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A look at the transnational extremism behind Brazil's unrest and the U.S. Jan. 6 riot

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In scenes eerily reminiscent of January 6, thousands of protesters stormed Brazil's capitol buildings this past weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

KELLY: The rioters were supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former president who, like Donald Trump, falsely claimed that the election that ousted him was rigged. Well, this weekend's attacks were also part of a broader pattern of transnational extremism, one where social media and a shared sense of grievance are playing big roles. For more on that, we are joined by NPR's Sergio Olmos, who covers extremism, and Shannon Bond, who covers how false claims spread online. Hi there. Welcome to you both.

SERGIO OLMOS, BYLINE: Hey.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Sergio, you first. As I watched the videos streaming in from Brazil over the weekend, they were so reminiscent of what we saw here in Washington on January 6. Are they, in fact, linked, part of some kind of broader movement?

OLMOS: Yeah, in many ways, it is part of a broader movement. Far-right movements globally are taking inspiration from each other. So even though this was in Brazil, we saw some of the figures connected to the January 6 insurrection cheering this on. The founder of the Stop the Steal movement, Ali Alexander, posted his support. He said that the Brazilian Supreme Court was illegitimate, saying, quote, "do whatever is necessary." Steve Bannon, on his podcast since October, has been hosting guests who've been promoting election fraud conspiracies. On Sunday, he called the people that stormed Congress there, quote, "Brazilian freedom fighters."

KELLY: Steve Bannon, former President Trump's former adviser. Go on.

OLMOS: Yeah, that's right. And it shows how the far right is an anti-democratic movement, and it's transnational. What we saw on January 6 in the U.S. and Sunday in Brazil was not an anomaly but part of a broader trend. These movements are sharing thoughts, ideas, strategies, and they're taking inspiration from each other.

KELLY: Well, and how deep does it go? Is it a two-way street in terms of far-right figures in the U.S. actively engaging with what's happening in Brazil?

OLMOS: Yeah. So the far-right hasn't necessarily developed an interest in Brazilian politics or necessarily care what happens there. Their interest is in the breakup of a globalized community. For that, I talked to Sergio Guzman, who monitors political climates in Latin America. He says these far-right movements share a common goal in undermining democracy. Let's listen in.

SERGIO GUZMAN: They don't like organizations that express a common good or a common sense of what a democracy is and how it should behave. And so in a way, these groups find kindred spirits in other countries who want the same objectives as them, which is to leave them alone.

KELLY: Shannon Bond, jump in here because I have been so curious about the role of social media in the Sunday attack in Brazil. What do we know?

BOND: Yeah, I mean, again, very much like we saw on January 6, you know, these events, these riots were stoked and then documented on social media in messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, which are very popular in Brazil, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok. You know, we initially saw people urging others to come to the capitol and then spreading violent videos of the chaos as it unfolded. And what I found really interesting, Mary Louise, is so much of this organizing appeared to happen quite openly. We saw this term, Selma's party, in Portuguese going around. That was apparently an attempt to evade detection by the companies and authorities. Selma is a play on the word selva, which is a term associated with Brazil's military.

The Brazilian fact-checking group Lupa commissioned a survey of public WhatsApp groups about Brazilian politics. They found that expression first emerged in late December and then peaked last week. You know, we saw other ways they were trying to evade detection - posts talking about making cake for a party as well as offers of free rides to Brasilia and promises of free food, free water. And that clearly mobilized many people to act on Sunday.

KELLY: OK - so efforts among people posting to evade detection. On the other hand, you just said they were pretty open about all the planning.

BOND: Yeah.

KELLY: So is it surprising that authorities seem to have been caught by surprise?

BOND: I mean, look. The alarm bells have been ringing. Researchers and observers have been warning something like this could happen, you know, well before the presidential election in October. You know, as you said, during Bolsonaro's campaign, he claimed election fraud was likely. That was amplified by far-right influencers in Brazil and, as Sergio mentioned, election deniers here in the U.S. who have explicitly evoked Stop the Steal. And those messages spread like wildfire on social media, even though Brazil's government has tried to crack down on false election claims and, you know, has the power to force social networks to take down posts, to ban election deniers. In fact, on Sunday night, Brazil's Supreme Court issued an order calling on the social networks to block 17 accounts they say were linked to these attacks.

KELLY: OK. So that's what Brazil and its Supreme Court are doing. What about the social networks themselves? How are they responding to what happened over the weekend?

BOND: Well, I reached out. YouTube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and WhatsApp - they say they're removing content that breaks their rules, including against inciting violence and praising the riots. Meta and Twitter also say they are in touch with Brazilian authorities about their investigations. On the other hand, Telegram and TikTok didn't respond to my questions. And so I think there's a lot of, you know, lack of clarity we have on just what exactly the companies are doing and how effective it is.

KELLY: OK. I have a question, I guess, to both of you because as we know, concerns about global anti-democratic movements are not new, have been around a long time. I wonder whether you believe what we're seeing now marks an escalation. And if so, what are the larger lessons that you're taking away so far? Shannon, you start.

BOND: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, through the lens of seeing how social media is so inextricably linked to these events, whether it's January 6 here in the U.S. or what's happened in Brazil, you know, I think these companies face a challenge. And one of the challenges is how much these posts and videos and calls to violence spread across platforms. They are not limited to one place, right? So Telegram posts get shared into WhatsApp. They get shared to Facebook. TikTok videos wind up on Twitter. And, of course, then there is the mainstream media as well that plays a role. And it all creates a cycle of amplification that is very hard for any single company to tackle. And to me, that shows that there are real limits of what, you know, we can expect from Silicon Valley when what we're really dealing with is this political movement, you know, that does not accept a candidate's loss. That is, as Sergio says, sort of fundamentally anti-democratic and rooted in extremism.

KELLY: Sergio.

OLMOS: Yeah, I totally agree with Shannon. She - this is larger than just social media moderation or even individual figures like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. The term far-right extremism itself conveys perhaps an idea that this is just one end of the bell curve and will return to the mean, that what we saw on January 6 or Sunday in Brazil was perhaps a flash in the pan of people briefly radicalized by looking at Facebook too often. But that's not what we're seeing. Just last month in Europe, Germany, for example, had their largest anti-terror crackdown in history involving a far-right group plotting to storm the parliament there. It shows that democracies everywhere are in a kind of existential crisis, each of them grappling individually with their own far-right movements that are fundamentally anti-democratic.

KELLY: NPR's Sergio Olmos, thank you.

OLMOS: Thank you.

KELLY: And Shannon Bond, thanks to you, too.

BOND: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sergio Olmos
Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.