Greetings from Rio de Janeiro. I’m in Brazil for work to do a pre-election assessment mission ahead of their elections in October.
Brazil is probably the country most like the United States in terms of its government which has a bicameral Congress, a President, and a Judicial system. It elects its president every four years and has local elections every two. The biggest differences are that there aren’t primaries to select the final presidential candidates and instead if someone doesn’t get 50 percent in the first round, the top two then go into a second-round a few weeks later.
The other biggest difference is that they have one Superior Electoral Court that manages the actual process of elections versus the United States where it’s spread out amongst the states and local officials. Voting is required by law, but there is no mail-in voting, limited absentee and Election Day is on a Sunday.
Moreover, the Brazilian court is super active. Especially during election season, it is very easy for people to sue journalists, candidates, tech companies, you name it and if you do not respond quickly you run the risk of one judge trying to shut down your platform.
Brazil is also most like the United States when it comes not to how polarized it is, but how it has a President in Jair Bolsonaro who is basically the Brazilian version of Donald Trump. Down to the fact that he has four sons some of whom are very active on social media for his campaign and all of whom have been under investigation.
Thus far we’ve been to Sao Paulo and Rio to meet with various people and organizations about what they are most worried about for this election. On Sunday we’ll head to Brasilia - the capital - before heading back to the states Wednesday night. Here are some of the trends that I’m hearing:
Bolsonaro is likely to lose: Everyone we talk to agrees that the only two viable candidates are Bolsonaro and former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. The polls are not looking good for Bolsonaro right now as he is down double digits against Lula. However, even if he loses people are worried about the far-right movement living on - very similar to the United States.
Electoral violence is a real possibility: I’ve heard mixed viewpoints on whether or not Brazil could have a January 6th type of event. The date that kept coming up in conversations was September 7th of last year when Bolsonaro vowed to not accept the results should he lose in October. Many are worried about violence in the lead-up to and on election day. Less are worried about any violence between election day and the inauguration. Of particular concern is militias and if they will do anything to support Bolsonaros claims. In Rio, militias now control 60 percent of the city.
Women and minorities face higher risks: We met with a few organizations that help to train candidates for office. One, in particular, told us about the horrific safety challenges that female and black candidates face in running for office from harassment, lack of support from parties, and funds for their campaigns.
Inequality is a major issue for democracy: We heard from a few organizations that they are worried if the inequality issue isn’t addressed in Brazil that people will be much more likely to give up on democracy if they think it means a better life for them on a daily basis.
Support for the electoral system is high: While there is a concern for violence and despite Bolsonaro’s repeated attempts to discredit the electoral system, we’re told that confidence in it remains high. Brazil moved to electronic voting back in 1996 and has been a role model for the rest of the region on how to securely manage the vote. You can learn more in this video of how it works. Moreover, there was lots of praise for the Superior Electoral Court for how serious they are taking this election and the processes they are putting into place.
Mis and disinformation remain a concern: Bolsonaro and right-leaning influencers have built up an expansive network across numerous online and offline entities that concern many about their ability to spread disinformation about the election - especially in trying to discredit the process. Facebook and WhatsApp rarely came up and rather the platform of most concern was Telegram. In fact, the electoral court is so concerned about Telegram, and the fact that they won’t respond to any inquiries about how they will fight fake news, that they are considering shutting it down in the country. We also heard a lot about how popular YouTube and TikTok are and being used by the right. Though that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still problematic content on Facebook and WhatsApp recently met with the electoral court about what it will do to fight fake news. This is also the first country outside of the United States where Facebook is working to put labels on content to help people get authoritative information about the electoral process.
Steve Bannon’s tactics are copied here: Multiple stories have been written about how Trump world has made some friends down here in Brazil and that was repeated in many of our meetings. People are seeing more right-leaning television and radio networks attempting to get traction. Podcasts also are becoming more popular and multiple times this week it came up about how a popular podcaster here in Brazil was fired after calling for a Brazilian Nazi Party.
China and Russia loom large: China has a huge foothold in Brazil and poses a delicate balance for the country that needs to maintain good ties between both China and the United States. Bolsonaro is scheduled to fly to Russia to meet Putin soon with a potential stop in Hungary along the way - something the U.S. has encouraged him to cancel given the pending Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both of these dynamics were brought up by people in the country as something they are watching.
Brazil is an absolutely fascinating country and I’m so grateful that I was able to make this trip - my first international one for work since the pandemic. It truly is an election to watch - especially to see what, if any, new tactics the right uses here that could migrate to the United States. In particular, I’m keeping a closer eye on Telegram. I’m sort of dismayed at how that platform hasn’t gotten more attention and pressure for its increasing role in electoral processes around the globe.
Follow Up from NYT Op-Ed
I wanted to share a few reflections after my op-ed was published about how no one is ready for elections happening around the world between now and 2024.
The main piece of feedback I got that I absolutely agree with are folks who felt I was focusing too much on Facebook in the piece. While my intention was to try to broaden the problem out to not just all platforms but any entity worried about democracy - it’s true that due to my work at the company and the fact that’s what I know best Facebook got the bulk of the attention.
My hope is that over time through this newsletter and in other ways, I can try to shine more light on how preparing to protect the integrity of our elections over the next three years is something that we all need to be getting ready for. In fact, while I think Facebook will continue to be an important platform to watch out for, I think the online landscape will look very different not just in three years, but even at the end of this year. I’m very worried that we are fighting the last battle and not thinking about the next one. Moreover, while I think Facebook should be doing more in these elections, I did consistently hear in meetings this week that at least Facebook has been willing to engage with civil society and authorities here on how to combat fake news on their site.
Another thing that’s been eating me up since the op-ed published is how doing so hurt some of my former co-workers. I stand by what I wrote in the piece, but I certainly never want to do something that hurts people I care about. Part of my goal when I left Facebook was that I wanted to build up my brand and expertise as a thought leader in this space. My goal was to constructively criticize where needed and point out things they are doing well when warranted. That remains my goal, but sometimes I wonder if it's going to be worth it. I think in the long run it will be, but it comes with loss and that’s been tougher to live with than I thought.
Finally, happy first birthday to the Integrity Institute! Also, baby goats are here! Urban farmer Kelly Maher who has become a friend of mine in the pandemic has a fabulous substack of her own and her baby goats have started to arrive. It’s premium content you don’t want to miss.
What I’m Reading
Michael Schur: How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place
Stratechery: Spotify and Joe Rogan, Culture and Principles, Music Versus Podcasts and the Long Run (Subscription Required)
Pew Research Center: Visions of the Internet in 2035
Tech Congress: The Congressional Digital Service Report
Foreign Policy: Russia Has Taken Over Spanish-Language Airwaves on Ukraine
WSJ: Let’s Face It, LinkedIn Might Be the Best Social Network Right Now (of particular note is LinkedIn testing a “no politics” button for feed
ISS Africa: African elections to watch in 2022
Center for Democracy and Technology: A Lie Can Travel: Election Disinformation in the United States, Brazil, and France (CDT report published by KAS)
Added this week: Summit of the Americas the week of June 6th in Los Angeles.
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
February to March - State elections in Uttar Pradesh, India
February 18 - 20: Munich Security Conference
February 22 - 24: Knight Foundation Media Forum
March: UK Online Safety Bill
March: EU Signatories Finalize Code of Practice on Disinformation
March 9 - South Korea elections
March 11 - 20: SXSW, Austin, Texas
March 19 - Timor-Leste elections
March 26 - Zimbabwe Elections
March 27 - Hong Kong & Lebanon Elections
April: The Gambia elections
April 3 - Hungary, Serbia, Belgrade City Assembly elections
April 10 and 24 - France elections
May 3 - Ohio Primary (Open Senate race)
May 9 - Philippines elections
May 17 - North Carolina and Pennsylvania Primaries (Open Senate races)
May 21 (On or before) - Australia elections
May 23 (tentative): World Economic Forum, Davos
May 24 - Alabama and Georgia Primaries (AL open Senate race, GA Warnock defending seat)
May 29 - Colombia elections
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms