Captioning Fascism

Memes, misinformation, and political fatigue in Bolsonaro's Brazil

by Adam Fertig

Illustration by Sandra Moore

published March 8, 2019

“Don’t worry, everybody, everything will get better after the 2014 World Cup.” This tweet has been immortalized in reaction GIFs, YouTube comments and memes across Brazilian webspace as hilariously, tragically wrong. Since Brazil’s loss to Germany at the World Cup, the country’s political system has experienced a dramatic upheaval, culminating in the election of Jair Bolsonaro to president in October 2018. Bolsonaro, an ultraconservative ex-military officer, is often referred to in US media as the “Brazilian Trump.” While there are definite parallels between the two, in many ways, Bolsonaro poses a far more serious threat to everyone who is not white, wealthy, male, straight, Christian and pro-imperialist.

I want to emphasize that attention to on-the-ground political events in Brazil is incredibly important. Yet, it’s important to look not just at the crisis of his election as an event, but at the conditions that enabled him to be elected, and liberals' and leftists' efforts to regroup in the aftermath. To do that, I think that we must look at a crucial component of how politics play out in the public sphere: memes. Brazil has the world’s fourth-highest number of internet users, and social media is a primary sources of news, especially among young people. Last year, Datafolha, Brazil’s largest polling institute, reported that only 10% of people aged 16 to 24 have faith in the press. Meanwhile, 66% get their news from social media. As in the US, for many of Brazil’s youth, news comes in the form of personal social networks, online videos, and above all, memes. In this context, it becomes important to pay attention to the tweet above, to the irony that masks disillusionment.

Brazilians have plenty of reason to be disillusioned with their political system. A massive government corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) culminated in the imprisonment of dozens of high-profile politicians and businessmen, including, in July 2017, beloved former Workers' Party (PT) president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula. The arrests marked not just a political upheaval, but an ideological collapse. Lula and the PT represented hope and grassroots change for much of Brazil’s population, especially the urban working class.

The unveiling of rampant corruption and bureaucracy dealt a shattering blow to the PT’s legacy. Amid huge protests, President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s protégé, was impeached in 2016. These protests, which began in 2013, and are collectively referred to as "Come to the Streets" (Vem Pra Rua), showcased the immense power of social media in the public sphere. The protests were predominantly organized on Facebook by the Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre or MBL), which billed itself as a non-partisan, anti-corruption movement. They received broad popular support across the political spectrum, with hundreds of thousands turning out in cities across Brazil to protest high bus tariffs, bureaucratic excess, and nepotism. Online, the protests coincided with the explosive popularity of Brazilian Corruption Memes (Corrupcão Brasileira Memes), a Facebook meme page that heavily echoed MBL rhetoric.

As the protests progressed, they became increasingly partisan and anti-PT, and by early 2015, the MBL was the driving force in Dilma’s impeachment. A report from Vice revealed that not long afterwards, MBL leaders actually bought control of Brazilian Corruption Memes from the non-MBL administrators (the irony of an anti-corruption page being paid off is palpable). As a mouthpiece for the MBL, the page underwent a massive shift in demographics. The non-partisan base, as well as left-wingers who had initially supported an anti-corruption agenda, left in disgust, while ultraconservatives found themselves in possession of a forum with immense social media clout. Even though these memes were never explicitly endorsed by politicians, there is no doubt that the increased social media presence had real-world effects: in November 2018, one of MBL’s founders, 23-year-old Kim Kataiguri, was elected to Congress under the Bolsonaro regime.

Kataiguri’s bizarre political trajectory is not the only case where memes and social media have facilitated the co-opting of popular movements by the far-right. Last month, a YouTube video went viral of 72-year-old Nilson Papinho ecstatically playing with his first successful batch of “slime,” a squishy goop used to make ‘oddly satisfying’ online videos. What began as an innocuous video of a cute, elderly man quickly turned sour as Twitter posts began to circulate claiming that Slime Grandpa (Vovô da slime) was a serial child molester. Others quickly made posts denying these accusations, all claiming to know Papinho personally. At the same time, Brazilian Corruption Memes began churning out posts portraying Slime Grandpa as a fervent Bolsonaro supporter, or “Bolsominion.” The catch, as reported by The Intercept Brasil, is that all of these accusations and accounts were fake: they were created en masse by Bolsonarist internet users hoping to stir up controversy. The damage had already been done, though, as several prominent left-wing accounts began posting warnings against Papinho’s ultraconservatism and pedophilia. This, in turn, gave MBL pundits the opportunity to decry the Left’s smear campaign against a sweet old slime-making man.

One reason behind these convoluted transitions from popular to political to far-right is the versatility and easy distribution of memes. An image template can be easily re-captioned or re-worded to mean something entirely different than how it was originally intended. Perhaps in an effort to avoid these appropriations, several leftist meme pages have sprung up in the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s election that are dedicated to hyper-specific content. For example, Barbie and Ken, Good Citizens (Barbie e Ken Cidadãos de Bem) is an account that only posts images of Barbie and Ken dolls captioned with far-right slogans like, “A good citizen is an armed citizen!” It’s a satirical portrayal of Bolsonaro supporters as elitist, vapid, and overwhelmingly white, effectively turning their own rhetoric against them. Another popular page is simply a daily update on whether Bolsonaro has finally ended government corruption; the answer is always some variation on “no.”

Other pages, rather than aiming for specificity, have tried to appeal to a broad audience. The Brazil that Worked Out (O Brasil que deu certo) is one of the largest meme pages, with over 2 million likes on Facebook. The page purports to share images of quintessentially Brazilian culture. A recent post, for instance, was a picture of a detention slip for dancing samba while reciting the national anthem. Of course, what makes something ‘quintessentially Brazilian’ is up for debate, and the page definitely relies on certain cultural tropes to craft a national narrative. Yet according to Gabriela Lunardi, a PhD candidate at the Queensland University of Technology, these generalizations are a key trait. Lunardi, who wrote her thesis on Brazilian memes, argued in an interview that “it is the lack of a structured cultural identity that shapes Brazilian humour on memes. One of my findings is that Brazilian memes work as national identity shapers.” Memes allow young people on both ends of politics to work out new definitions of ‘Brazilian-ness’ that may be different from those prescribed by the traditional media.

Nevertheless, the subjects around which these identities revolve are changing. Matheus Laneri, one of two admins for The Brazil that Worked Out, told The College Hill Independent that he has noticed a general shift in the scope of memes after Bolsonaro’s election: “Memes didn’t play the strongest role [on their own] in the recent elections; the real influence was fake news,” Laneri says. “Now that we have an elected president, all the memes are focused on Bolsonaro. Both to praise him and to critique him. What used to be scattered is now focused.” It is nearly impossible to produce content that does not reckon with Bolsonaro, whether in the post or in the comment section. And while The Brazil that Worked Out is not explicitly political, Laneri emphasized that memes of all kinds provide a relief from the crises of current politics. “We are unbelievers, politically speaking, so the only thing left to do is poke fun at yourself.” He noted, “I think it’s an escape valve, because if we don’t laugh, we’ll just be living to live.”

This idea of an emotional “escape valve” was echoed by a recent study at FGV-RJ, measuring posting activity by various political groups during the impeachment proceedings against ex-president Dilma. On the average day, there was a mix of posts by an anti-impeachment base, a pro-impeachment fringe and a ‘neutral’ press corps. However, on days of important events in the proceedings—culminating in the actual impeachment decision—a fourth group emerged: people posting memes and satirical content in the “native language of the internet.” Pedro Lehnard, the author of the study, told Nexo Jornal that it was a way to “depressurize” political emergencies: “since we have to talk about it, since we can’t not talk about it, let’s talk about it in a lighter way.”

It is important to note that this lightheartedness often co-exists with a deep frustration and resentment for the political system. This is a sentiment expressed by some of the more radically leftist meme pages, like Capitalism that Worked Out (Capitalismo Que Deu Certo). The memes are faster, cruder, and more pointed: a recent Twitter repost reads, “I’m not great at telling jokes but let me give it a shot: The United States offering humanitarian aid.” Oliver Lani, a 21-year-old from São Paulo, is the admin. Throughout our conversation, he noted the exhaustion induced by living in a capitalist society under a far-right regime: “Most young people are tired of their routine and are just trying to get home alive by the end of the night. Through online content, you try to forget the depression and the stress and the anxiety, and to find people like you and with similar ideas.” He claims that this political fatigue and the need for emotional rather than intellectual connections feeds into the aesthetic style of many Brazilian political memes. “Nobody wants to spend more than 30 seconds trying to understand a meme. Our brains don’t want to strain, so it’s easier to place your bets on emotion. And laughing or finding something funny is the best emotion you can offer.”

Aside from comedic relief, Lani believes that meme communities offer a space for young, radically-minded Brazilians to collectively re-examine notions of cultural identity. “People today have a much better notion of our history, we really understand our reality. Many people with liberal and leftist tendencies have stopped idealizing the ‘American Dream.’ By informing ourselves, we can see things in Brazil as they really are, and abandon European social norms and behaviors, and begin to relearn and construct our own identity.” In fact, some meme pages have become spaces for reviving Brazil’s left in the wake of Bolsonaro’s rise to power, for  salvaging socialism and social justice as legitimate ideologies in the political sphere. Brazilian Revolutionary Memes, for instance, is particularly adept at moving seamlessly between political and cultural commentary, exemplified by an image of a chart showing “Things that Brazilians don’t understand the concept of: communism, fascism, feminism, express lane—15 item maximum.” Others, like Leftist Menes [sic] (Menes da Esquerda) and Socializing (Socializando), are equal parts entertaining and educational posting both memes and videos explaining concepts in Marxist, feminist, and critical race theory.

Despite these advances, though, there is a deep anxiety among leftist meme-makers about the potential consequences of their content. Part of this is a concern for their immediate liberty and safety, as “the authoritarian attitudes of the current government make the opposition more apprehensive,” says meme researcher Lunardi. But there is also the danger of memes being co-opted, of posts repeating the errors of Brazilian Corruption Memes and Slime Grandpa. “The way Bolsonaro's campaign happened, based on fake news shared mostly on WhatsApp groups, has made the Brazilian Internet community (at least the left-wing supporters) rethink the weight and power of creating memes that will circulate among people from different social classes and levels of digital literacy.” Lunardi explains. “The average Brazilian uses the internet to be informed and may not get the irony of certain memes that criticize the government.” Indeed, all of this means little to the large chunk of the Brazilian population without internet access.  And though Lani himself makes memes, he remains wary of how easily they can be exploited: “Memes become ideological tools for misinformation. The best way to transform a truth into a lie, is to transform the truth into a joke.”

It remains to be seen, then, how leftist movements will regain footholds under the Bolsonaro regime. Especially with Bolsonaro’s support from far-right governments abroad, it will be an uphill battle. And memes may do more harm than good in this struggle, as “tools for misinformation” for a government built on misinformation. Yet, across the Brazilian web, pockets of resistance have formed. They are places to express, through humor, a resistance to the toll that politics takes on the minds and bodies of the people it neglects. As Lani puts it, “Nowadays people in Brazil are thinking more about politics. They feel indignant, and in the end this has united a lot of people and made them realize their realities and convictions. They don’t want to change the world. The want the world to change for them and become a place that’s less lethal and unequal.” So, while memes are unlikely to directly incite political action, they are a small, bizarre, unapologetic demand for a different world, a demand that may, perhaps, grow into a clamor.


ADAM FERTIG B/RISD’19 wants you to join the U.S. Network for Democracy in Brazil.