Voices on social media summoned protesters to Brasília, offering free transportation and food
Police investigators examine damage to the presidential offices in Brasilia, Brazil, on Monday morning, Jan. 9, 2023.
By YAN BOECHAT and LEONARDO COELHO
Days before supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former far-right president, laid siege to the capital, Brasília, on Sunday, social media platforms were flooded by calls to organize attacks against critical infrastructure, with oil refineries and roadblocks among the main targets.
The instigators of Sunday’s riots have not been publicly identified. But in the days after Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in as president Jan. 1, messages appeared on the Telegram and WhatsApp messaging apps inviting people to take part in the “Festa da Selma,” or Selma’s Party.
The organizers appeared to turn the word “selva,” or jungle, into “Selma” by replacing the letter V with the letter M. The word selva is directly linked to the armed forces and its veterans. Over recent decades it has become a kind of war cry for both the military and those who defend them. Many of those are also Bolsonaro supporters.
The term “Festa de Selma” began popping up in social media apps last week, first in Telegram and WhatsApp groups, as first reported by Agência Pública, a Brazilian investigative journalism outlet. Within a few days it had reached platforms including Twitter and Instagram.
“These articulations happen more frequently on WhatsApp and Telegram, where there is less control,” said Marcelo Soares, director of Lagom Data, a data intelligence studio in Sao Paulo. Those apps are encrypted, giving a measure of security to people communicating in private chat groups.
Something going viral there, Soares said, “leaks to Twitter in some cases, either out of enthusiasm or because they want to make the debate public.”
As the days went by, the mentions surged, until they reached their peak Saturday night, hours before the assault took place. On Telegram, some groups called for the storming of the Monumental Axis, the avenue that goes directly to the headquarters of the three democratic powers: Planalto Palace, seat of the presidency; the National Congress and the Supreme Court.
Most tweets were sent from accounts in Brazil’s southeast. But Soares’ analysis also shows that profiles based in Miami played an important role in spreading the message through Twitter.
While digital influencers on social media ignited groups of Bolsonaro supporters, a complex, real-world logistical operation was also being organized. Caravans of buses in different parts of the country were made available to protesters to take them to the nation’s capital free or at greatly reduced prices. The messages calling for the “Festa da Selma” promised food, camping and local support at no cost. One post Saturday, picturing a pile of slabs of raw meat, said “come to Brasília a ton of meat for the Party of Selma.”
According to an intelligence briefing by the Military Police of Brasília, the city saw the arrival of at least 100 buses carrying 4,000 demonstrators between Friday and Sunday.
Most of the arrivals stayed in an encampment in the capital that supporters of Bolsonaro had maintained in front of the army’s headquarters since the election in October. The camp was being dismantled Monday after a judicial order.