The election of Jair Bolsonaro is a disaster for Brazil, and for democrats and progressives around the world. Bolsonaro is a right-wing strongman in the mould of Narendra Modi of India, Donald Trump of the United States, Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillippines and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Like Modi, he is regularly described as a fascist.
As is now well known, Bolsonaro is openly racist, sexist and homophobic, pro-torture and has promised to cut down the Amazon forest. He also remembers the military dictatorship in Brazil fondly and has promised to smash the left. Many in Brazil’s vibrant social movements now fear the worst.
The election of Trump was often referred to as “the Facebook election” on the grounds that Trump built his support by running fake news through Facebook. The election of Bolsonaro has been termed “the WhatsApp election” due to the manner in which Bolsonaro used fake news on right-wing WhatsApp groups to build his support. WhatsApp has also been central to the power of the right in India. It is now clear that the decline of the newspaper and the rise of social media is proving to be a disaster of democracy.
We had a taste of this ourselves in the latter part of the Zuma period when Bell Pottinger made effective use of Twitter to drive a divisive propaganda agenda. As a number of analysts have noted, propaganda that was first circulated online often ended up in the mainstream press, and on occasion in the more rarefied world of the accredited academic journal.
South Africans rose against Bell Pottinger and in the end destroyed the company and stemmed much of the flood of fake news. For this we must be proud. The Americans, Indians and Brazilians were not able to do this. But, in our case, the challenge that we faced may have been made easier by the fact that the fake news flood was directed by a British firm directed by a family from India. If it had been a more homegrown project it might have been more difficult to win a relatively quick victory.
With the defeat of the Zuma faction within the ANC things have much improved. Some remnants of the Bell-Pottinger propaganda project remain, like “Black Opinion”, but they are a shadow of their former selves and have very little impact on our public sphere. But it is possible that well organised attempts to undermine democracy via social media could return. We must remain vigilant and defend the integrity of our existing media as a vital democratic task.
This is not always an easy task. The newspaper created the modern public sphere, and allowed for modern forms of democracy to develop. The collapse of the financial viability of the newspaper in the wake of the internet, which allows Google and Facebook to claim the lion’s share of advertising revenue, has been a key reason for the rise of right-wing populism across the globe.
We are no exception. Much of our established media is in crisis. Newspapers have closed down or now run on skeleton staffing arrangements with very little money for real boots-on-the-ground journalism. Small donor funded outfits like GroundUp and The Conversation do invaluable work but the mass media that many of us grew up with in the form of a daily newspaper increasingly seems to be a thing of the past.
Under these challenging circumstances it is vital that the media take every possible step to protect its own integrity. Even the smallest sense of impropriety runs the risk of doing serious damage to the reputation of a publication. The ongoing debates in the wake of Bongani Siqoko’s courageous apology for the Sunday Times’s implication in the machinations of State Capture may offer a valuable opportunity for public reflection and renewal.
But for this moment to be as productive as it could be, the debate needs to be widened. It is not just actors in the state that seek to influence the media for their own ends. All kinds of actors do this. The media need to be vigilant with regard to all forms of power. For instance, there are many in civil society who feel that recent criticism of prominent activists and a previously well-respected civil society organisation in the media fell very far short of established journalistic standards. There is a strong perception that matters were clouded by personal issues and relationships and that the reporting was rife with errors and a lack of basic rigour.
There is similar concern in trade union circles about recent articles. Here too there is a strong perception that established journalistic standards have not been met, that personal issues have been allowed to cloud matters, and that factions in the union movement have been given free rein to use the media to settle their own scores with other factions.
Whether or not these perceptions in civil society and the trade union movement are correct is up for debate. And, of course, there is no personality or sector of society, including the media itself, that should not be subject to careful public critique. But what is clear is that if the media does not conduct itself with absolute integrity these kinds of perceptions will flourish and vital sectors in society, like civil society and trade unions, will continue to lose confidence in the media. Once the media loses the confidence of society, and especially organised formations like civil society organisations and trade unions, it runs a real risk of finding itself isolated and vulnerable.
Brazil has just gone over the precipice. We came very, very close to it. But we shouldn’t think that we are out of the woods. Across the globe voters want radical change. In Mexico they elected a leftist in Andrés Obrador. In the United States Bernie Sanders would most likely have defeated Trump.
But centrists, like Hillary Clinton, are unelectable. Cyril Ramaphosa is currently popular for no other reason than the important fact that he is not Zuma. But he is a centrist in the Tony Blair or Hillary Clinton mould and, as a centrist, is out of time with the global tune.
It is not impossible that in a few years we’ll find ourselves in the same boat as the rest of the world and have to choose between left- and right-wing populism. If this day comes it is highly likely that social media will, again, be abused in an organised way. This time we should be ready for the onslaught and do all that we can to protect our democratic public sphere. DM
Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside.