#ElectionWatch: Protests Reinterpreted Online in Brazil

Supporters of the frontrunner try to underestimate the size of protesting crowds on socialmedia

#ElectionWatch: Protests Reinterpreted Online in Brazil

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Supporters of the frontrunner try to underestimate the size of protesting crowds on social media

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the leading far-right candidate in Brazil’s presidential election, have responded to major protests against him by sharing false claims underestimating the size of protesting crowds.

This latest information battle happened one week before the October 7 elections and days after the frontrunner claimed he perceived manifestations of support on the streets as an indication of his upcoming victory. He also recently stated he would not accept defeat. Bolsonaro repeated the comment twice but later said he meant he would not call the winner to congratulate him or her for the victory. Bolsonaro, a retired Army captain, often says the Brazilian electoral system is rigged due to electronic voting, although he has never provided evidence to back up this claim.

Protest / Counter-protest

Hundreds of thousands of women rallied against Bolsonaro on Saturday, September 29, in all states in Brazil and in cities around the world with a large Brazilian diaspora, including New York, London, Paris, and Buenos Aires. The rallies were organized via social media through the hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim). The marches did not support any specific candidate, but rather criticized Bolsonaro and his anti-democratic statements.

Bolsonaro maintains a disapproval rating of 52 percent among women in the country, according to the latest Datafolha Institute poll. In the past, he has said women should earn less than men. He also told a woman deputy he would not rape her because she was undeserving.

Bolsonaro’s constituents also organized marches to show their support. On Saturday, the rallies were significantly smaller than the women’s protests. However, on Sunday, new pro-Bolsonaro groups gathered thousands of people in Rio and São Paulo.

On the same day of the women’s march, claims emerged in social media that “the left” and the media were faking pictures to pretend attendance to the #EleNão protest was larger than in reality. Simultaneously, videos of crowded demonstrations from the past were also posted as if they had been filmed on the same day and were portraying pro-Bolsonaro manifestations.

Faking the fake

One of the most popular false claims was a collage with two pictures. The first showed a small rally in support of leftist Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad in a public square. Alongside there was a modified image of the same place, but with the small crowd copied and pasted around the square to make it seem like a larger crowd. The post claimed the first picture was of an anti-Bolsonaro march, and the second one was the edited version that was being spread to make the crowd look bigger.

The editing was made in an amateur way, and the same cluster of people appear everywhere in the second picture, including on top of cars and trees. The poor editing made it obvious to any viewer the content was not authentic, and it was used by Bolsonaro supporters to argue the left was using edited photos to show the larger crowd.

The first post detected was made by a personal profile of a Bolsonaro supporter on Twitter. The post said the edited picture was “fake news from PT (Worker’s Party)” but did not say where PT had allegedly posted the edited image. The tweet was posted at 12:30 p.m., before the largest marches even started. As of October 2, it had been retweeted almost 3,000 times.

“Look at PT’s fake news (as usual),” reads the tweet. (Source: Twitter / @sequeira_gilson)

On Facebook, one of the most shared posts was also from a personal account. The user wrote:

600 million women against Bolsonaro. I had seen people on top of walls, but this is the first time I see people on top of trees.

Even though the post implied the falsification of the image was made by someone else and was being used to amplify the impact of anti-Bolsonaro marches in an intentially misleading way (in other words, disinformation), the user did not mention the source of the image. The post was shared 35,000 times.

The same false claim was amplified by pages such as “Por Um Brasil Melhor” (For a better Brazil), with 740,000 followers. Another page, “Bolsonaro Presidente 2018 @movimentobrasilconservador),” used the image to attack the press. Their post said the media was using a digitally modified picture to help Fernando Haddad, the Worker’s Party candidate, in the PT protest #EleNão.

Post by “Jair Bolsonaro Presidente 2018” shows a collage of small gathering and edited image pretending more people were in the act. (Source: Facebook/Jair Bolsonaro Presidente 2018)

The page, however, does not state which outlet used the modified image. The picture has not appeared in any media outlets in the country.

By September 30, the post had received five times the average engagement of the page, according to our CrowdTangle search. It gathered some 1,100 reactions, 649 shares, and 186 comments. Many people believed the picture had been posted by traditional media outlets and ridiculed the amateur editing.

The picture on the left had already been turned into an anti-PT meme before. Early posts claimed it had been taken during a Haddad rally in the city of Caxias do Sul, in the south of Brazil. On the day of the protest, Haddad was second in electoral preference and was likely to advance to the second round against Bolsonaro. He is the candidate of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is in jail convicted of corruption.

The meme alleged the picture posted by the campaign on Instagram gave the impression that many more people were present, due to the angle chosen. However, there was no allegation of doctoring in the image.

Text in the left reads “on Instagram” and, on the left,” “reality.” (Source: Facebook/ Renata Santos)

Attacking the press

A second false claim suggested that TV Globo, the largest broadcaster in the country, had shown images of a Carnaval parade claiming they were from the anti-Bolsonaro protest.

This claim was posted by the pro-Bolsonaro page “Planeta Brasil,” and it was shared 60,000 times. The images showed in the 2017 Globo piece, however, are different from the scenes broadcasted by the TV network on the day of the anti-Bolsonaro protest. The video on TV clearly shows a truck with a banner saying “Mulheres Contra Bolsonaro” (Women against Bolsonaro).

On top, a Facebook post claiming Globo had used an old image when covering the protest. On the bottom, the image that was broadcast on the TV network. (Sources: Facebook and Globo.com)

O Globo newspaper, from the same media group, was also accused of using an old picture in the cover of their Sunday edition as if it was from the #EleNão protest.

“The building that caught fire was reconstructed in a few seconds just for the #EleNão act. C’mon, use real pictures of the act. The worst thing is that the press puts it on the newspaper’s covers”. (Source: Facebook/Jair Bolsonaro Presidente 2018)

The false claim is based on the belief that one building portrayed in the picture collapsed years ago. The building that collapsed, nevertheless, is not the same one that appears in the image.

(Sources: Facebook/Jair Bolsonaro Presidente 2018; Google Earth)

As the satellite imagery below illustrates, the building that collapsed was a structure adjacent to the highlighted building, which remained intact.

(Source: Google Earth)

Inflating Bolsonaro’s march

While working to promote the narrative that Bolsonaro detractors were artificially trying to amplify the protests, supporters of the candidate also posted old videos claiming they were recent.

A video of a pro-impeachment rally in Rio from 2015 was posted by the page “Pau de Arara Opressor” and shared more than 15,000 times. The video was posted on YouTube in December 2016. It showed the pro-impeachment protest against former president Dilma Rousseff on March 15, 2015, which took place at Copacabana beach, the same place where the pro-Bolsonaro protest happened on Saturday. No references to Bolsonaro were made in the video.

#EleNão and disinformation

The #EleNão movement went into the spotlight at the beginning of September, after a secret group called “Women against Bolsonaro” was created on Facebook and gathered more than one million users in two weeks.

The page was repeatedly hacked and, in the most extreme case, the administrators of the page were removed from the group. The group’s name was changed to “Women with Bolsonaro” and Bolsonaro himself posted an image of the hacked page as if it was a real support page.

“Thank you for your consideration, women of all Brazil,” posted Bolsonaro. The image was of a hacked Facebook group. (Source: Facebook/Jair Messias Bolsonaro)

His son Eduardo, also a politician, went further and claimed that the original group had been bought when it already had thousands of followers and had its name changed. He also claimed that the hacked page was an original one. Facebook denied the claims and said the group was created on August 30 and had never changed its name.

Post reads: “The page with 1 million followers was sold to the left. They changed the name to ‘Women Against Bolsonaro.’ Result: so many people left that the page is now private. Another group called ‘Women with Bolsonaro’ was created and has more than 1.1 million followers, and The Guardian publishes fake news”. (Source: Twitter/@BolsonaroSP)

One of the page administrators was assaulted on September 24 in Rio. She was arriving at home when two men punched her and stole her cell phone. They did not steal her purse and other belongings. The case is under investigation.

On Twitter, the hashtag #EleNão (not him) outperformed the #EleSim (yes, him) used by Bolsonaro supporters.

Hashtag #EleNão had 3.3 million mentions from September 2 to October 1. Women made 52 percent of posts. (Source: @DFRLab via Sysomos)
Hashtag #EleSim (Yes, him) had 701,400 mentions from September 2 to October 1. Women made 42 percent of posts. (Source: @DFRLab via Sysomos)


Different strategies have been used to understate the size of women’s marches and exaggerate the crowds at pro-Bolsonaro rallies.

The first was to edit a picture and then accuse the “other side” of faking the number of protesters. The amateur edition weaponizes people’s skepticism as it only works when people easily realize the image has been forged. This strategy puts Bolsonaro’s supporters in the role of victims of falsifications and reinforces his discourse of an outsider persecuted by the system.

The second strategy was to accuse media groups of using old videos and pictures to portray the protest. Bolsonaro often claims the traditional media groups are against him, which also emphasizes his anti-systemic position.

Finally, while blaming others for using fake images, Bolsonaro support groups spread a video from the past as if it was happening at that moment, one last move to establish the narrative that their protests were not depicted fairly.

The women’s march happened in an extremely important moment for Bolsonaro’s campaign. After being attacked, he was in the hospital for 23 days and was released on the same day of the #EleNão marches. A larger attendance on the anti-Bolsonaro protest and smaller number on pro-Bolsonaro marches goes against his narrative about how the street support legitimates his victory. Thus, this online information battle can have implications on the way Brazilians react to the ballot box results and ultimately on the future of democracy in Brazil.

Jose Luis Peñarredonda, a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at @DFRLab, also contributed to this story.

#ElectionWatch Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.