The chief target is Mr. Bolsonaro’s main opponent in October’s elections, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In medium-size pro-Bolsonaro groups, such as “The Patriots” (11,782 subscribers) and “Bolsonaro 2022 support group” (25,737 subscribers), the focus is unrelenting. Users exhaustively shared a digitally altered picture of a shirtless Mr. da Silva holding hands with President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela as if they had been a homosexual couple in the 1980s. (Do I need to say it’s false?)
The claims are endless, and outlandish: Mr. da Silva is sponsored by drug traffickers; he will persecute churches; he is against middle-class Brazilians having more than one television at home. People use what they can get. An obviously satirical video — which shows an actor, in the guise of an attorney for Mr. da Silva’s Workers’ Party, confessing to electoral fraud — is paraded as cold hard proof. The name of the attorney, which translates as something like “I Mock Them,” should have given the game away. But in their rush to demonize, Mr. Bolsonaro’s followers aren’t exactly given to close reading.
Underlying this frenetic activity is barely disguised desperation. Mr. da Silva currently leads Mr. Bolsonaro in the latest poll, 41 percent to 36 percent. The reality of Mr. da Silva’s popularity is clearly too painful to bear, so Telegram users take refuge in fantasy. “Finally a real poll,” one user said, asserting that an imaginary pollster put Mr. Bolsonaro in first place with 65 percent of voting intentions, against 16 percent for his opponent. When inventing polls won’t do, you can always call off the race. “Afraid of an international arrest, Lula is going to give up his candidacy,” another claimed. The wishfulness is almost touching.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters have another great boogeyman: the Supreme Court, which has opened several investigations of the president, his sons and his allies. On Telegram, this scrutiny has not been well received. People accuse the justices of publicly defending rape, pedophilia, homicide, drug trafficking and organ trafficking. They share a manipulated picture of one justice posing with Fidel Castro. They share an edited video in which another justice confesses that the Workers’ Party is blackmailing him for participating in an orgy in Cuba. (The justice did say that — but was actually giving a bizarre example of fake news against him, a rumor that Mr. Bolsonaro himself helped to create on Twitter.)
A few steps have been taken to curb this deluge of fake news. Some social media platforms have been removing videos from the president that spread misinformation about Covid-19 and the country’s electronic voting system. WhatsApp decided not to introduce in Brazil a new tool called Communities, which gathers several groups chats, until the presidential election is over. In March, the Supreme Court banned Telegram for two days because the company had been ignoring the court’s request to remove a misleading post on the country’s electoral system from the president’s official account (1.34 million subscribers). The company then agreed to adopt a few anti-misinformation measures, including a daily manual monitoring of the 100 most popular channels in Brazil and a future partnership with fact-checking organizations. A flawed “fake news bill” is being considered by Congress.