horseshoes for you) and quit trying to use the substantially greater number of considerably more powerful institutions you control than we do to crush us. But I suppose that narrative doesn't play quite as well to your audience.
Thought-provoking and well-written article overall, although as I said, I don't think your premises line up with your conclusion, and I disagree with a number of your interpretations.
Stay safe in Brazil and good luck.