Election lies lead to election violence.
Horrifying images careening out of Brazil are reminding Americans — and the world — of the high cost that election disinformation brings with it as mobs of people, fueled by conspiracy theories, stormed the South American country’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential offices in a violent outburst of chaos that overwhelmed authorities over the weekend.
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The scenes that played out on January 8 shared a striking commonality with those that played out in the US on television screens almost two years to the day earlier. And, like in the US, the warning signs were apparent for some time, with election deniers mobilizing on social media ahead of the attack.
“We did see this coming,” Wendy Via, the president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told the Associated Press. “This doesn’t just happen in Brazil, or the United States. This is a global problem. Should we compare what happened in Brazil to Jan. 6? I say 100%, because it’s the same playbook.”
That playbook is one of information warfare, where a propagandistic media machine is wielded to disseminate lies casting doubt on unfavorable election outcomes. This can have a devastating effect swaying public opinion, especially in our modern society where lies quickly go viral on social media and trust in mainstream institutions has weakened.
As The NYT’s Jack Nicas noted on Monday, the style of coup attempt that took place over the weekend in Brazil stands apart from others, sharing more in common with January 6 than other moments in South America’s history.
“Unlike other attempts to topple governments across Latin America’s history, the attacks on Sunday were not ordered by a single strongman ruler or a military bent on seizing power, but rather were fueled by a more insidious, deeply rooted threat: mass delusion,” Nicas wrote.
Nicas added, “Millions of Brazilians appear to be convinced that October’s presidential election was rigged against Mr. Bolsonaro, despite audits and analyses by experts finding nothing of the sort.”
Donald Trump employed this playbook in the aftermath of his 2020 election loss, ultimately leading to not only violence on the US Capitol but a significant swath of the American populace believing the election was in fact rigged against him. Now former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has followed his lead.
Not only did Trump write the election denialism playbook, but some of his supporters in the US are currently spreading lies about what is transpiring in Brazil, using their platforms to cast doubt on the country’s election.
Steve Bannon, the “War Room” host who drives a lot of the messaging in MAGA Media, has been laying the groundwork on the matter for months, as the progressive watchdog Media Matters noted Monday. “The election was stolen,” Bannon has declared. “Stop the Steal” leader Ali Alexander has also cheered on what is happening in Brazil.
And while new Twitter own Elon Musk has welcomed Alexander back onto the platform — as well as other key figures involved in promoting election lies in the lead up to January 6 — it is clear that social media companies continue to allow, and outright promote, those who propel the lies fueling distrust and violence against our institutions.
The turn of events prompted CNN anchor Jim Scuitto on Monday to ask whether the US still exports democracy or “is election denialism a new US export?”
It’s not a wild question to ask.