The Court’s Cold Shoulder: Bolsonaro is Chilly as Social Media Bill is Repealed

  • President Bolsonaro was chilled by Congress and the Supreme Court’s repeal of social media censorship measures.
  • The setback is the latest in a series of defeats in his ongoing struggle with the Supreme Court.
  • The situation spells danger for his chances in the 2022 elections.
President Jair Bolsonaro / CNN Español

Why is Bolsonaro’s Heat Level Cold?

Answer: Following Bolsonaro’s policy regarding social media censorship, the Congress and Supreme Court have repealed the bill. 

In the latest development of a tumultuous year for the Brazilian president, The Supreme Court has shut down a new policy intent on reducing censorship online. Jair Bolsonaro had imposed the new measures earlier this month, in a move that was purported to protect citizens’ right to freedom of expression. In limiting social media providers’ authority to remove posts with what the leader labelled: ‘arbitrary’ motivation, the framework of the new decree meant that technology giants would be forced to alter their criteria for the removal of content, including videos, images, and text. The details of the decree also meant providers would have to evidence a ‘just cause or motivation and obtain a court order before removing anything beyond nudity, copyright infringement, or the encouragement of crime, as well as providing the accounts in question with an opportunity to defend themselves before any censorial decision would be made. 

However, critics of the decree were swift in their opposition, claiming that Bolsonaro’s true intentions were to facilitate the dissemination of misinformation surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and the nation’s electoral system, as well as to protect the accounts of pro-Bolsonaro users on social media. Amongst these critics were Congress and the Supreme Court, who, less than a week after the signing of the decree, repealed the changes made by President Bolsonaro. The reasons behind the repeal included the intrusive nature of the decree and its potential abuse by his supporters, as well as disinformation regarding next year’s presidential election.

The judicial powers sent back the provisional measures put in place, declaring them inappropriate as they did not address any emergency issue, the circumstances for which such provisional measures are typically reserved. The chances of this decree having any success were slim to begin with, as Congress was already in the midst of debating a bill to regulate social networks. Bolsonaro, already embroiled in controversy and out of favour with the Congress and Supreme Court, is expected to employ further tactics to secure the protection of future disinformation on social media, which has formed a large part of his political success.

Who is changing Bolsonaro’s Heat Level?

Answer: The Brazilian Congress and Supreme Court are, once again, an impediment to Bolsonaro’s leadership. 

The events of this month are, by no means, the first time Bolsonaro has clashed with Brazil’s judiciary powers. This setback is undoubtedly representative of his leadership; the leader has been the centre of ongoing political crises and has found himself in the cold, criticised or constrained by the Supreme Court and other governmental institutions since as early as 2019. President Bolsonaro’s handling (or lack thereof) of the Covid-19 pandemic raised questions amongst the public, who protested his leadership and demanded impeachment for his supposed incompetence. His reshuffling of the Brazilian cabinet earlier this year, as well as his controversial remarks surrounding social issues and ideology, have also added to discontent in the Supreme Court and Congress.

Equally significant in terms of Bolsonaro’s concession to these institutions was the seemingly moderate posture he was obliged to assume following the heated rallies earlier this month. On the 7th of September, Brazil’s Independence Day, he addressed rallies of over 100,000 supporters in São Paulo and Brasilia, stirring sentiments that he would challenge the Supreme Court in any capacity. However, shortly after the rallies, Bolsonaro withdrew his remarks, lamenting that he had spoken in the ‘heat of the moment’. Clearly, he is in a precarious situation, whereby governmental institutions are vehemently opposing much of his leadership, obliging him to re-evaluate his options.

What is Driving Bolsonaro? 

Answer: A desire to maintain his position and secure his reelection in the coming year. 

It would seem Bolsonaro is growing desperate. With sufficient tension growing with these institutions as well as his electorate, who are showing less and less support, the leader’s situation is becoming more and more precarious. However, there is another aspect that will certainly prove instrumental in Brazil’s political future, and one that will weigh on Bolsonaro’s mind significantly: Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva. The former left-wing president who has this year re-entered the political arena following the annulment of charges against him, is a major threat to Bolsonaro’s reelection. Lula’s widening lead in the polls and gains are driving Bolsonaro to reconsider measures his administration wouldn’t have, had he been unchallenged. 

Equally, this latest development regarding the social media bill is indicative of the leader’s motivations. Bolsonaro understands well that he needs social media to guarantee any sort of protection of his polemical views and the possibility of his reelection next year. His ardent personal beliefs are also responsible for much of his behaviour. His belief of corruption in the electronic electoral system, as well as his views surrounding the pandemic, have manifested themselves in the form of radical and erratic policy decisions such as that of this social media bill.

It is clear Bolsonaro has developed a stubborn paranoia surrounding Brazil’s political system, clinging to those who still support him and indicting his opposition as corrupt or duplicitous. This behaviour is not dissimilar to that of his political ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump, and it is expected Bolsonaro will further endeavour to prevent hismegaphone being shut off’. Indeed, Bolsonaro has been staunch in his predictions for the 2022 elections, suggesting a dangerous notion; that the leader now feels he has nothing to lose.

What Does This Mean for You?

Answer: The effects of this ongoing struggle with the judicial powers of the country weakens Bolsonaro’s chances of reelection and could see the return of left-wing leadership to Brazil

Bolsonaro’s actions over the past year, his handling of the pandemic, his promises to challenge the governmental institutions of the country and this latest attempt to protect his misinformation campaign, all result in a loss of faith from both within the political class and his electorate. Should these controversies and his resistance continue, his position and likelihood of reelection will be seriously threatened.

Considering the return of Brazil’s prodigal son to the political arena, Bolsonaro will likely continue with this heading of political crises and brazen attempts to maintain the credibility of his leadership. With the 2022 elections looming and his approval rating sliding, it is becoming increasingly realistic to expect a left-wing administration in the near future. With Lula Da Silva now back in the race, and his poll ratings climbing, every wrong step taken by Bolsonaro becomes a victory for the Brazilian Left.

It seems that, unless drastic measures are taken by Bolsonaro, there may soon be a hugely significant political overhaul in the largest country in Latin America, undoubtedly reshaping the nation’s and region’s future. The most immediate effect of a change like this would be an alternative approach to the pandemic. While Bolsonaro has spent great time and effort denying the severity of the virus, a new administration would likely adopt a far more serious strategy, opening the country to a new set of measures.

Equally, foreign policy would undoubtedly be improved upon. Previously, diplomatic officials have held Bolsonaro responsible for damaging Brazil’s credibility on the political stage, and Lula’s return could signify a restoration of the country’s image as a mediator in the region. Similarly, the impacts of Bolsonaro’s cold relations with the EU could also warm up with a new administration. While there remain sceptics, and the future is not certain, many in Brazil are tentatively getting hopes up for the comeback of Lula and a fresh Brazilian political landscape.

Ross Hardy

R&A Alumno