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Brazil's President Draws Controversy Over Covert Use Of Cyberspace

Dec 17, 2019
Originally published on December 17, 2019 8:52 am
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The many nations where fake news stories on social media have influenced elections include Brazil. Brazilian voters faced a tsunami of fake news before the election that brought far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to power this year. Now Bolsonaro is at the center of a new controversy over the covert use of cyberspace for politics.

Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: In Brazil, Parliament can sometimes seem a little informal. This is the lower house. It's actually in session. A big crowd of members mills around the floor drinking coffee and chatting. Hang out in this talking shop for a while and there's a phrase you'll start to hear - gabinete do odio - office of hate. It's on everyone's lips right now because of this woman.

JOICE HASSELMANN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Joice Hasselmann is a Brazilian congresswoman. She used to support Jair Bolsonaro. She was the government's leader here in Congress. Then she had a dispute with the president and things turned nasty, she says.

HASSELMANN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Hasselmann says she became the target of a deluge of false online attacks. Like any politician, she's accustomed to taking heat in cyberspace. This was on a scale she hadn't seen. Hasselmann says she started to investigate.

HASSELMANN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: That's when she discovered what she alleges is a covert propaganda operation inside the presidential administration - the office of hate.

HASSELMANN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This office even uses a calendar listing whom to target and on what day," says Hasselmann.

What is the office of hate?

KENNEDY ALENCAR: Office of hate - it's a cabinet you have in the palace where Bolsonaro has his office with three, four public servants that all the time are working the social net spreading fake news.

REEVES: Kennedy Alencar is a journalist and political commentator.

ALENCAR: They are giving orders to attack people which are criticizing the government - journalists, politicians, artists, media outlets.

REEVES: Do they attack you?

ALENCAR: They did.

REEVES: Alencar says messages started circulating, falsely accusing him of being a communist.

ALENCAR: You know, it was uncomfortable. You know, you're doing your job and some people are lying about you.

REEVES: Bolsonaro says the office of hate is a pure invention. He was asked about it by reporters the other day. Only idiots believe it exists, he says. Yet the allegations by Hasselmann, the congresswoman, are being taken seriously by some.

ALENCAR: You know, she knows what she's talking about.

REEVES: Kennedy Alencar, again.

ALENCAR: She knew this scheme from inside, and she went to a hearing in the Congress and she said that Bolsonaro has public servants spreading fake news.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: This is the congressional hearing he's talking about. It was originally set up to investigate fake news in last year's election. This month, Hasselmann came here and laid out her allegations. She made a PowerPoint presentation describing what she called a digital militia in the presidential palace using bots and fake accounts. She provided names, payslips, job titles. The committee is now focusing on this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible) Joice.

REEVES: Hasselmann also said the operation is funded from the public purse. This is important, says Marcio Coimbra, director of Interlegis, the Senate's think tank.

MARCIO COIMBRA: If we see and prove that this was made by public money, then you have a case for impeachment.

REEVES: Coimbra says if there's a move to impeach him, Bolsonaro could be vulnerable as he lacks support in Congress.

COIMBRA: He has no party right now. He's trying to form a party that is 25 congressmen out of 513 in the House.

REEVES: Those 25 include Carlos Jordy. He's following Hasselmann's allegations closely and insists they're untrue.

CARLOS JORDY: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Jordy believes what Hasselmann calls the office of hate is simply an informal WhatsApp group of Bolsonaro sympathizers.

JORDY: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I can assure you no public funds were used," he says. Jordy thinks a possible impeachment attempt is highly unlikely. Joice Hasselmann herself doesn't want that.

HASSELMANN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I helped elect this president," she says. What she does want, she says, is for the office of hate to shut down before it does any more damage to Brazil's democracy.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Brasilia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.