The Social Media Roots of Violent Insurrections in the United States and Brazil
In the aftermath of their most recent presidential elections, the capitals of the United States and Brazil were subject to violent insurrections. Then-Presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro had lost their bids for re-election but refused to concede to their opponents and even spread conspiracy theories about the results being manipulated. Supporters of theirs took the fight to the streets and violently stormed government buildings, including the US Capitol and the Congress in Brasilia. The specifics of these dynamics are discussed in another blog post with one big exception, on which this piece casts further light: the role of social media in bringing about the violent uprisings.
Fanning the Flames of Extremism on Social Media
Donald Trump quickly took to Twitter to spread falsehoods about the vote count. For example, on 30 December, 2020, he tweeted that the “Election was Rigged with hundreds of thousands of ballots mysteriously flowing into Swing States very late at night as everyone thought the election was easily won by me.”
Whilst such tweeting was the early prerequisite for the violent insurrection that took place on 6 January, 2021 in the sense that it further radicalised those that were beholden to Trump’s long-standing record of false claims and resentments, the then-President’s most crucial message to his supporters was delivered offline. On the day of the riots, Trump addressed a crowd of unabashed followers and announced that “we fight like hell” and that “we’re going to the Capitol”.
Shortly thereafter, some of his admirers stormed the latter. However, the violence was not as spontaneous as it might have seemed, which is where social media came into play again. The right-wing supremacist group Proud Boys had set up an encrypted messaging channel called “Boots on the Ground”. Prosecutors would later conclude that the texts that were shared there reveal a pre-planned conspiracy. Moreover, vital pieces of information, amongst other things on how to avoid police patrols and what weapons to bring to Capitol Hill, were exchanged between further rioters in real-time on channels such as Gab and Parler.
The developments in Brazil differed in some respects from those in the United States but the relevance of social media virtually remained undiminished. Whilst Bolsonaro seemed to have been less determined to share conspiracy claims about the election on social media than Trump, his supporters turned Telegram into their President’s echo chamber.
More specifically, die-hard loyalists eagerly spread Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated remarks about the use of allegedly malfunctioning voting machines. At a later stage, some of them even recruited like-minded individuals for what was mostly alluded to as a “war cry party” in the nation’s capital. The specific dates and routes of bus transfers to Brasilia were also shared on Telegram implying that the violent activities were planned well in advance.
In the attacks’ aftermath, the hashtag #manifestacao was used on Twitter and Facebook to glorify the violent uprising. On Facebook, the hashtag was liked, shared and commented on tens of thousands of times, mostly by users that supported the riots.
Taking Stock: The Persistent Threat of Social Media-induced, Politically Motivated Violence
Unfortunately, the danger that the riots will repeat themselves is real, considering that the idea of coordinating violent uprisings on social media has caught on. The Proud Boys have celebrated the storm of Capitol Hill since 6 January, 2023. The riots in the United States and Brazil have even earned praise from foreign groups that share the belief in the right-wing populism of Trump and Bolsonaro. Given the rise of like-minded movements across the developed world, it is not a foregone conclusion that we will not witness further social media-induced violent uprisings elsewhere.
The Road Ahead: Countering Social Media-induced, Politically Motivated Violence
Against this backdrop, it is more important than ever to equip law-enforcement agencies with the proper tools to investigate and counter politically motivated crimes on- and offline. With respect to the spread of violence-inducing messages on social media (unlike the response to the violent uprisings as such that are addressed in a preceding blog post) it is absolutely crucial to empower law-enforcement to quickly and properly identify the actual perpetrators of such posts and tweets and to collect the necessary evidence so indictments and requests for removal can be issued. This is part and parcel of FERMI’s disinformation sources, spread and impact analyser that can distinguish between accounts that are operated by bots and those run by real persons who are legally accountable. Besides that, the disinformation sources, spread and impact analyser also captures the spread of such messages thereby identifying further perpetrators and collecting available evidence.
 Michael D. Shear, “Trump, Trying to Cling to Power, Fans Unrest and Conspiracy Theories,” The New York Times, Updated November 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/us/politics/trump-biden-election.html; Julia Vargas Jones and Tara John, “Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro barred from running for office for 8 years,” CNN.com, June 30, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/06/30/americas/bolsonaro-court-abuse-of-power-ruling-intl-latam/index.html.
 The American Presidency Project, Donald J. Trump: 45th President of the United States: 2017‐2021. Tweets of December 30, 2020, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/tweets-december-30-2020.
 Brian Naylor, “Read Trump's Jan. 6 Speech, A Key Part Of Impeachment Trial,” NPR.com, February 10, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/02/10/966396848/read-trumps-jan-6-speech-a-key-part-of-impeachment-trial.
 Matthew Kriner and Jon Lewis, “Pride & Prejudice: The Violent Evolution of the Proud Boys,” CTC Sentinel 14, no. 6 (July/ August 2021), https://ctc.westpoint.edu/pride-prejudice-the-violent-evolution-of-the-proud-boys/.
 Sheera Frenkel, “The storming of Capitol Hill was organized on social media,” The New York Times, January 6, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/us/politics/protesters-storm-capitol-hill-building.html.
 Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Come to the ‘war cry party’: How social media helped drive mayhem in Brazil,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2023/01/08/brazil-bolsanaro-twitter-facebook/.
 Mark Scott, “Everyone saw Brazil violence coming. Except social media giants,” Politico, January 9, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/brazil-violence-social-media-lula-bolsonaro-riot-insurrection-coup/.
 Kriner and Lewis, “Pride & Prejudice”.
 Scott, “Everyone saw Brazil.”