“I abandoned this filth six years ago,” she typed out beneath that post in late March. “So biased, sensationalistic and clearly slanted.”
Rodrigues Farias, 53, a college administrator in the northern state of Pará, now gets all of her news from Brazil’s right-wing media ecosystem, where the ravages of the coronavirus are called exaggerations, governors who support restrictive measures are autocrats, unproven medications are miracle cures, lockdowns don’t work, masks inflict serious side effects, and Bolsonaro is a transcendent political figure fighting to save the country from Venezuela-style socialism.
“He is fighting against the entire system,” Rodrigues Farias said. “Globalism is swallowing everything, and the truth is that they are using the virus to enact control. But Bolsonaro is fighting this every day.”
As Brazil navigates some of the deadliest days in its history, a movement is growing to hold Bolsonaro accountable for the carnage he’s done little to mitigate. The Brazilian supreme court last week ordered the Senate to open an investigation into his erratic conduct during the pandemic. Prominent politicians and columnists have repeatedly called for his removal. More than 110 impeachment requests have been filed against him — dozens in April alone — and he has been accused of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.
But few see any real chance of removing Bolsonaro anytime soon. Fewer than half of the population supports impeachment proceedings — too little to spur a case. For now, a politician blamed by a plurality of Brazilians for the worst humanitarian disaster in national history is shielded — by conservative allies who have gained greater power in the National Congress, by the durable support of 30 percent of voters, and by a cocoon of right-wing digital media that enabled his rise to power and is now essential to his maintaining it.
“Moving forward with impeachment is an exclusively political decision,” said Rodrigo Maia, who was president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies during Bolsonaro’s first two years in office. “There weren’t the conditions for such a political decision last year, and, from my point of view, there still aren’t.”
The humanitarian crisis continues to deepen. Brazil, which has buried more coronavirus victims than any country outside the United States, is now in the vise of a more transmissible variant. Twice as many people died in March as in any other month. Daily death counts topped 4,000 twice last week. Medical systems all over the country have been pushed to the brink of collapse. Patients are dying without receiving adequate medical treatment. The country’s vaccine rollout has been bogged down in delays and shortages.
But Brazil’s polarized politics has undercut its capacity to respond. Just enough people support Bolsonaro and his contrarian coronavirus positions to undo virtually any attempt at containment.
“He has 30 percent in the polls,” said the historian Pedro Doria, a former executive editor of the newspaper O Globo. “What does it take for people to understand the enormous disaster that this guy is? When their relatives are unable to find a hospital room, will that be enough? When other parts of the world are having a normal life — and we’re not — will that be enough?”
Rodrigues Farias thinks in a similar way. She wonders when others will realize what she knows in her core to be true: Bolsonaro is Brazil’s savior. Her friends, her siblings — they don’t see it. They resist the partisan videos that she embraces on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp. So she’s increasingly cut them out of her life.
“Brainwashed,” she called them.
The Brazilian media fractures
Who is to blame for Brazil’s coronavirus toll? The 358,000 dead, the devastated economy, the expectation that things aren’t likely to improve anytime soon?
In a deeply divided country, the answer depends on political and media preference. Polls show 44 percent of Brazilians blame Bolsonaro, who has continuously played down the disease, undermined virtually every effort to contain it and evinced scant empathy for those in mourning. “Stop with the whining and fussing,” he said this year. “How much longer will people all be crying?”
But 24 percent say the real culprits are local leaders, many of whom have imposed restrictive measures that have cost workers their jobs and slowed an already sluggish economy.
The dueling narratives are reinforced by a media landscape that has fragmented. That’s true in many countries — in the United States, flipping TV stations is akin to flipping political realities. In Brazil, where more people now watch YouTube than any TV channel, the right-wing media revolution has happened almost entirely online.
Camila Rocha de Oliveira, a political scientist who has studied the process, said the social and political dominance of leftist politics, which governed Brazil from 2003 until 2016, deprived an incipient libertarian movement of a place in public discourse. So they migrated to digital media, just as corruption scandals soured many on leftist politicians and Brazil became one of the world’s most digitally engaged countries. It has led to what is now a galaxy of YouTubers — some of whom have millions of followers — and websites that cater exclusively to far-right politics and Bolsonarismo.
“It was the new right,” Rocha de Oliveira said. “The radical right.”
When the pandemic hit, and Bolsonaro veered in a direction that went against the scientific community, his supporters veered right along with him. YouTubers condemned restrictions on commercial activities. They hailed unproven medical treatments. They used several embezzlement scandals to broadly accuse Brazil’s political class — the mayors and governors — of exploiting the pandemic to steal public money. And to assert that the media was covering it up.
The fake news landscape soon looked “unique,” a team of researchers concluded last year. Disinformation targeting mayors and governors proliferated. Claims hailing unproven medications such as chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin continued to gain traction in Brazil long after almost every other country had left them behind.
“These treatments is what brings them all together,” said João Guilherme Santos, a researcher who wrote the study. “They say, ‘There are medicines that can stop the disease. You can open everything up. Live life normally. But elite class prefers not to use them to instead increase their power through lockdowns.’”
That’s still how many Bolsonaristas see it.
“What I see is corrupt politicians of bad character,” said Eveline Cavalcante, 47, of Belém. “They are taking advantage of the worst moment of the pandemic to steal our money.”
‘I will never blame Bolsonaro’
In Brazil, impeachment is normally presaged by several events. The streets fill with protesters. The president’s approval rating bottoms out. Public support for the chief executive’s ouster swells. It happened before Fernando Collor de Mello faced impeachment in 1992 over corruption allegations. Then again when Dilma Rousseff was booted in 2016 after being accused of manipulating federal budget numbers to obscure the country’s financial troubles.
None of those conditions are present now. The president still has support from about 30 percent of the population, many of whom hear themselves and their communities in the plain-spoken president.
“Bolsonaro knows how to communicate with this world,” said Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist at the research institute Fundação Getulio Vargas. “Journalists, intellectuals, liberals and moderates think Bolsonaro is bizarre, but a part of Brazil doesn’t think that.”
And he still has boosters like Bernardo Küster.
A YouTube personality under investigation by federal authorities on allegations he disseminated fake news, his bombastic presence online has won Bolsonaro’s endorsement. Before an audience of nearly 1 million YouTube subscribers, Küster has called the coronavirus the “Chinese plague,” questioned whether restrictions work and labeled local leaders who support them “dictators.”
“It’s a mutual relationship of responsibility,” he told The Washington Post. “I am sincerely expressing my authentic and legitimate impressions and people will absorb that and do what they want to do. Everyone is responsible for their own actions.”
Now he’s gearing up for another battle over truth.
The Brazilian supreme court last week ordered the Senate to open an inquiry into whether the federal government has acted appropriately during the pandemic. What many in the country hailed as a long-overdue check in powers was interpreted by right-wing online media as a dangerous overreach by the judiciary ignoring wrongdoing by mayors and governors.
Bolsonaro and his political allies, now in charge of Congress following February’s congressional leadership election, have called for counterinvestigations to see whether local leaders misused federal money during the pandemic.
It was the country’s mayors and governors who “misused resources,” Bolsonaro said. “I sent resources there, and I’m the one who is responsible?”
Many Brazilians think so. But not Rodrigues Farias.
“I will never blame Bolsonaro,” she said. “Everything that is happening, it isn’t his fault.”
Heloísa Traiano in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.