Attack On Brazil's Capitol Is Part of Transnational Extremist Movement
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
On Sunday, thousands of rioters stormed government buildings in Brazil's capital, Brasilia.
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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).
KELLY: Chants of God, homeland, family and liberty as crowds ransacked the country's Congress and Supreme Court and vandalized the presidential palace - the rioters were supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who has continued to spread false claims that the election last year that ousted him was rigged. And the reality is what happened on Sunday was not altogether unexpected.
OLIVER STUENKEL: For the past two years, since attackers invaded the Capitol in Washington, analysts have been saying that something similar could happen in Brazil.
KELLY: That is Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil. He told NPR that what we saw happening on Sunday in Brasilia could itself have a knock-on effect elsewhere in the hemisphere.
STUENKEL: Just like the United States inspiring political events around the world, Brazil is the largest country in Latin America. And during the past four years, several leaders across the region have emerged that certainly inspire themselves in Bolsonaros.
KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - there are obvious parallels between the attacks on democratic institutions in Brasilia on Sunday and in Washington two years ago. But they are also part of a broader pattern of transnational extremism. We'll explore what that means, and we'll hear what Brazil's former president has been up to in Florida.
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KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Tuesday, January 10.
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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says he will return to his home country in the coming weeks while Brazil is still reeling from the attack this past weekend on its government. It was thousands of Bolsonaro supporters who stormed Brazil's capital city, demanding his reinstatement as president even though he lost his reelection bid back in October. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has been in this country, in Florida, since last month. It's all drawing comparisons to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and, of course, to former President Trump. Now, I spoke to Guilherme Casaroes about all this. He's a political science professor in Sao Paulo, also at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
I want to ask about Bolsonaro, where he is. We mentioned that he flew to the U.S. He flew to Florida two days before his term ended. Why?
GUILHERME CASAROES: Well, the official narrative - what he claimed - was that his life was at risk and that he had to leave the country because the left in Brazil that had won the elections, they were planning to put him in jail, to make a case - like, forge a case to put him in jail. And that's why he left the country. And of course, he didn't want to pass the sash to Lula, who Bolsonaro describes as a very corrupt politician, as some sort of nemesis of the riot in Brazil.
KELLY: Lula - his successor, the former president who's now president again. Go on.
CASAROES: Yes. Yes. So basically, that's the original narrative as to why he left the country two days before Lula's inauguration. But there's something else to this, which is while he's out of the country, it is much harder for Brazilian authorities to indict Bolsonaro or to connect Bolsonaro to the Sunday riots in Brazil. So Bolsonaro is somehow secure in the United States. Well, many people speak of a possible extradition request from the Brazilian government, which hasn't happened so far. I don't think the Lula administration will do it because they know it might set the country on fire because Bolsonaro is still a very popular figure for at least 58 million people who voted for him in October. So I think it was a strategy to dodge accusations of corruption, of crimes against public health, and, of course, it's a way to stay safe and not be either indicted or even put in prison.
KELLY: And it is worth noting that now that he's no longer president, he would no longer enjoy broad immunity from prosecution. Did I hear you say that one aim may have been to distance himself from the events of January 8? But my understanding is that, I mean, he did allow a peaceful transition to Lula. He had largely abandoned his claims of fraud - no? - after he lost the runoff.
CASAROES: Not really. Well, he lost the elections on October 30. And ever since then, for the next two months, he refused to concede. That's an important thing. So he kept suggesting - it was a wink and a nod, right? So he didn't say it explicitly, but he kept suggesting that elections have been fraudulent from the very start. He - well, by refusing to concede, he somehow incited his own supporters to remain in the streets, protesting, blocking roads, camping in front of military headquarters all across the country. So rather than telling his supporters to go home and to accept the election's results, rather than being explicit about everything that took place, and of course, it's part of a democratic process, Bolsonaro decided to remain silent for almost two months.
KELLY: What has Bolsonaro had to say about the events of Sunday? I've been following along on his Twitter feed. Is that the main way he is communicating with his supporters?
CASAROES: That's the main way he communicates. He used to communicate as a president and then he communicates right now, so...
KELLY: Another similarity to our former president in the U.S.
CASAROES: Oh, yeah. And basically, he said, I have always respected the Constitution. I despise violence and destruction of public property. But again, he was not very emphatic to condemn his supporters who stormed the public buildings. So rather than saying the complete sentence, rather than suggesting that he's against any kind of destruction, he sort of made a vague statement about whatever had happened, rather than being explicit. So I think that's pretty much how the far right operates. We sometimes call it dog whistles, right? So it's never explicit. It's always between the lines. And even in the case like that, in which democracy was on the line, Bolsonaro by not being explicit about what had taken place, I think he still sends a message of support to his voters and to his most radicalized supporters in the streets.
KELLY: That was Guilherme Casaroes of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. Well, for more on how the events in Brazil this past weekend are part of a broader pattern of transnational extremism, we turn now to NPR's Sergio Olmos, who covers extremism, and Shannon Bond, who covers how false claims spread online. Hi there. Welcome to you both.
SERGIO OLMOS, BYLINE: Hey.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Sergio, you first. As I watched the videos streaming in from Brazil over the weekend, they were so reminiscent of what we saw here in Washington on January 6. Are they, in fact, linked, part of some kind of broader movement?
OLMOS: Yeah, in many ways, it is part of a broader movement. Far-right movements globally are taking inspiration from each other. So even though this was in Brazil, we saw some of the figures connected to the January 6 insurrection cheering this on. The founder of the Stop the Steal movement, Ali Alexander, posted his support. He said that the Brazilian Supreme Court was illegitimate, saying, quote, "do whatever is necessary." Steve Bannon, on his podcast since October, has been hosting guests who've been promoting election fraud conspiracies. On Sunday, he called the people that stormed Congress there, quote, "Brazilian freedom fighters."
KELLY: Steve Bannon, former President Trump's former adviser. Go on.
OLMOS: Yeah, that's right. And it shows how the far right is an anti-democratic movement, and it's transnational. What we saw on January 6 in the U.S. and Sunday in Brazil was not an anomaly but part of a broader trend. These movements are sharing thoughts, ideas, strategies. And they're taking inspiration from each other.
KELLY: Well - and how deep does it go? Is it a two-way street in terms of far-right figures in the U.S. actively engaging with what's happening in Brazil?
OLMOS: Yeah. So the far right hasn't necessarily developed an interest in Brazilian politics or necessarily care what happens there. Their interest is in the breakup of a globalized community. For that, I talked to Sergio Guzman, who monitors political climates in Latin America. He says these far-right movements share a common goal in undermining democracy. Let's listen in.
SERGIO GUZMAN: They don't like organizations that express a common good or a common sense of what a democracy is and how it should behave. And so, in a way, these groups find kindred spirits in other countries who want the same objectives as them, which is to leave them alone.
KELLY: Shannon Bond, jump in here because I have been so curious about the role of social media in this Sunday attack in Brazil. What do we know?
BOND: Yeah. I mean, again, very much like we saw on January 6, you know, these events, these riots were stoked and then documented on social media in messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, which are very popular in Brazil, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok. You know, we initially saw people urging others to come to the Capitol and then spreading violent videos of the chaos as it unfolded.
And what I found really interesting, Mary Louise, is so much of this organizing appeared to happen quite openly. We saw this term, Selma's Party, in Portuguese going around. That was apparently an attempt to evade detection by the companies and authorities. Selma is a play on the word Selva, which is a term associated with Brazil's military. The Brazilian fact-checking group Lupa commissioned a survey of public WhatsApp groups about Brazilian politics. They found that expression first emerged in late December and then peaked last week. You know, we saw other ways they were trying to evade detection - posts talking about making cake for a party as well as offers of free rides to Brasilia and promises of free food, free water. And that clearly mobilized many people to act on Sunday.
KELLY: OK - so efforts among people posting to evade detection. On the other hand, you just said they were pretty open about all the planning.
KELLY: So is it surprising that authorities seem to have been caught by surprise?
BOND: I mean, look. The alarm bells have been ringing. Researchers and observers have been warning something like this could happen, you know, well before the presidential election in October. You know, as you said, during Bolsonaro's campaign, he claimed election fraud was likely. That was amplified by far-right influencers in Brazil and, as Sergio mentioned, election deniers here in the U.S. who have explicitly evoked Stop the Steal. And those messages spread like wildfire on social media even though Brazil's government has tried to crack down on false election claims and, you know, has the power to force social networks to take down posts, to ban election deniers. In fact, on Sunday night, Brazil's Supreme Court issued an order calling on the social networks to block 17 accounts they say were linked to these attacks.
KELLY: OK. So that's what Brazil and its Supreme Court are doing. What about the social networks themselves? How are they responding to what happened over the weekend?
BOND: Well, I reached out. Youtube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and WhatsApp - they say they're removing content that breaks their rules, including against inciting violence and praising the riots. Meta and Twitter also say they are in touch with Brazilian authorities about their investigations. On the other hand, Telegram and TikTok didn't respond to my questions. And so I think there's a lot of, you know, lack of clarity we have on just what exactly the companies are doing and how effective it is.
KELLY: OK. I have a question, I guess, to both of you because as we know, concerns about global anti-democratic movements are not new, have been around a long time. I wonder whether you believe what we're seeing now marks an escalation. And if so, what are the larger lessons that you're taking away so far? Shannon, you start.
BOND: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, through the lens of seeing how social media is so inextricably linked to these events, whether it's January 6 here in the U.S. or what's happened in Brazil, you know, I think these companies face a challenge. And one of the challenges is how much these posts and videos and calls to violence spread across platforms. They're not limited to one place, right? So Telegram posts get shared into WhatsApp. They get shared to Facebook. TikTok videos wind up on Twitter. And, of course, then there is the mainstream media as well that plays a role. And it all creates a cycle of amplification that is very hard for any single company to tackle. And to me, that shows that there are real limits of what we can expect from Silicon Valley when what we're really dealing with is this political movement, you know, that does not accept a candidate's loss. That is, as Sergio says, sort of fundamentally anti-democratic and rooted in extremism.
OLMOS: Yeah, I totally agree with Shannon. She - this is larger than just social media moderation or even individual figures like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. The term far-right extremism itself conveys perhaps an idea that this is just one end of the bell curve and will return to the mean, that what we saw on January 6 or Sunday in Brazil was perhaps a flash in the pan of people briefly radicalized by looking at Facebook too often. But that's not what we're seeing. Just last month in Europe, Germany, for example, had their largest anti-terror crackdown in history involving a far-right group plotting to storm the parliament there. It shows that democracies everywhere are in a kind of existential crisis, each of them grappling individually with their own far-right movements that are fundamentally anti-democratic.
KELLY: That was NPR's Sergio Olmos, who covers extremism, and Shannon Bond, who covers how false claims spread online.
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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
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