The Bane of Brazil

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 3

Devotees of President Jair Bolsonaro headed to the beachfront in Rio de Janeiro last March to support his populist — and, some would say, fascist — politics. In this image, one rallygoer carries a sign saying, “The media is the enemy.” And a second, posing as Donald Trump, claims, “I am American, I support Bolsonaro.” Our guest today says that among their many affinities, Trump and Bolsonaro share a disdain for the mainstream press and a fondness for outrageous conspiracy theories.

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Brazil is cursed. Or so it would seem, says media studies scholar David Nemer. Every three decades over the last 100 years, an authoritarian government rises to power. And the results are disastrous. Under Jair Bolsonaro, the “curse of the thirty years” continues, with covid deaths mounting and Brazilian institutions buckling.

Like the authoritarian populists who came before him, Bolsonaro assumed the presidency, in 2019, on a promise that he’d drain the swamp of government corruption. But he has instead capitalized on widespread social unrest to discredit and dismantle democratic institutions. Made infamous on sensationalist TV programs and with his savvy use of social media, Bolsonaro has in the past year presided over a health catastrophe that some say amounts to genocide.

Well this time on the show, our guest offers Will and Siva a timely lesson on the newest incarnation of the bane of Brazil. But Nemer also explains why he still has hope for democracy in his native country.

About our guest

David Nemer is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. His ethnographic research focuses on digital technology and includes fieldwork in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Eastern Kentucky. Nemer’s first book is Favela Digital: The Other Side of Technology; the title of his forthcoming work is Technology of the Oppressed. Nemer has written essays for the Guardian, Huffington Post, Salon and other popular media. Follow him on Twitter @DavidNemer.

This episode was recorded in January and posted on Feb. 16, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

While doing his doctoral research in the shantytowns of Vitória, Nemer became interested in how Brazil’s poorest citizens take technology into their own hands. Favela Digital is the result of that work.

Technology of the Oppressed will have more to say about Bolsonaro, misinformation and Brazilian media. For something of a preview, have a look at “Living in the Broken City: Infrastructural Inequity, Uncertainty, and the Materiality of the Digital in Brazil.” It’s a book chapter Nemer co-authored with Padma Chirumamilla, found in this field guide for science and technology studies (Princeton University Press, 2019).

Bolsonaro’s speech and actions on the pandemic are reminiscent of the 1970s death-cult of Jim Jones, Nemer writes in Salon.

With Brazilian news and TV programming dominated by the Globo media conglomerate, direct-messaging platforms like WhatsApp offer a breeding ground for right-wing extremism. Nemer has tracked far-right radicalization on message groups and sketched out a taxonomy of the users who helped get Bolsonaro elected.

For more on Nemer’s favela fieldwork and how it intersects with gender differences, check out a paper he wrote with Kishonna L. Gray for the academic journal Gender, Technology and Development, in 2019.

From around the web

Writing for the Atlantic in early 2018, Chayenne Polimédio anticipated where Brazil might be headed under Bolsonaro — who once sent death threats to a fellow member of Congress, and boasted that Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, “should have killed more people.”

Bolsonaro ran as an anti-corruption candidate, but as the Guardian reported in 2019, his presidency has been mired in scandal.

Patriarchy is fundamental to Bolsonaro’s image. But — it’s complicated. In 2018, the research forum Sexuality Policy Watch surveyed Bolsonaro supporters about their beliefs, part of a larger effort to map gender politics in Latin America. Led by anthropologist Isabela Oliveira Kalil, the report understands Bolsonaro’s coalition as a “kaleidoscope” rather than a monolith. In this eclectic group — including middle-class mothers, gun fanatics and hacker nerds — each faction gravitates to a different version of Bolsonaro, missing the complete package.

Evangelical pastor Damares Alves is Bolsonaro’s hardline minister of women, families and human rights, and she’s doing everything she can to crack down on exceptions to Brazil’s abortion ban, while rolling back legal protections for gays and lesbians. Now young women are taking secret trips to Argentina, which just legalized abortion, and Brazil’s Supreme Court has become the last line of defense in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.

Read more about Brazil’s evangelical voting bloc and its relationship with U.S. politics, as well as the efforts of evangelical leaders to “bring Jesus back” to the country’s famously licentious Carnival.

Analyzing bulk messages and social media posts, Letícia Cesarino outlines how much of the same digital infrastructure played a role in helping authoritarian leaders, including Bolsonaro, win elections: by turning disinformation into entertainment.

That doesn’t mean technology is necessarily anti-democratic. In Favela Media Activism: Counterpublics for Human Rights in Brazil, Leonardo Custódio shows that young media activists in the slums use their digital know-how to mobilize for social change.

Want to learn more about the thirty years’ curse? For a deep dive on neofascism and far-right politics in Brazil over the years, Nemer recommends the work of historian Odilon Caldeira Neto. If your Portuguese isn’t too rusty you can start here.

And, of course, it’s never too late to go back and listen to our first episode this season and brush up on strongman tactics, with Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Do you think Bolsonaro fits the mold? Let us know!


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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