SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Kim Kataguiri is known in Brazil for a lot of things. He’s been called a fascist. He’s been called a fake news kingpin. Is he a YouTuber? He definitely uses YouTube. He’s definitely a troll. A troll with a consistent message, though, he points out. Maybe he’s Brazil’s equivalent of Milo Yiannopoulos. His organization, Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL) — the Free Brazil Movement — is like the Brazilian Breitbart. Or maybe it’s like the American tea party. Maybe it’s both. Is it a news network? Kataguiri says it isn’t. But it’s not a political party, either. He says MBL is just a bunch of young people who love free market economics and memes.
One thing is very clear: His YouTube channel, the memes, the fake news, and MBL’s army of supporters have helped Kataguiri, 22, become the youngest person ever elected to Congress in Brazil. He’s also trying to become Brazil’s equivalent of speaker of the House.[INSERT 8]
As the world panicked over whether Brazil’s far-right presidential frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, is more of a Trump or a Duterte, MBL pushed forward 16 of its own candidates. Six of them won on the federal level. More at the state and local levels. MBL’s YouTube channel has grown from zero to 1 million subscribers this year. MBL was on the front page of YouTube every day in the month leading up to the election. The plan is to have all of the group’s elected members start their own YouTube channels. Forty percent of MBL’s funding already comes from YouTube ads. MBL-affiliated YouTuber and newly elected state representative Arthur Mamãe Falei personally made $12,000 off his solo channel in October.
As Mamãe Falei simply puts it, “I guarantee YouTubers in Brazil are more influential than politicians.”[INSERT 17]
Sitting in an upstairs smoking room in Murdock Barbershop in São Paulo’s southern Moema neighborhood, Kataguiri is almost constantly shifting between two personas. With his skinny black suit and the way he strategically downplays MBL’s controversial past, the whole performance feels like a new persona he’s trying out: congressional Kim Kataguiri.
Kataguiri says he doesn’t agree with all of the outrageous things Bolsonaro says about black people and gay people and women. He claims that even Bolsonaro doesn’t believe his own inflammatory rhetoric.
But Kataguiri also disagrees with what he calls the “political correctness” of the left, like the outrage when Kataguiri was attacked for comparing feminists to instant ramen: “They’re ready in three minutes and you only have them in college.” And while he and his MBL colleagues celebrated the support of Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson, Kataguiri says Infowars is too conspiratorial.
Kataguiri calls the hundreds of memes MBL members are transmitting daily on WhatsApp to their thousands of followers fun commentary — even if several of their Facebook pages were banned this summer for spreading misinformation. He makes the same claim as his far-right counterparts in the United States: Facebook discriminates against conservatives.
Kataguiri squirms in his seat as he talks. He has a nervous over-laugh that wouldn’t sound out of place on the other end of an Xbox headset. Sitting with him is MBL member and city councillor Fernando Holiday, also 22, in another slick, skinny suit, and Mamãe Falei, 32, in a T-shirt and jeans. It’s not hyperbolic to say these guys have quietly hacked their way into Brazil’s democratic process.
“We are the biggest political network on the internet,” Kataguiri says confidently.[INSERT 10]
Kataguiri’s political awakening is a textbook example of the way algorithms beget more algorithms. During his last year of high school, his teacher started a debate about welfare programs in Brazil. So Kataguiri started googling. He discovered Ron Paul and the Brazilian libertarian YouTuber Daniel Fraga.
“Then I did a video to my teacher and my friends at school to talk about what I had found out,” Kataguiri says. “There was one problem: I posted this video on YouTube. So it was public and it went viral.”
He says people kept asking for more videos, but he didn’t know anything. So he went back to googling, and then made more videos about what he learned. His channel got bigger. He started connecting with other far-right and libertarian YouTubers. Brazil’s libertarian community started connecting on Facebook. Then, in 2013, Ron Paul visited a conference in Brazil, and suddenly the online community became a real-life one.
“But then we realized that it was very boring to be libertarian or conservative or anything like that in Brazil. Basically, you go to an event, you wear a bowtie, and then you hear someone talking about economics,” Kataguiri says.[INSERT 18]
That’s when MBL started to form. He says the emphasis on economic theory within the libertarian movement was uninspiring. He wanted to start a group that got young people excited. By 2015, his videos were starting to draw a huge audience. When Kataguiri was 19, Time named him one of the 30 most influential teenagers of 2015. That was the same year that Kataguiri, MBL, and Brazil as a country would start to change in a profound way.
Brazil’s Lava Jato scandal, or Operation Car Wash, was first uncovered in 2014. It is one of the largest corruption scandals in history. Its name comes from a gas station in Brasilia, where a currency exchange and money transfer service was used to launder outrageous sums of money. Sixteen companies have been implicated, 160 people have been arrested over it, 179 have been indicted, and Brazil’s then-president Dilma Rousseff was impeached over it.
It’s unclear if Rousseff was ever connected to Lava Jato, but her party, the leftist Workers’ Party, was heavily implicated. As the process of impeaching Rousseff began to take off, MBL started to morph into the organization it’s known as today. The communication network that Kataguiri had been building on Facebook and YouTube suddenly began to radicalize.
“The impeachment was the boom,” Kataguiri says.
In the spring of 2015, Kataguiri and MBL’s national coordinator, Renan Santos, organized a 600-mile march in support of Rousseff’s impeachment, but also, more broadly, for “free markets, lower taxes, and privatization” in Brazil.
“We want to destroy this idea that if you defend free markets then you’re an old man who is asking for a dictatorship,” Kataguiri said in an interview at the time.
Over the next year, Kataguiri would become the street-level face of the impeachment movement. Rousseff would finally be impeached in August 2016, after a speech before the Senate in which she maintained her innocence. “I know I will be judged, but my conscience is clear. I did not commit a crime,” she said.
But by then, MBL had become a fully functional political machine that was already setting its sights on bigger goals. “We were trying to get higher engagement than Donald Trump,” Kataguiri says. “That was our focus. To be the top in the world.” He says they managed to outperform Trump on Facebook for about three days in 2016.
Kataguiri spent most of 2016 trying to crack Breitbart’s formula. “During the 2016 elections in Brazil, we studied how it was working in the United States because the benchmark of everything that’s happening in politics is the United States,” he says. “So we studied what was happening there, in terms of politics, especially with the tea party and the communication with Breitbart.”
Ultimately, MBL had to create its own formula. Here’s how MBL, as a digital network, operates.[INSERT 11]
The main MBL Facebook page has about 3 million followers. Since 2014, it’s functioned more or less as the group’s main hub. But Kataguiri says that due to concerns over News Feed algorithm changes and Facebook’s banning of its pages this summer, MBL has begun to diversify. It has about 300,000 Twitter followers and about a half million on Instagram. Kataguiri says he doesn’t know anything about the American far-right Twitter clone Gab, which has recently become big in Brazil. But MBL does have a page there. The real crown jewels of MBL’s digital operation right now are YouTube and WhatsApp.
“We now have, on Facebook, 20 times less engagement than we did in 2016 or 2017,” Kataguiri says. “To compensate for that, we went to YouTube and we were happy because we reached a very young audience that we did not imagine to reach, and because of that, we even started a new initiative that is the students’ branch of MBL. We are starting to structure that now.”
Forty percent of MBL’s funding come from YouTube advertising. “It's not that much money, but that’s because our operation is cheap,” Kataguiri says. The other 60% comes from membership fees. For 30 reais (around $10) you get a T-shirt and can call yourself an MBL member. For 500 reais, you get a free pass to the group’s national congress, a bunch of merchandise, and the ability to directly ask MBL YouTubers and content creators questions.
“It’s not like the videos are for children,” he says when asked about the young average age of MBL’s YouTube audience. “Children just watch it.”
Kataguiri says he’s never spoken to anyone at YouTube and, like all YouTubers, isn’t quite sure how the algorithm works, but he says MBL focuses on either a controversial topic that will create a lot of comments or an already-trending topic in order to hit YouTube’s front page.
“In the last month, we've managed to be on the front page of YouTube every day,” he says. “Paul Joseph Watson already shared three or four videos from MBL. Milo Yiannopoulos shared a video of ours.” MBL made a video about Yiannopoulos two years ago, describing him as a gay conservative and asking the question: Why does the left hate him? The group posted about him again last year, saying the Brazilian press had just discovered Yiannopoulos and was now attacking him for not being politically correct.
Kataguiri has plans to expand MBL’s YouTube presence. “What we intend to do is for every elected candidate to have a YouTube channel of his own. So we have a YouTube network,” he says.
The other huge arm of MBL’s digital arsenal is memes, which members send out daily via WhatsApp groups. According to a study in 2016, nearly 100% of internet users in Brazil have WhatsApp. That means about 40% of the country’s 207 million people are using the app. Kataguiri estimates that MBL coordinators and members have about 1,000 affiliated WhatsApp groups around the country. Groups in Brazil max out at 200 people.
WhatsApp is encrypted, which means it’s almost impossible to get a sense of who is sharing what to whom or when. That makes gauging virality on WhatsApp almost impossible. It’s become a nightmare for fact-checkers and political regulators, and a goldmine for groups like MBL trying to politically organize. But it’s still tricky for Kataguiri to measure impact.
“You can’t track how many people share your content,” Kataguiri says. “The only measure we have is how many people send the content we spread back to us.”
This media landscape of memes and vlogs is what’s most regularly used against MBL by traditional media and Brazil’s political left. “Is there a concern about fake news? Of course,” he says.[INSERT 19]
As MBL has become more sophisticated, and perhaps as more of its members have run for office, the organization has become more discerning about how it presents political spin. This year, following the death of a black city councillor from Rio de Janeiro named Marielle Franco, MBL was accused of organizing a coordinated fake news campaign against her. Franco was a vocal opponent of police violence, and her death was ruled an execution. The nine bullets that killed Franco were purchased by federal police in 2006. Days after her death, rumors attributed to MBL-affliated pages and profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp began to insinuate that she died because she was involved with “bandits.”
Kataguiri says what they actually did was take what a judge was saying about Franco — which was untrue — and share it with commentary. “We never said we agree with it or that it was real. We just said that the judge said it. We just noticed it like every other outlet did,” he says.
Kataguiri is fine with the label “propaganda,” though. He says MBL’s political message is what separates its members from the rabid pro-Bolsonaro trolls (Bolsominions) on Twitter. All MBL content follows the same simple formula.
“First, we get news from somewhere,” he says. “There's news from Folha de São Paulo, there's news from Globo, there's news from anywhere, but we choose the news that the public wants to read. We basically curate.”
Then, he says, they decide how to manipulate that news to fit their message. “Nowadays, people only read the headline, and they already want to have an opinion before reading the news. Basically, what we offer them is, ‘This is the news, in two phrases — this is what we think about it.’”
And finally, the third step: “Basically something to make people laugh and have an incentive to share it with their friends,” he says.
That’s where Arthur Mamãe Falei comes in.[INSERT 4]
Arthur Mamãe Falei’s real name is Arthur Moledo do Val. Mamãe Falei is his YouTube handle, and it literally translates to “Mama told you so.” This month, he became a state representative. Do Val, even more so than Kataguiri, has zero political experience. The 32-year-old was working at his family’s scrap metal shop before he started a YouTube channel. He started making videos in 2015 and spent the first few years creating content in relative obscurity.
“I’m a real politician and he is just a YouTuber,” Kataguiri says.
“Yes, I prefer to be a YouTuber,” do Val fires back.
Do Val’s most-watched video right now is called “15 minutes with Jair Bolsonaro.” It’s been viewed 3.8 million times. His first big video was in August 2016, using the format he’s now best known for. In it, he attends a rally against President Michel Temer, who replaced Dilma Rousseff after her impeachment. Temer was hated among Brazil’s young progressive left. Do Val goes into the crowd and harasses the protesters. He asks them questions about politics to try to make them look stupid.
The Temer protest doesn’t end in violence, but a lot of do Val’s videos do. He estimates he’s had five cameras broken across 50 demonstrations. One of his most infamous videos was filmed at a school that leftist protesters were occupying. He was attacked so violently that he passed out.
“When I started to wake up, the students were taking off my camera, but I had time to recover it and run away. I got to a police station, but in Brazil there are stations dedicated only to crimes against women,” he says. “It was a women’s police station. So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m safe! I was getting beaten up.’ The officer looked behind me and there were five girls saying, ‘We got raped by him.’ So I got arrested.”
He spent seven hours handcuffed to a metal bar in the police station until other students could come in and show the police video recordings of the beating.[INSERT 14]
After do Val passed the 100,000 subscribers mark, his channel started to make serious money. In his worst month, he made around $3,000, and this month — his best — he made $12,000. He’s featured heavily on YouTube in Brazil and recognized on the street now, but he’s never heard from anyone who works at YouTube, other than when he got his Play Button plaque for a million subscribers.
“I’m really grateful to YouTube because it turned me into what I am today,” he says.
Brazil has a history of unorthodox candidates running for office: porn stars, footballers, a guy dressed up like Batman. A TV clown has been reelected a few times. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a YouTuber who works at a scrap metal yard and gets beat up at protests could be elected to local office in Brazil. The key difference with do Val is that he got half a million votes. That’s a fourth of his YouTube audience and an absurd number for a state election. Candidates in previous years have been elected with 20,000 votes. He also doesn’t plan to stop going to protests.
“That’s my main activity,” he says. “People think that politics is just being in the office. And it’s not. You’re a political agent even if you’re not in office.”[INSERT 13]
Kataguiri describes himself as a politician and describes do Val as a YouTuber — and describes Fernando Holiday as something in between. Holiday is probably the second-most controversial figure within MBL. Two years ago, when he was 20, he rode the Facebook traffic boom to become the youngest city councillor in São Paulo history, with almost 50,000 votes.
“I was elected by the internet,” he says.
Like Kataguiri, Holiday self-identifies as an economic liberal. And like Kataguiri — who is half-Japanese — Holiday is also an interesting figure for the Brazilian political right: He’s black and gay.
Holiday first gained notoriety by speaking out against affirmative action. He said he’s been criticized by black leaders in Brazil. “The old politicians didn’t take me seriously. I started to get respected as time went by, as I presented projects, debated issues,” he says.[INSERT 15]
And then there was the incident with Democratic Labor Party candidate Ciro Gomes. Gomes has a bit of the same energy around him right now as Bernie Sanders did in 2016. Many are saying he would have been a better choice than Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad to go up against Bolsonaro during the final presidential vote at the end of this month. Gomes’s name or face has been a fixture at leftist protests leading up to the election.
Earlier this year, Gomes called Holiday a “capitão do mato” during a radio interview. It’s a racist Brazilian expression that refers to slaves who would help capture escaped fellow slaves. MBL called Gomes racist in Facebook posts and memes. Gomes threatened to sue MBL for calling him racist. Holiday threatened to sue Gomes. A police investigation was opened in July.
A few months before the incident with Gomes, MBL came out in defense of journalist William Waack after audio leaked of Waack making racist remarks. “Who has never talked bullshit among friends?” MBL said in a video.
“Our opinion is the same as it is in the law. What really matters is if he had the intention to offend or not, and he had,” Kataguiri says. “It was not a joke. It was something he said in a show. He intended to offend [Holiday] because of the color of his skin. That's difference between what's inappropriate and what's politically incorrect.”[INSERT 16]
These incidents aren’t uncommon for Holiday. He got in a Twitter fight just this week after he claimed the KKK was a left-wing organization. Far-right internet personalities, of course, can be equally diverse. But the diversity within MBL is clashing hard with a larger, more unruly conservative moment in Brazil right now, led by Bolsonaro, and it’s out of step with a global movement of white nationalism. MBL has to choose when and how to align with Bolsonaro, who has advocated for bringing back Brazil’s military dictatorship and has called Afro-Brazilian descendants of slaves lazy. Holiday says he disapproves of some of what Bolsonaro says.
“Most people who are not activists — in other words, who are just regular people — are fans of the movement and like my work and what we are doing,” he says.
Holiday has a lot of support. He’s just getting started on YouTube — part of Kataguiri’s plans for their YouTube propaganda network — and he already has 600,000 followers on Facebook.
“Other city councillors kind of fear me because most of them don’t understand the power of social networks,” he says.[INSERT 7]
There are 32 registered political parties in Brazil. Most of the political landscape is controlled by about five. The second round of the general election here this month will see the leftist Workers’ Party go up against Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party. Kataguiri, do Val, and Holiday are all part of the same political party, the Democrats. It’s a right-wing party dedicated to economic liberalism and Christian democracy, but they all say they’re MBL members first. Which is a powerful concept.
Kataguiri says they support Bolsonaro for practical reasons. They hate the Workers’ Party and the far-right wave that’s running through Brazil, but it ultimately helps them. Bolsonaro has been good for traffic.
“I think most of Bolsonaro's supporters are just tired of the system and want an anti-establishment candidate,” Kataguiri says.
Kataguiri and his coordinators are banking on the populist energy of Bolsonaro being a passing fad. This, of course, is a big gamble. Bolsonaro supporters have already been connected to a string of assaults and hate crimes this past week. If this is a fad, it’s just getting started. Right now, MBL and do Val’s YouTube audiences are primarily ages 13–24.
Until that YouTube audience can get a little older and more indoctrinated — and become legally able to vote — Kataguiri has a plan.
“If Bolsonaro tries anything more radical, it will go through Congress,” he says. “And if it goes through Congress, we'll stop it.” ●
“I’m really grateful to YouTube because it turned me into what I am today.”
“I was elected by the internet.”
“Other city councillors kind of fear me because most of them don’t understand the power of social networks.”
“I guarantee YouTubers in Brazil are more influential than politicians.”
“But then we realized that it was very boring to be libertarian or conservative or anything like that in Brazil. Basically, you go to an event, you wear a bowtie, and then you hear someone talking about economics.”
“Nowadays, people only read the headline, and they already want to have an opinion before reading the news.”
Forty percent of MBL's funding comes from YouTube ad revenue. An earlier version of this post incorrectly described that money as profit.