Brazil’s media shrinks, and sponsored trolls make political debate impossible
“The Brazilian press, throughout almost all of its history, lived on the shadow of governments, receiving subsidies and grants. But the main obstacle to the development of newspapers has certainly been education. Since the majority of their population could not read, Brazil was marginalized by the boom of the press in the West in the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, at a time when, because the Industrial Revolution demanded a skilled work force to avoid social unrest in Europe and the United States, education became mandatory, universal, free and secular. A great mass of citizens learned how to read and started buying newspapers. New publications came out with hundreds of thousands of copies. In Brazil, that boom offered by the increase in literacy came too late, after a century, when another means of communication, television, already brought the interest of the masses.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Brazilian newspapers were, in the vast majority, elitist, targeted at the minority that had access to education. It is sure that there were popular newspapers, specially in Rio de Janeiro, but almost all of those had fewer copies than the newspapers made for the elite.” (Matías Molina, História dos Jornais no Brasil.)
That was the Brazilian press when it was working. Now it is even worse. There reality is of lay offs every semester, a colossal struggle to craft an online product people will pay for and a self-evident submission to the few sponsors left (mainly banks, realtors, auto industry and agribusiness). Politicians have surely noted that and in recent years they have bet in establishing direct connections with their army of crazy, persistent, often paid and deeply engaged followers. Because of our less and less relevant press, they have sponsored trolls that go after journalists, spread smears about their adversaries and fire up their followers in the most aggressive ways. That movement is now at its peak and it has transformed Brazil into a country of partisan hatred.
That trend began a few years ago when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appointed journalist Franklin Martins to deal with the media. Martins believed mainstream media would never care for a positive outlook on administrations held by the Worker’s Party (PT in Portuguese). So he started a policy of sponsoring pro-government bloggers through state-owned companies like Banco do Brasil, Caixa Econômica Federal or Petrobras. Those adds didn’t cost much, but a network of Lula friendly trolls was glad to take on the opposition and on journalists for little money. It surely paid off in the 2006 and the 2010 presidential campaigns, when PT was involved in corruption scandals that could have stopped Lula from being reelected.
Also in 2010 the opposition learned that the dirty tricks could also work for them. During José Serra’s presidential campaign, they learned tactics from Ravi Singh, a man that had worked for a radical wing of the Republican Party in 2008. Since then, an opposition army of trolls has emerged to go after journalists, spread smears about their adversaries and fire up their followers in the most aggressive ways. One of the most famous groups of trolls is not sponsored with ads; their method is to sell “social media communication” to one of the branches of São Paulo government. Of course that product is just peripheral to the main operations. Folha de S.Paulo reported they are paid R$ 70,000 (US$ 18,000) a month.
Since journalists are being fired by their employers, overworked by their editors, attacked by online trolls and intimidated by the public in demonstrations they cover, Brazil’s filters are not working at a reasonable level. That is one of the main reasons why the political debate here has sunk like never before, despite all the information around. A part of the Brazilian press surely works with the engaged bloggers to spread their agenda, which often is the same, but even in those the financial results are disheartening — they are firing staff and losing credibility too. Government sponsored content that is created by those trolls is being massively spread on Facebook, which is more trusted by Brazilians today than the traditional media is, according to a recent poll.
In some countries the excesses of the media are scrutinized and taken seriously so manipulation never happens — or happens less often. In Brazil the press does commit excesses, but the risk lies in its shrinking below the surface. Although those trolls seem to feed on the media to poison the political debate, they are actually taking the place of the press and stimulating an environment of unjustified radicalization. Brazil’s filters are not working. It that doesn’t change in the near future, Brazil as a whole won’t be working either.