How activists are combating pro-coup media in Brazil

Feb 8, 2023 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation
Brazil national congress

In Brazil, TV network Jovem Pan is known for airing hosts and commentators who openly defend anti-democratic rhetoric of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro and the attempted January 8 insurrection. The insurrection, in which rioters took over government buildings and called for the military to oust newly elected president Lula da Silva, represented the latest and most severe threat to Brazilian democracy.

Launched originally as a radio station, Jovem Pan is part of a vast network of pro-Bolsonaro websites, social media accounts and media outlets that have gained prominence and funding during the far-right leader's time in office. The relationship goes both ways: During a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration on September 7, 2022, Jovem Pan commentator Ana Paula Henkel, was introduced by the president's supporters, who said, "you [Jovem Pan] are our voice."

Eduardo Barbabela, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, explained that the Bolsonaro administration has “used an ecosystem of profiles and websites to ensure the maintenance of interesting narratives to the government. Jovem Pan is one of the main nodes of this network.” Even after Bolsonaro’s defeat, “the channel continued to open space for the president's allies to talk, and defend that the elections were rigged or even defend the coup against Lula,” said Barbabela. 

“During the attempted coup of January 8, Jovem Pan's coverage was essential to maintaining the narrative that the demonstrations were peaceful, that it was left-wing infiltrators who were destroying the buildings, minimizing the coup by treating it as a demonstration," he added.

The boycott campaign

Considering the scale of the threat to Brazil’s democracy, activists are taking action against networks like Jovem Pan, most notably through boycott campaigns like #DesmonetizaJP (#DemonetizeJP), promoted by Sleeping Giants Brazil. The campaign has gotten almost 40 corporate sponsors to stop advertising on Jovem Pan to date.

The decision to boycott Jovem Pan came after the network “questioned the result of the electoral process, suggested civil war as an alternative and falsely claimed that the armed forces could intervene on the independence of the judiciary and legislative branches,” explained Humberto Ribeiro, chief legal officer of Sleeping Giants Brazil. Jovem Pan’s YouTube channel was also demonetized for spreading disinformation.

In response, Jovem Pan released an article stating that they do not agree with the attempted coup and that the station was merely an open space for debate.

Following the events of January 8, the disinformation environment in Brazil  has become more complicated, said Sérgio Lüdtke, an editor for Comprova, a coalition of 24 media outlets that works to combat disinformation. The inability of Brazilian audiences to differentiate opinionated content from hard reporting is a major issue, he said. “[It] reduces the capacity of critical analysis of the content published by the press or circulating on the networks," he noted.

This boycott campaign has the potential to be effective by depriving the network of key advertisers, said Barbabela. “Jovem Pan has radicalized itself in order to gain the loyalty of an audience and thus earn more money with ads on social media. So, it is only fair that companies know that there is a section of society that is not willing to consume products from those who encourage this kind of speech.”

Criticisms of boycotting

Despite the support Sleeping Giants’ campaign has received, not everyone agrees with the approach.

“It is dangerous for civil society and the press to legitimize movements that behave in this way, even if they have moral justification,” said Madeleine Lacsko, a journalist and digital citizenship expert. “It is necessary to have legality in punishment, as well as rationality, a sense of proportion.”

Although Lacsko doesn’t agree with Jovem Pan’s editorial line, she also believes it is antidemocratic for a vocal online group to claim to speak for the majority of Brazilians, in order to silence a news outlet. “In the logic of the crowd, you lose the foundations of civilization, and unfortunately, the search for moral purity is in vogue in the social networks,” she said. 

The campaign, Ribeiro clarified, is intended to force advertisers to decide if they want their brand to be associated with Jovem Pan’s rhetoric. “We do not recommend boycotts, what we recommend is that media, platforms and advertisers act with good practices and accountability,” he said.

While freedom of speech is important, it cannot be used without repercussions for the purpose of “inciting the masses to invade the headquarters of the powers of the republic, undermine the democratic state of law or produce hatred and violence against minority groups,” Ribeiro continued.

The future of combating disinformation

The boycott campaign is not the only method being used to fight against disinformation and false information in the aftermath of January 8th. While technology companies have pledged to combat disinformation in Brazil, "those who gain most from disinformation operations today are exactly the big tech [companies]," Lascko said, as they benefit financially from the audiences.

Added Ribeiro, “companies need to incorporate issues related to good management practices into decision-making processes to avoid being involved in disinformation activities and hate speech.”

Since the attack on Brazil’s democratic institutions, Sleeping Giant’s campaign hasn't just caused financial repercussions for Jovem Pan, but also drawn attention to the radical nature of the network's content. In order to avoid more financial losses during an investigation by the Public Ministry for disseminating false information and inciting anti-democratic protests, the network has fired its most radical journalists and commentators, such as Rodrigo Constantino, who was removed from Jovem Pan at the beginning of the year and had his Twitter account suspended by a Supreme Court decision for spreading misinformation with the "potential to incite anti-democratic acts."

Going forward, “efforts must be focused on reaching those who produce disinformation and fake content, those who help organize these groups and those who finance these acts deliberately and intentionally against democracy,” said Barbabela.

At the end of the day, Lüdtke said, it comes down to one question: “Are we analyzing correctly whether what we support is the demonetization of vehicles that propagate disinformation and therefore put democracy at risk, or are we supporting the curtailment of opinions that we don't like?”

Photo by Gustavo Leighton on Unsplash.