Vote for Boulos!

Kathleen McCaul Moura

Pablo Ortellado, at the University of São Paulo, studies the way social media are used for political purposes. ‘We analyse all the messages that we believe come from Bolsonaro and his supporters. It makes you want to cry,’ Ortellado told me. ‘At the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic for example, people everywhere were receiving messages saying that Covid doesn’t kill, that it was made-up by the Chinese, that the hospitals are not full. There is nothing we can do about this spread of misinformation because it has already gone viral.’ Bolsonaro relies on Whatsapp more than Twitter or Facebook. ‘Because it is a private messenger app as opposed to a public platform,’ Ortellado says, ‘we believe it allows the president to disseminate malicious misinformation to millions of people without being caught.’

The far right doesn’t hold a monopoly on the effective use of social media, however. The second round of the São Paulo mayoral election will be held on Sunday. The centre-right incumbent, Bruno Covas, is facing off against a left-wing challenger, 38-year-old Guilherme Boulos, of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which split from Lula’s PT in 2004. (Bolsonaro’s man, Celso Russomanno, was among the eleven candidates eliminated in the first round of voting.) Boulos owes some of his success to his prolific and sometimes frankly bonkers use of TikTok. There are videos of Boulos eating cake – a play on his name; bolo means ‘cake’ – on repeat to funk, children playing keyboards that light up screens with his name, Boulos as a superhero fighting fake news, Boulos dance routines, Boulos video games, and his take on the viral video of an American skateboarder singing along to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.

‘It’s a bold move and a strong image,’ Ortellado says. ‘It seems to be working. Because he is known as a hard-core left-wing campaigner he can play with entertainment and language, experiment with these unpolitical videos and engage with young YouTubers and video gamers. His supporters are predominantly young and educated.’

The son of a professor of medicine at the University of São Paulo, Boulos joined the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) in 2002. He came to prominence the following year when the MTST occupied a tract of abandoned land owned by Volkswagen, and in 2018 they occupied the apartment that Lula had been alleged to have received as a bribe, in protest at the former president’s unfair imprisonment. Boulos is running on a solidly socialist platform – free public transport for all, the basic living wage – but it’s hard to see any of this seriousness on his TikTok account, which is almost the polar opposite of the way Bolsonaro and the right wing employ social media.

‘Many on the left think that the right and the extreme right have better techniques and use of social media but it isn’t really like that,’ according to Ortellado. ‘The problem on the left isn’t the lack of knowledge but the content of their messages. The populist conservative politicians haven’t particularly mastered social media but they give simplistic answers to society which are easy for people to grasp. They are happy to blame others.’

Boulos has done outstandingly for a candidate from a small radical party – and the PSOL made more gains in the council chamber than any other party – but Covas is still more likely to win on Sunday. Not least because Boulos has not yet, despite his socialist policies, won round the the city’s poorer voters, who favour the incumbent. Whether or not Boulas becomes mayor, he is ‘big enough now to present himself as the new leader of the left in Brazil’, Ortellado says, ‘and is in a much stronger position to define the presidential elections in 2022’.