This Is How We Radicalized The World
On Sunday, far-right evangelical Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. The era of being surprised at this kind of politics is over. Now we have to live with what we've done.
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — From the balcony of BuzzFeed’s São Paulo office right now, you can hear screams of “Ele Não” echoing through the city’s winding avenues. It’s the same phrase I’ve seen graffitied all over the city this month. The same one I heard chanted from restaurants and bars all afternoon. It means “not him” — him being Bolsonaro. But his victory tonight isn’t a surprise. He’s just one more product of the strange new forces that dictate the very fabric of our lives.
It’s been a decade since I first felt like something was changing about the way we interact with the internet. In 2010, as a young news intern for a now-defunct website called the Awl, one of the first pieces I ever pitched was an explainer about why 4chan trolls were trying to take the also now-defunct website Gawker off the internet via a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack. It was a world I knew. I was a 19-year-old who spent most of my time doing what we now recognize as “shitposting.” It was the beginning of an era where our old ideas about information, privacy, politics, and culture were beginning to warp.
I’ve followed that dark evolution of internet culture ever since. I’ve had the privilege — or deeply strange curse — to chase the growth of global political warfare around the world. In the last four years, I’ve been to 22 countries, six continents, and been on the ground for close to a dozen referendums and elections. I was in London for UK’s nervous breakdown over Brexit, in Barcelona for Catalonia’s failed attempts at a secession from Spain, in Sweden as neo-Nazis tried to march on the country’s largest book fair. And now, I’m in Brazil. But this era of being surprised at what the internet can and will do to us is ending. The damage is done. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably spend the rest of my career covering the consequences.
In 2010, when I pitched the 4chan story, I was sitting on a dorm room futon, clacking out a pitch email from a busted laptop. But this new darkness lives almost exclusively on our smartphones and almost always involves exploiting an American company’s platform. Roughly 70% of smartphone users have an Android phone; the remaining 30% are on Apple. There are 2 billion monthly active Facebook users, 2 billion monthly active YouTube users, and 1.5 billion monthly active WhatsApp users. And when it comes to digital media, Facebook and Google control almost 60% of the digital advertising market, with Amazon as a distant third.
The way the world is using their phones is almost completely dominated by a few Silicon Valley companies. The abuse that is happening is due to their inability to manage that responsibility. All of this has become so normalized in the three years since it first began to manifest that we just assume now that platforms like Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Twitter will exacerbate political and social instability. We expect they will be abused by ultranationalist trolls. We know they will be exploited by data firms. We wait for them to help launch the careers of populist leaders.
To be sure, populism, nationalism, and information warfare existed long before the internet. The arc of history doesn’t always bend toward what I think of as progress. Societies regress. The difference now is that all of this is being hosted almost entirely by a handful of corporations. Why is an American company like Facebook placing ads in newspapers in countries like India, Italy, Mexico, and Brazil, explaining to local internet users how to look out for abuse and misinformation? Because our lives, societies, and governments have been tied to invisible feedback loops, online and off. And there’s no clear way to untangle ourselves.
The worst part of all of this is that, in retrospect, there’s no real big secret about how we got here.
It’s 2013 and an ad appears on Russia social networks: "Internet operators wanted! Job at chic office in Olgino!!!, salary 25960 rubles per month. Task: posting comments at profile sites on the Internet, writing thematic posts, blogs, social networks. Reports via screenshots.” Those who answer the ad are placed in a basement in St. Petersburg and become the first iteration of Russia’s now-infamous Internet Research Agency — or troll army.
It’s 2014 and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party have swept India’s general election in a landslide. The election is seen as the country’s first Facebook election. Modi becomes the second-most-liked politician on Facebook behind President Obama. The same wave of Hindu nationalism that Modi rose to power with begins to inspire “cow vigilantism" and lynchings across rural India.
A month later, the streets of Mandalay, Myanmar, are filling with people. A mob is forming around a tea shop owned by a Muslim man. A Facebook post accusing the shop owner of raping a Buddhist employee was shared by a local ultranationalist monk named Wirathu. Rioters begin torching cars and destroying shops. Eventually the President’s Office has to block access to Facebook in an effort to curb the violence.
It’s 2015 and 270,000 Facebook users are allowing a third-party Facebook app called “This Is Your Digital Life" to access not only their data, but the data of their friends, as well — about 87 million users. The data is collected and analyzed by British data firm Cambridge Analytica and used for a process called “behavioral microtargeting.”
It’s May 2016 and far-right candidate Rodrigo Duterte has just become the president of the Philippines. Facebook’s role in the election is undeniable. Two months prior, the company declares the gun-toting former mayor the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations.” A cast of far-right internet celebrities begin to create an ad hoc propaganda network around him.
A month later, it’s one of those rare early summer sunny mornings in London and I’m unnerved by how quiet the city is. The night before, 52% of the UK voted to leave the European Union. We will eventually hear claims that a pro-Brexit campaign group called Leave.EU had been using Cambridge Analytica’s microtargeting methods for months. Bots and trolls connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency have spent the last 48 hours posting more than 45,000 tweets about Brexit in an attempt to divide voters.
It’s January 2017 and Donald Trump has just become the 45th president of the United States. At his inauguration, Trump promises “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence will conclude that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an intelligence campaign meant to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.”
In April 2017, far-right politician Marine Le Pen is voted through the first round of the French presidential elections. Her opponent Emmanuel Macron was targeted by a “massive and coordinated” hacking attack several minutes before a preelection media blackout. I’m in Paris as the streets of Paris fill with huge plumes of tear gas. Balaclava-clad protesters chant “The whole world hates the police” and tear traffic bollards out of the sidewalk. A shopping cart full of Molotov cocktails emerges from the crowd of anti-fascists and is rammed into the line of riot police. One of my pant legs briefly catches fire after I’m hit with a Roman candle.
A month later, a group of far-right YouTubers is detained by Italian police after going live on Periscope from the Mediterranean Sea, where they were shooting flares at a refugee rescue ship called the Aquarius. They were using far-right communities on Reddit and 4chan to crowdfund the stunt, pushing a conspiracy theory that nongovernmental organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières aren’t actually saving refugees at sea, but actually part of an illegal human trafficking operation. One of the YouTubers, Lauren Southern, texts me as I arrive in Catania, Italy, to interview them. She says they’ve already left the city. “There is a safety risk and the media caused this and they may seriously get a bunch of 20-year-olds killed,” she writes.
In August, the “Unite the Right” rally, organized by white nationalists on chat application Discord, Reddit, and 4chan, tears its way through Charlottesville, Virginia. A white supremacist attending the rally named James Alex Fields Jr. drives a half mile down the road, ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing an activist named Heather Heyer.
A month later, the Alternative for Germany party come in third in the general election, becoming the first far-right party to enter German parliament in half a century. In the final hours of the election, a Russian botnet begins promoting far-right propaganda on Twitter. The AFD was also working closely with a digital media firm linked to the Trump and Le Pen campaigns. I can feel drops of rain start to hit my face as riot police lock their shields, creating a barrier between 1,000 anti-fascists on the terrace outside of Berlin’s Traffic Club in Alexanderplatz and members of AFD on the balcony above. I watch AFD members chomp cigars and clink cocktail glasses and shout anti-gay slurs at the crowd below.
A few days later, Julian Assange holds a video conference with Catalan students outside the University of Barcelona. He teaches them to use apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. They will use these apps to hold an illegal referendum on Catalan independence. Federal Spanish police will attack voters. In the days that follow the vote, far-right anti-independence protesters will Sieg heil and chant fascist songs as they march on the city. I will run through the spidery alleyways of Barcelona’s old city, trying to get ahead of the crowd that’s forming at Arc de Triomf. I will hang from a lamppost as the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, tells a crowd of thousands of independentistas that there will be no immediate secession from Spain. Catalan politicians will be arrested. Puigdemont will flee to Belgium.
It’s November 2017 and the streets of Warsaw fill with red flares, Polish flags, and anti-Semitic banners. A week later, I’m standing in the freezing cold on a hill bathed in the red light of the same kind of flares in a small town called Częstochowa as soccer hooligans have their local clubs blessed by a priest. They lock arms with white nationalists and neo-Nazis, chugging from bottles of whiskey, singing more racist songs. A few weeks after that, the Polish Senate will approve a proposal that would make it illegal to acknowledge Poland’s role in the Holocaust.
It’s February 2018 and I’m wearing two layers of thermal underwear, running through the hills of Pyeongchang, South Korea. I’m trying to get around the huge traffic jam leading toward the Olympic Stadium. The sun is setting when the opening ceremony starts. South Korea nationalists burn pictures of Kim Jong Un and fight with police officers. A woman stands on top of a small makeshift stage and beats a drum as the crowd shouts along in time. One of the protesters asks me to report that South Korea needs Donald Trump to bomb North Korea. They wave American flags and photos of his face and thank me for electing him.
It’s March 2018 and it’s snowing wet clumps of slush on an anti-fascist library that’s been recently firebombed. I watch as volunteers sweep away what’s left of the room. They tell me they’re scared this is only the beginning of the political violence that’s yet to come. They’re right. A few days later, the antiestablishment Five Star Movement led by Luigi Di Maio wins the most number of seats in the Italian general election. Online, a massive far-right botnet is in full swing. The Five Star Movement will go on to form a coalition with Matteo Salvini's right-wing League party. Salvini, emboldened by the populist surge in support, will spend the summer blocking refugee rescue ships.
It’s June 2018 and a British far-right influencer named Tommy Robinson is in jail after going live on Facebook outside Leeds Crown Court, violating British contempt of court laws. Hundreds of his supporters have gathered in Whitehall to support President Trump’s UK visit and protest Robinson’s arrest, revved up by breathless coverage from a Canadian far-right media outlet called the Rebel. Robinson’s fans fight police, take over the Silver Cross pub, and scream racist slurs at the hundreds of anti-Trump counterprotesters surrounding them. They demand Robinson be freed. One of them asks why the media isn’t covering them. I tell him I am with the media and I am covering him and he says he meant the BBC and calls me fake news.
A month later, I’m standing on top of a bench on a Mexican sidewalk, trying to get above the stream of supporters of leftist populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador running through the streets outside of the Hilton Hotel in Mexico City. Inside, López Obrador says, “The transformation we will carry out will basically consist on kicking out corruption from our country.” Online, thousands of bots are pushing pro-AMLO trending topics on Twitter and flooding Facebook News Feeds with fake news about the new president.
And now, this week, Bolsonaro has won the Brazilian general election using a toxic and perfectly social media–optimized mix of evangelism, nationalism, and strongman posturing to create a cult of personality that threatens to send the country back into a military dictatorship. It seems like he’s settled on using WhatsApp as his online propaganda tool of choice. In the final days before the second vote, it was revealed that Brazilian marketing firms have been using WhatsApp to flood voters’ phones with anti-leftist propaganda. Then he announced in a Facebook video several days later that if he becomes president, he aims to change a rule created by WhatsApp that limits the number of simultaneous messages a user can send at once.
But it really doesn’t matter what country you’re in. The dance is the same everywhere you go.
Chances are, by now, your country has some, if not all, of the following. First off, you probably have some kind of local internet troll problem, like the MAGAsphere in the US, the Netto-uyoku in Japan, Fujitrolls in Peru, or AK-trolls in Turkey. Your trolls will probably have been radicalized online via some kind of community for young men like Gamergate, Jeuxvideo.com ("videogames.com") in France, ForoCoches ("Cars Forum") in Spain, Ilbe Storehouse in South Korea, 2chan in Japan, or banter Facebook pages in the UK.
Then far-right influencers start appearing, aided by algorithms recommending content that increases user watch time. They will use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to transmit and amplify content and organize harassment and intimidation campaigns. If these influencers become sophisticated enough, they will try to organize protests or rallies. The mini fascist comic cons they organize will be livestreamed and operate as an augmented reality game for the people watching at home. Violence and doxxing will follow them.
Some of these trolls and influencers will create more sophisticated far-right groups within the larger movement, like the Proud Boys, Generation Identity, or Movimento Brasil Livre. Or some will reinvigorate older, more established far-right or nationalist institutions like the Nordic Resistance Movement, the Football Lads Alliance, United Patriots Front, or PEGIDA.
While a far-right community is building in your country, a fake news blitz is usually raging online. It could be a rumor-based culture of misinformation, like the localized hoaxes that circulate in countries like India, Myanmar, or Brazil. Or it could be the more traditional “fake news” or hyperpartisan propaganda we see in predominantly English-speaking countries like the US, Australia, or the UK.
Typically, large right-wing news channels or conservative tabloids will then take these stories going viral on Facebook and repackage them for older, mainstream audiences. Depending on your country’s media landscape, the far-right trolls and influencers may try to hijack this social-media-to-newspaper-to-television pipeline. Which then creates more content to screenshot, meme, and share. It’s a feedback loop.
Populist leaders and the legions of influencers riding their wave know they can create filter bubbles inside of platforms like Facebook or YouTube that promise a safer time, one that never existed in the first place, before the protests, the violence, the cascading crises, and endless news cycles. Donald Trump wants to Make American Great Again; Bolsonaro wants to bring back Brazil’s military dictatorship; Shinzo Abe wants to recapture Japan’s imperial past; Germany’s AFD performed the best with older East German voters longing for the days of authoritarianism. All of these leaders promise to close borders, to make things safe. Which will, of course, usually exacerbate the problems they’re promising to disappear. Another feedback loop.
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, published a piece in August saying that it was already too late for Facebook to protect the 2018 US midterm elections from misinformation campaigns from Russia and Iran. Maybe we’ll fix it by 2020. There’s also a chance that, for more developed countries — or for the richer citizens — things will stabilize.
In most countries, reliable publications are going behind paywalls. More services like Amazon Prime and Netflix are locking premium entertainment behind subscriptions. Which means all of this — the trolls, the abuse, the fake news, the conspiracy videos, the data leaks, the propaganda — will eventually stop being a problem for people who can afford it.
Which will most likely leave the poor, the old, and the young to fall into an information divide. This is already happening. A study released this month from the UK found that poorer British readers got less, worse news than wealthier readers. And according to a new study by Pew Research Center, only 17% of people over the age of 65 were able to identify fact from opinion. Teenage Instagram wellness communities are already transforming into mini Infowars-style snake oil empires.
There are deserts of information where normal people are algorithmically served memes, poorly aggregated news articles, and YouTube videos without any editorial oversight or regulation. Fact-checkers in Brazil complained this month ahead of the election that most voters trust what their friends and family send them on WhatsApp over what they see on TV or in newspapers.
But this sort of optimistic American ransacking in the name of technological progress isn’t particularly new, especially for a country like Brazil. There’s a town in the north of the country called Fordlândia. It was built in the 1920s by Henry Ford. Ford was trying to figure out a way around Britain’s rubber monopoly. He made a deal with the Brazilian state of Pará for 2.5 million acres. Pará would get 9% of his profits and all of Ford’s exports would be tax-exempt.
Local newspapers were extremely excited that Ford was coming. The Ford company promised fair wages. Workers started flocking from across the country to come work and live in Fordlândia.
The entire project was an immediate disaster in almost every conceivable way. The Ford company had built Fordlândia to look like an American town and fed their employees American food, all of which the new Brazilian employees hated. The town managers tried to ban alcohol, women, tobacco, and football. Workers started smuggling contraband into the town. Then workers started contracting yellow fever and malaria. The Ford managers had no idea how to grow rubber trees in tropical climates. Most of their trees ended up dying of blight or were ravaged by parasites.
By the 1930s, workers started revolting. Managers were chased into the jungle. The Brazilian military eventually had to intervene. The town was finally abandoned by 1934. The Ford company eventually learned how to make synthetic rubber and realized they didn’t need Brazilian rubber at all. The town laid in ruins until 2017, when a nearby municipality decided to try and transform it into a functioning town.
The social media Fordlândias happening all over the world right now probably won’t last. The damage they cause probably will. The democracies they destabilize, the people they radicalize, and the violence they inspire will most likely have a long tail. Hopefully, though, it won’t take us a hundred years to try to actually rebuild functioning societies after the corporations have moved on.