How reports of violence became a partisan dispute after first round of Brazilian elections
On October 7, a few hours after the polls closed in Brazil and a runoff between the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro and leftist Fernando Haddad was announced, capoeira master Moa do Katende was stabbed to death in a bar.
The murder received extensive attention because it was reported as an example of the increasing electoral violence in the country. The victim was a Worker’s Party (PT) supporter, while the suspect was an alleged Bolsonaro supporter.
A few days later, however, hyper-partisan websites began claiming that the motivation for the murder was not political. In an interview recorded on video, the man who confessed to the murder said they had argued over soccer.
The video gained traction on social media and was eventually reposted by Jair Bolsonaro himself. Traditional media, which in general did not pick up this other angle of the story, was accused of publishing “fake news”.
The police maintained that, in his official statement taken before the interview with the press, the suspect said the murder was politically motivated. Witnesses also confirmed the disagreement was of a political nature. However, alleging it was barred by electoral court rules, the police did not publish any information about the case in its website or social media accounts. As of October 24, the case left the police’s hand and moved into the Judiciary system.
Tracking the spread of this story sheds light on how multiple actors created a fertile environment for the dissemination of misinformation related to the case.
Claims of electoral violence in Brazil have emerged in an unprecedent manner since the October 7 election.
More than 70 attacks related to politics have been reported in Brazil since September 30, according to Agência Pública and the Open Knowledge Society. One of the victims claimed she had a swastika carved onto her ski, but the police concluded her report was false. She and other victims claimed the assaults were perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters. The candidate has a history of supporting torture and using hate speech.
In a polarized political environment such as that in Brazil, the hostilities became a narrative dispute. On the one hand, the Worker’s Party and supporters of Haddad argued the attacks were encouraged, or at least legitimized, by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. On the other hand, Bolsonaro and his supporters claim these attacks might have been fabricated, and that they had also been targeted by violence from the other side. Since the police are still investigating most of the cases, proving either has been difficult.
Electoral violence was not common in previous elections in Brazil. In March, however, two buses that toured with the PT leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were targeted by gunfire. Nobody was hurt in the attack. In September, Bolsonaro himself was stabbed while campaigning on the streets. The attacker, who suffered from serious mental illness, was jailed.
Politically motivated killing
After the attack against Bolsonaro, the assault that received most attention was the murder of Moa do Katende.
The article with the most engagements was Globo.com’s “Capoeira master is killed with 12 stabs after saying he voted for PT, in [the city of] Salvador.” The article received 808,500 interactions on Facebook and 39,500 on Twitter.
Quoting the Security Secretary of the state of Bahia, where the murder took place, this article stated that Romualdo Rosário da Costa, best known as Moa do Katende, was stabbed after a political discussion. The article was published by Extra newspaper, part of Globo Group, on October 8 at 10:24 a.m., and updated at 1:57 p.m. The article did not mention the interview in which the suspect denied the political motivation of the crime. According to the Security Secretary, this interview was given at 11:00 a.m.
This article was extensively shared by left-leaning social profiles. The profiles of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) and Fernando Haddad posted the article, mentioning the “hate” had to stop.
Among the top-eight articles that received more engagement, five did not mention the suspect said the crime was not politically motivated. Two of them were from the traditional press (Extra and O Dia) and three from left-wing partisan websites (two articles from Forum and one from Catraca). However, even the articles from traditional media that mentioned his interviews (Estadão, BBC, Carta Capital), stated the motivation was political in the headline. In all, these articles received 1.2 million interactions, mostly on Facebook and Twitter.
After the news of the assault spread, Bolsonaro was prompted to comment. At first, he said he had nothing to do with the murder and could not take responsibility for the actions of his followers. The next day, he claimed the media had taken his statement out of context and said he did not welcome votes from violent people.
Not politically motivated
Among the top-ten articles mentioning the case, two denied the murder was related to politics, reporting exclusively on the suspect’s interview to the press. These articles failed to mention the police’s version of events. They were the second and third most-read articles and, together, garnered 264,400 interactions.
One of the articles, published by hyper-partisan right-wing Agência Caneta, read “Capoeira master murderer denies support for Bolsonaro and refutes media narrative.” Agência Caneta is connected to the social media profile “Caneta Desesquerdizadora,” an anti-left Facebook page.
The article was mostly shared by Bolsonaro supporters’ social profiles, such as “Brazil with Bolsonaro,” “Bolsonaro Army,” and “I am right-wing.”
Bolsonaro himself tweeted the video of the interview on October 11, saying “Garbage press.” As of October 17, the post had been retweeted 15,636 times.
Another factor that might have contributed to the lack of information surrounding the case was that neither the police nor the Security Secretary published any official information on their website or social media.
An electoral law in Brazil bans public organs from publishing some information during the electoral period. The aim is to prevent parties in power from using the government apparatus to benefit its candidates.
Thus, citizens could not directly access official information, and depended solely on the media as an intermediary.
A series of gaps in information, arising from different actors, contributed to the confusion about the murder of Moa do Katende.
First, many media outlets failed to report extensively on the suspect’s statement to the media. Had they give more attention to his account of events, Bolsonaro and right-wing fringe media groups would have had less room to frame the online narrative to their advantage or to make accusations of falsifications.
A lack of transparency by law enforcement also contributed to misinformation, as citizens depended on faulty media reports for information.
To reduce the impact of misinformation, it is crucial that citizens have access to trustworthy information that is transparent and available to all. This is even more urgent with pressing issues such as electoral violence.
This case study illustrates how both traditional media and public authorities have failed to provide the necessary information to voters, opening space for the spread of misinformation.
Luiza Bandeira is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab) and Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
#ElectionWatch Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.