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Brazil 2023 protests: The domino effect of our leaders’ words

As world leaders rise and fall, and their voices are elevated with the power of social media, there’s an inherent obligation for them to communicate in a responsible manner. The words of our leaders have a profound impact on the lives of those they lead. From inspiring us to take action, to providing guidance and direction in times of crisis.

In some cases, however, those same words can inspire chaos. This is true for the recent protests in Brazil.

For months, citizens of the capital city of Brasilia have taken to the streets to protest the current executive administration. Some of their grievances include corruption, fraudulent elections and economic inequality. This intensified after recent elections in 2022, where current President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva returned to office after 12 years, replacing former President Jair Bolsorano.

Bolsorano claimed the election was “fraudulent and illicit” on multiple social media outlets and press conferences, which inspired numerous street protests leading to an attack on the Capitol and Supreme Court.

The Presidential Communications secretary of Brazil, Paulo Pimenta, referred to this event as an “attack on democracy”, and many have compared it to the riot in U.S. Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, following the election of President Joe Biden.

The timeline: The election that sparked chaos

2013-2017

In June 2013, protests erupted in the streets of Brazil. Citizens were fed up with high levels of government corruption, a lack of investment in public services and the rising cost of living. Protests quickly turned violent, with police using pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.

Protesters had a variety of demands, but the main focus was on economic reform. They wanted the government to invest more in public services and infrastructure, and to provide relief for those who were struggling to make ends meet.

2022

In late September and early October of 2022, Brazil’s presidential election was the horizon. The two main candidates were Jair Bolsorano and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Bolsorano voiced concerns the election was rigged and that the political left would try to steal his presidency.

These protests were initially organized online through social media networks and quickly spread offline, gaining support from a broad cross-section of Brazilian society. While these demonstrations were largely peaceful during the election, they turned violent at times, with police using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse crowds. Protesters responded by throwing rocks and Molotov bombs.

2023

On Sunday, Oct. 30, DaSilva won the election, leaving an unsettling political climate in Brazil.

According to CNN reports, riots erupted early on Jan. 8, when a crowd of supporters of ex-President Jair Bolsorano trespassed the House of Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace simultaneously. The report claims “about 1,500” arrests in Brasilia since then. Pimenta described the protesters as a “herd of zombies” who defecated, urinated and smashed everything in their way.

The power of social media in the midst of political turmoil

The attack on the three branches of government in Brazil demonstrated the power of online networks in organizing and mobilizing people for a cause. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allowed protesters to quickly spread information about rallies and demonstrations, which helped to bring more people into the streets.

But how much did this “call to action” came from Bolsorano himself?

In July 2022, a few months before the election, Bolsorano addressed the people of Brazil expressing the left’s intention to overcome his presidency. He claimed that “all dictatorships begin with the unarming of the people”. He ended his speech with the phrase “when the people are armed, they will never be defeated. Remember that.”

The gravity of asking people to arm themselves to support a political regime is something that cannot be taken lightly.

Similarly, former President Donald Trump expressed disagreements with his Twitter followers after losing the 2022 U.S. election to President Biden.

“Peter Navarro releases 36-page report alleging election fraud ‘more than sufficient’ to swing victory to Trump washex.am/3nwaBCe. A great report by Peter. Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Donald Trump’s Tweet.

Trump was right about one thing. It was wild.

This tweet was sent just days before the attack on the Capitol Building, where an angry crowd of Trump supporters stormed Congress and “pushed past severely outnumbered Capitol Police officers, breaking windows and vandalizing offices.”

After a long trial, trying to determine the events of Jan. 6, the House of Representatives presented a detailed 845-page report “supporting the committee’s claim that the attack was directly caused by former President Donald Trump.” However, he was later acquitted at the end of the trial.

Bolsorano, however, denies any involvement in the events of Jan. 9 in Brasilia. In the months leading up to the protests, he tried to convince the electoral court “any loss was the result of fraud.” But shortly thereafter, the court rejected Bolsonaro’s petition to annul the ballots.

On Monday, Jan. 9, Bolsorano was in Florida and denounced the actions of his supporters as “depredations and invasions” in a tweet. However, this does not completely clear him for instigating the protests.

“Despite his efforts to separate himself from Sunday’s protest, experts say Bolsonaro’s months-long campaign to sow doubt over the election laid the groundwork and ultimately encouraged his supporters to launch Sunday’s protest,” CNN reported.

On Friday, a Brazilian Supreme Court justice allowed authorities to investigate Bosonaro for his role in promoting the violent protests. Evidence includes a since-deleted Facebook video in which the former president claims the election was rigged by Brazilian election authorities.

The weight of our leaders words

The size of the protests in Brazil has been unprecedented, with millions of people taking to the streets in cities across the country. The response from the government has been heavy-handed, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. This only seems to be making the protesters more determined, and more people are joining the movement every day.

Whether or not such events were caused by the words of former President Jair Bolsorano still leaves the question of the standard to which the people should be holding their leaders in government. The same can be applied to celebrities and anyone who willingly steps into the public spotlight.

If recent history sets a precedent it should be this: While freedom of speech should always be a right, our political leaders have a responsibility to use their outsized voice to promote democracy and public safety, not sacrifice virtue for their own selfish interests.

Photo by Nathalia Segato on Unsplash

Edited by James Sutton

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