RIO DE JANEIRO — The call went out across Telegram late last month. Brazil’s far right, which has in recent months migrated to the messaging app by the millions, had a new goal: Help President Jair Bolsonaro win the reader’s poll for Time magazine’s 2021 Person of the Year.
In the end, Time named billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk its Person of the Year this past week. But the Tesla and SpaceX executive didn’t get the most reader votes — not by a long shot. That honor belonged to Bolsonaro, who won in a landslide, garnering one-fourth of the 9 million votes — twice as many as his closest competitor, friend Donald Trump.
The outcome serves as an urgent reminder of the political resilience of Bolsonaro, whose base has stuck by him amid flagging approval ratings, and an introduction to the growing power of Telegram, which analysts say played a crucial role in propelling Bolsonaro to victory — and could prove a disruptive factor in next year’s presidential elections.
In the past several years, as Bolsonaro has repeatedly encouraged people to join him on the app, it has been downloaded to more than half of the phones in Brazil. Officials and researchers here now fear its unique combination of features — lax content moderation, encrypted messaging services, default anonymity — could be exploited by political opportunists to spread misinformation, undermine confidence in public institutions and deepen the country’s divisions.
“Telegram isn’t that concerned about monitoring its content like Facebook or Twitter,” said Sérgio Spagnuolo, founder of Núcleo Jornalismo, which analyzes the impact of social media on daily life. “So let’s say Politician X wants to say the election results were fraudulent, they aren’t going to do it on Twitter, where it will be taken down. They will do it on Telegram.”
The fear is particularly relevant in Brazil, where Bolsonaro has spent much of the last year working to undermine confidence in the integrity of the country’s voting system and warning that next year’s vote will be rigged.
Founded in 2013 by Pavel Durov, a Russian billionaire in self-exile, Telegram looks and functions like a supercharged WhatsApp. Groups can swell to 200,000 users, rather than just 256. There are no limits on how many times a message can be forwarded. People aren’t forced to divulge their phone numbers. Politicians and celebrities can use a one-way channel feature as a megaphone.
But perhaps what most distinguishes it most from other leading social media platforms is its permissive content moderation. As other social media platforms have cracked down on misinformation or conspiracy theories, Telegram has been seen as a safe harbor. When Twitter and Facebook removed Trump from their sites after his followers stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the site was swarmed by tens of millions of users. The digital migration then spread to Brazil, another large, messy democracy struggling with misinformation and a politicized media landscape.
The source of much of the country’s polarization has been Bolsonaro himself, a coronavirus and vaccine skeptic who has sought to erode trust in the country’s institutions and coronavirus protective measures. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have responded by removing several of Bolsonaro’s videos and statements. The country’s supreme court has led a probe into misinformation, which has led to the arrest of several high-profile Bolsonaro supporters and their removal from social media sites.
In response, Bolsonaro and his followers have pushed a change to Telegram.
“Of course we’re growing our network on Telegram,” Bolsonaro said in October. “It doesn’t have any censorship, so it has to be this way. These days, if you post a story pointing out a problem with the vaccine, you’re called a flat-earther, a denier, a propagator of fake news. People, Telegram is an alternative.”
An increasing number of Brazilians are inclined to agree. In 2018, the app was on only 15 percent of Brazilian phones, according to the Brazilian research firm Mobile Time. But by August this year, that number had risen to 53 percent. Analysts say the current figure should be higher now: The app gained 70 million followers worldwide when Facebook and WhatsApp had an outage in October.
The rise of Telegram has worried researchers who say it will be difficult to hold the company accountable.
“That is the biggest fear,” said David Nemer, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “They have no representation in Brazil. You can’t hold them accountable judicially. You can’t sue them.”
Brazilian officials and journalists have struggled to even make contact with the platform.
Telegram didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Those concerns have not stopped the flow of new users, particularly among Brazil’s right. Bolsonaro now has more than 1 million Telegram followers, making him one of the platform’s most followed politicians.
“We are being increasingly cut out of all social media,” said Carla Zambelli, a prominent conservative politician who has more than 100,000 followers on Telegram. “This isn’t something that’s theoretically happening. … It is happening in practice.”
So when Time opened up its poll to the public, the Bolsonaristas on Telegram were ready to mobilize.
In recent years, the winner of the popular vote had been less divisive: The K-pop band BTS in 2018, the Hong Kong protesters in 2019, essential workers in 2020.
But this year, many on the Brazilian right saw it as an opportunity to prove Bolsonaro’s enduring political support — and thumb their nose at a magazine they considered a tool of the globalist left.
The Brazilian research group NetLab, which monitors right-wing activity on social media, saw the announcements light up Telegram, filling more than 100 groups. Many were large, with thousands of members. In each, the reader survey was posted an average of 20 to 80 times.
The chatter was only the “tip of the iceberg,” the group said in a statement. “But it serves as an autopsy of message circulation on the so-called ‘dark social.’”
Time didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Gilnei Lima, 54, a government worker in Brasilia, saw the solicitations. Lima, who participated in right-wing protests this year calling for the supreme court’s disbanding, said he quit Facebook and went to Telegram after his account was suspended several times. Now he participates in five conservative groups, free of fear of censorship.
He didn’t hesitate to vote for Bolsonaro to be named person of the year. He said it was important for the world to see that people in Brazil still support Bolsonaro. Recent opinion polls weighing presidential candidates here have shown Bolsonaro far behind former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But Lima called them “lying and false.”
“The researchers and media doesn’t show the truth about Bolsonaro,” he said. “And the truth is that he would win any election under any circumstances.”
And one of the biggest tools he will use, said Sílvia Rodrigues Farias, a Bolsonaro supporter in northern Brazil, will be Telegram.
“There are huge groups forming, and it’s only getting bigger,” she said. “Next year, Telegram will be huge.”