The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How fake news fuels my family’s support for Brazil’s right-wing candidate

A street vendor sells a mask of Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro during a demonstration in Sao Paulo on Oct. 21. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)
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Fernanda Santos is a journalist and professor living in Phoenix.

I was born during the military dictatorship in Brazil, but in 1989 I became eligible to vote and cast my first ballot in the first direct presidential elections since the return of democracy. In 1992, I joined tens of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to demand the ouster of the president I had helped elect; he eventually resigned, under a cloud of corruption. In 1998, I moved to the United States, leaving the Brazil of my past frozen in memory and time.

But the Brazil of today feels eerily familiar. Ahead of a presidential runoff election on Sunday, Brazil is as fractured and polarized as the United States has been since Donald Trump rode the waves of anxiety that he had helped create all the way to the White House.

I’m a naturalized American citizen. I’m also a journalist, and it has been as a journalist that I’ve experienced, absorbed and chronicled Trump’s United States. I’ve kept an emotional distance, in part because I knew that if things didn’t turn out well here, I could always go back to Brazil.

That doesn’t seem like a good escape plan these days. The man poised to become Brazil’s next president is a retired army captain who has pledged to fight violence with violence, a seven-term congressman who chose to silence a leftist legislator by saying she is too ugly to be raped and praised the cruel tactics of the military rulers. His name is Jair Bolsonaro, and a lot of my relatives are voting for him.

A couple of years ago, a cousin set up a group for our family on WhatsApp, a platform used by 66 percent of Brazilians. That’s where I saw pictures of birthdays, weddings and baptisms; read news about new jobs, new homes; and laughed at silly jokes. But as the presidential election approached, misleading, exaggerated and fake news, all of it favoring Bolsonaro, took over the feed.

There’s also plenty of fake news favoring Bolsonaro’s rival, Fernando Haddad. His Workers’ Party was in power for 13 years, but it all ended with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the imprisonment of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. My godmother refers to Lula, a charismatic labor leader adored by his supporters, as “the devil incarnate.” She blames his party for all that’s going wrong in Brazil: the nearly 28 million who are unemployed and underemployed as the country weathers an economic crisis and the rampant violence — on average, seven people were killed every hour in Brazil in 2017, according to a recent analysis of crime statistics by Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, a Brazilian nonprofit.

One day I decided to contest the posts in my family’s WhatsApp group. I started gently, careful not to get pulled into a political argument. My goal wasn’t necessarily to change anyone’s minds and certainly not to end relationships. I wanted to help the people I love discern fact from fiction.

I shared an opinion article by a respected Brazilian journalist who has covered every election since the end of the dictatorship. In it, she argues that animosity from both extremes of the political spectrum had quashed meaningful political debate and blinded voters to the heavy social price of a Bolsonaro win.

“Please read, reflect and comment,” I wrote.

The only response I got were more pro-Bolsonaro posts. One of them carried a message by the famous Brazilian medium Chico Xavier, hailing Bolsonaro as “a frank, sincere and loyal man” who will be “attacked and criticized for his temper and attitudes,” but will restore “hope for the future of Brazil.”

“This is fake,” I wrote. Xavier, who died in 2002, never authored it — and it took me less than a minute on Google to find that out.

I pressed on, asking questions such as “Do you know the source of this information?” or, “Do you trust this source?” It was as if I were screaming into the wind.

Last Sunday, I left the group. “I don’t want to feel any more disappointed than I already am,” I said in my farewell note.

My father, who is visiting in Phoenix, chastised me: “Like it or not, this is your family.” I turned to him and asked what I should have asked a long time ago: “How could you support Bolsonaro?”

My father is a sensible man and a voracious consumer of news; in my memories of our family breakfasts, he always appears with a newspaper in front of him. Now, it’s his iPhone that he carries to the table.

“My vote wasn’t for Bolsonaro. My vote was against P.T.,” he said, using the Workers’ Party initials in Portuguese. “I’m not proud I voted for Bolsonaro.”

“I hope he’s not crazy,” I told him.

“I hope he’ll move to the center,” he said.

Hope for better days ahead for Brazil. Right now, that’s the best my father and I can do.

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