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From the Capitol to Brasilia, how Bolsonaro and extremists incited a coup
The steam that boiled the tempers of Brasilia invaders has been heating up for the last two years by a series of calls for violence spread by messaging apps, social media influencers, far-right ideologists, and official authorities. Aos Fatos tells the story of how the January 8 coup attempt have been slowly simmering since the invasion of the United States Congress, on January 6, 2021.
From Bolsonaro's and his administration's staff statements, investigations on several platforms, conservative American TV shows comments, and increasing militaristic rhetoric in the calling for anti-democratic acts, Aos Fatos has split into three crucial cornerstones the main driving forces that led to the violent episode of January 8 and the subsequent threat to Brazilian democratic stability:
"If we can't have paper ballots in 22, a way to audit votes, we will have a problem even worse than in the United States", said former president Jair Bolsonaro to supporters the day after the Capitol invasion.
After succeeding conflicts with Judiciary Power, mainly due to the pandemic, the attacks on the electoral system, and the opening of inquiries that investigate his allies, Bolsonaro has then put on the coup suit and started suggesting an intervention against STF (Federal Supreme Court) and the TSE (Superior Electoral Court).
Until September of 2021, the attacks were followed by callings for the act that would take place in Brasilia on September 7 (Brazil's Independence Day) of the same year: "Never another opportunity for the Brazilian people has been so important or will be so important" and "on the 7, it's time to become independent for real" were some of the statements made by the ex-president on August 31.
During Brazil's Independence Day, Bolsonaro made coup speeches with strong attacks on the Judiciary. "We cannot have elections where voters are in doubt. I cannot be part of a lie sponsored by the Federal Supreme Court", he said to a crowd of supporters in São Paulo. Although the presidential rhetoric and the posters claimed military intervention, the coup only happened in the minds of truck drivers who blocked the Esplanade of Ministries and believed that Bolsonaro had declared a state of siege in Brazil.
His speeches' negative repercussions made Bolsonaro resist direct attacks on the institutions. Thus, he repeated to his followers that there was no turning back but progress because the TSE had invited the Armed Forces to participate in the Electoral Transparency Commission.
The truce ended the following year when public disputes between the Ministry of Defense and the TSE resurrected the theories of vote fraud. "Imagine if we finish the elections, and there is the suspicion that they were not clean?", shouted Bolsonaro on May 16. As usual, in each inflated statement against the electoral system, social media were flooded with disinformation that supported the accusations of the then president.
However, the peak of the president's crusade against free elections in 2022 came on July 19, when Bolsonaro summoned ambassadors to a presentation at the Palacio do Planalto, the Executive Power head office, where he cast doubt on the Brazilian electoral authorities and voting system, based on unfounded or false information.
"We have always heard, especially from the left wing, that 'democracy is priceless.' Why make this kind of statement? Are they foreseeing that their candidate, who has become electable, will win the elections? And on this side, would there be a reaction?", said the former president. Later in his speech, he stated that "we [government] do not want one side or the other to question the results after the elections".
Lula's favoritism in the election campaign has caused Bolsonaro to raise the tone of his anti-democratic attacks even further. More than an election, this was a fight "of good against evil" for him. His opponent, complacent with thieves and a supporter of abortion and drug legalization, was a thug linked to organized crime and could never sit in the presidential chair. "We need the courage to decide. We have pledged our lives to the fatherland. We, Brazilians, have pledged our lives to freedom", he said during his speech at the city Contagem (state of Minas Gerais) in September.
Amid this escalation, the then-president signaled on more than one occasion that he might not pass on the presidential sash in case of defeat. When asked about this in August, he remained silent. On the TV show Programa do Ratinho in September, he claimed he would pass it on if elections were clean.
The coup stridency of Bolsonaro's speeches ceased at a convenient political moment for him. Isolated in the Alvorada Palace after losing the election, the outgoing president contributed with silence and omission to the rise of extremism. His absence was expected, said administrators of Bolsonarist groups on Telegram and WhatsApp, because Bolsonaro was plotting a strategy to reverse the defeat and needed 72 hours to trigger the Constitution's article 142, through which bolsonaristas falsely believe would authorize Brazil's Army to intervene and declare a coup d'état. That conspiracy theory and others disseminated since the end of the elections did not come true.
When Bolsonaro finally appeared to greet supporters on December 9, he merely stated that the people would decide his and the Armed Forces' future. "We can't wait until we get there and then look back and say: What didn't I do back there to get to this situation today?" he said, enigmatic.
Then members of the government stepped in to feed fanaticism. On November 18, hearing complaints from protesters, former Minister of Defense and candidate for vice president Walter Braga Netto said: "Don't you lose your faith. It's just what I can say now". Augusto Heleno, former GSI (Institutional Security Office), when asked by a supporter if the "thief would climb the ramp," stated that "no."
After Bolsonaro left Brazil for the United States on December 30, messages suggesting violent reactions to the outcome of the polls became more frequent on open social media. "Fuck 'selva' (a military greet), now it's civil war, let's take over Brasilia until this shit works," wrote one user on Twitter on the 30th.
The call for the January 8 acts differed from the invitations for coup demonstrations scheduled throughout the second half of the Bolsonaro administration. It mainly had militaristic and masculinist slogans. Since the end of October, the friendly emphasis that sought to connect the Bolsonaro demonstrations in defense of the traditional family, to which supporters were encouraged to take children, was ruled out. Calls concerning a "civil war" to "closing the entrance to the Three Powers headquarters" with claims that "we are at war" have become recurrent.
Hyperpartisan media have taken overtly coup positions by propagating violent messages. Commentators from Jovem Pan, such as Paulo Figueiredo, Alexandre Garcia, Rodrigo Constantino, and Zoe Martínez – cited in an investigation by the MPF-SP (Federal Public Prosecution Office in São Paulo) that investigates the station –, in addition to not accepting the results of the polls, called for the removal of the STF ministers by the Armed Forces.
"Either we accept the Supreme Court dissolving Congress little by little, or we accept the Supreme Court saying that it's over, 'you lose, dummy,' an election without transparency, without legitimacy, without the population's trust, or we accept the power that can do anything. (...) Either we accept all this and bow our heads, or we will have a civil war? Well, then let there be a civil war," said Paulo Figueiredo, grandson of dictator João Baptista Figueiredo (1918-1999), during a Jovem Pan broadcast in December 2022. The Federal Public Prosecution investigation highlighted the statement. "What kind of wimpy shit is that?" he added.
At Christmas, George Sousa moved from a camp in front of the Army Headquarters in Brasilia to the capital airport to set off a bomb. According to Sousa's statement published by O Globo, the plan had been orchestrated with protesters "to provoke the Armed Forces intervention and the decree of the state of siege to prevent the establishment of communism in Brazil."
After the inauguration, a threat became a plan, with posts that brought guidelines for the takeover. "When injustice becomes law, resistance is our duty," said a chain circulated on Telegram starting January 3. The "patriots" should camp out in front of distributors to disrupt the fuel trade, occupy the front of the barracks, and close the entrances to the Three Powers buildings. The CACs (Hunters, Shooters, and Collectors) must protect the other civilians.
What these calls have in common is that they have always been associated with the false interpretation of article 142 of the Federal Constitution, that it would be possible to decree a military intervention within the law in the country. Banners with demands for military intervention have been standard in Bolsonarist demonstrations since their origins when it was still driven by "lavajatistas" (related to the Operation Car Wash, an extensive anti-corruption investigation) agendas. However, it was just after the weekend of the runoff that the term article 142 — which has had its contents distorted by the former president at least since 2016 — had the most significant peak in interest since the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration.
As Radar Aos Fatos revealed, posts explicitly calling for the January 8 acts were already circulating on January 3 in Telegram groups and profiles on Kwai.
● Radar Aos Fatos identified a chain calling for "truckers, farmers, ranchers, CACs," among others, to "unearth all the rats that have taken over power" since Tuesday (3);
● Other posts were also identified between Tuesday and Saturday (7) and have accumulated tens of thousands of shares and hundreds of thousands of views on platforms such as TikTok, Kwai, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram;
● On Wednesday (4), influencers Oswaldo Eustáquio and Renato Gasparin did a live broadcast to call people to "take over the country." Eustaquio asked a million people to go to Brasília so that the invasion would not turn into a "chicken flight";
● A video posted on Kwai on Tuesday calls users to a "mass action" to stop the country and take over Congress — and, as of the publication of this report, it had 10,000 views;
● The most viral posts, however, began to be published after Wednesday (4), such as "constitutional call for military, reservists, anti-communists and anti-dictatorship people," which was shared by dozens of users and exceeded 100,000 views on Sunday.
The coup narrative that favored radicalization and anticipated the terrorism of last Sunday (8) was not only sown on Brazilian soil. In the United States, figures such as Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson and businessman Mike Lindell — both Donald Trump's allies— have helped further inflame the tempers of the coup plotters by repeatedly spreading disinformation about the election results.
Links to videos were shared on WhatsApp and Telegram groups and published in networks identified with the far right, such as Gettr, with fake news about ballot boxes, electoral fraud, communism, China, and an authoritarian socialist Latin American agenda. American disinformation legitimizes the lying arguments reverberated by Bolsonarist officials in Brazil. It also backs up the false narrative that the foreign media shows what Brazilian journalism and big techs are hiding.
For example, the day after the Brazilian election results, Carlson called YouTube's decision to ban uninformative posts questioning the security of the country's electoral system "censorship." "The election is still open, and the current president has not spoken out yet; how do you [YouTube] know that the allegations are false?" questions the anchor, who had his program subtitled in Portuguese and shared in Telegram groups monitored by Radar Aos Fatos.
Lindell — mentioned in Bolsonarist groups as if he were a journalist — also shared untrue claims about the election results. Soon after the outcome of the Brazilian election, the businessman claimed on his TV show Lindell Report that about 5 million votes had been stolen from Bolsonaro - which is false. He also raises suspicions about the electronic ballot boxes and says that if the fraud is not stopped, "Brazil is done, it will be Venezuela forever."
In his program War Room, the far-right strategist Steve Bannon, who is said to have ties with Eduardo Bolsonaro, even coined the expression "Brazilian spring" about the coup occupations in front of Brazilian barracks, according to a news report by Agência Pública. The words would become a hashtag on Twitter days later and would guide the digital campaign of the Brazilian far-right.
The lies on the American network persisted even after the outbreak of the coup acts. On Monday's Tucker Carlson Tonight (9), the host and commentator Matt Tyrmand claimed that there were undercover agents in the actions, that the coup plotters were held in concentration camps without water and food, and that two had already died on Federal Police premises. "Spread this video! Including to other countries!" wrote one user on Telegram.
Also circulating in the groups is a message in which Robert Malone, a notorious disinformer on Covid-19, wishes the arrested plotters good luck. "I hope you can withstand the pressure and move forward so we can get to a better place in the future."
Leia aqui a versão em português desta reportagem