Can Brazilians Use Internet Humor and Memes to Fight Bolsonaro’s Hate Speech?

16 November 2018

Country: Brazil

By Andréa Doyle

GretchenAs Brazilians, we are dead serious about our memes. Last year we nearly broke the Internet with Cuca the crocodile witch, a cartoon villain from the nineties who re-emerged as a gay icon. Gretchen, a former exotic dancer, turned pop star, turned small town mayoral candidate is currently having the greatest breakthrough of her career as our beloved “Meme Queen.” Her image is used by fans across the country to express everything from anger and sass to love for friends and family.

Brazil routinely vanquishes other countries in the Internet’s Global Meme Wars and recently established a museum solely devoted to our superb Internet culture. For us, a good meme is more than just a laugh; it is a way for us to harness the power of humor to mock what should cause us frustration or pain, and live up to the motto that Brazilians, “laugh in order not to cry.”

Part of why this works is because we are a joyful and caring people. We feel compassion when celebrities show us that they are human, and allow us to relate to them by making fun of them. One of our most beloved memes is inspired by Brazilian actress and Oscars presenter Gloria Pires, who could not form an opinion about any of the nominated movies—because she had not seen a single one. She immediately became synonymous with what it means to be unprepared.



We recently realized that our beloved memes can have a far more serious impact on our country—and potentially manipulate us into making poor decisions. Earlier this year, Jair Bolsonaro catapulted from a right-wing fringe candidate known for his politically incorrect commentary and support of Brazil’s military dictatorship to the next President, largely because of Internet culture, memes and manipulation. How did it happen?

Similar to Gloria Pires, Bolsonaro has a history of not preparing—he only approved two pieces of legislation during his entire thirty year tenure as a Congressman. While he consistently expressed horrible and even criminal ideas—including, but not limited to telling a fellow female Congresswoman that she was “not even worthy of being raped”—no one ever expected him to act on them. Like a racist or sexist uncle at Christmas dinner, Bolsonaro was considered vulgar, yet harmless. How did we elect our racist uncle to be the leader of our country? Can we learn to live with his hate speech—or even laugh at it?

To do that, first we must look at what happened. To stay on brand, I will tell the story through memes.

While other candidates debated issues on public television, Bolsonaro capitalized on Brazilians’ use of WhatsApp, a private messaging service with 120 million users in Brazil, alone. Bolsonaro’s campaign—and supporters—targeted groups of up to 256 users to spread memes, messages, and other content related to the campaign, and more importantly, smearing the opposition. He spread rumors that opposition candidate Fernando Haddad had created a “gay kit” that would encourage children in primary school to become gay—in reality, Haddad’s political party had promoted an anti-homophobia school program.

How did this manipulation work? First, WhatsApp is difficult to regulate. Unlike Facebook, which was forced to change its policies following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, WhatsApp is free of outside regulators, and largely considered a private messaging service between family and friends. Content flows freely, and, particularly when shared in a family group, is perceived without skepticism. In fact, studies show that WhatsApp users interpret messages as coming from a trusted friend, family member or other close social network, making it far more influential than other social media platforms.

For Bolsonaro, it was a ticket to household fame and political influence. If he was being criticized for hateful rhetoric, his campaign released a cute image—such as himself imitating Gretchen—in order to change the conversation. (For those who are wondering, Gretchen publicly backed his opponent, Fernando Haddad, as she has a trans* son, who is an LGBT activist).

Bolsonaro’s campaign further smeared his opponen ts by creating media that made them look unreasonable. As you can see in the picture below, images are taken out of context and paired with text that contradicts criticism, making those calling the Presidential candidate appear misinformed, or unnecessarily hateful. How can Bolsonaro be an anti-semite if he is unfurling an Israeli flag? How can he be a homophobe, if he is photographed with a man kissing his cheek?JairMeme

But as Soviet film-maker Lev Kuleshov would tell you, this is a manipulation trick that predates meme culture, WhatsApp or even the Internet. During the early twentieth century, Kuleshov ran an experiment where he showed two different film sequences using the same actor, and asked whether or not his facial expressions were different between the two stories. Even though Kuleshov used the same shots of the actor, the audience interpreted his expressions as different, proving that the human mind makes sense of sequences of images, a technique used in video editing, advertising, and now, fake news.


Now, we are preparing to live under a neoliberal regime that has vowed to please the conservative BBB lobby—another one of our humorous acronyms that stands for Beef (agrobusiness), Bible (evangelicals) and Bullets (the arms industry). Bolsonaro has already put forward plans to carve out the Amazon to exploit natural resources and raise cattle, push schools to suspend any scientific curriculum that could counter a family’s religious beliefs and relax gun controls so that more people can “defend themselves.”

We watched as our humor was used to manipulate us, and now we are watching as our worst faults once again become our best qualities. For one, the Internet is beginning to fight back: pages like @BolsoRegrets and @JairMearrependi are posting tweets from Bolsonaro supporters who feel deceived, now that they see what Bolsonaro intends to do after taking power. While the resistance is only beginning, I see a bright, and busy future ahead for them. How about we use our creativity to fight hate speech instead of laughing at it?