Was Brazil really stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea?

As polarised as the Brazilian elections may have seemed, social profiles and conversations indicate a far more nuanced reality

Brazil’s latest presidential elections have revealed a fractured political climate, with candidates from opposing ends of the political spectrum being pitted against each other, in what is becoming an all too familiar scenario. Although most international media outlets were quick to boil the narrative down to just that – extreme right v. left; populist conservatives v. liberals – the reality is in fact far more nuanced. With voters feeling they’ve been left no choice but to voice their frustrations over domestic issues at the ballot box, the true drivers of support for one candidate over the other are not as simple as they may seem.

Using a combination of Brandwatch, a social listening tool, and the audience segmentation platform Affinio, we ran an analysis of social media users who had published any public content expressing support for either of the two main presidential candidate – Jair Bolsonaro (now president-elect) or Fernando Haddad. By diving into the users’ bio’s, their shared content as well as the profiles they follow, it soon became clear that not only were the divisions between the two camps not as clear as they’d seemed, they had a lot more in common than we’d expected.

Supporters on either side of the political divide notably differ in how they self-identify, yet tend to share similar core values.

Most frequently featured keywords within authors’ Twitter bio’s (September 2017 – September 2018)

Those in favour of the more left-leaning Haddad primarily describe themselves in terms of their professions (e.g. journalist, teacher, etc.), whereby their roles within a wider societal context are in line with their political stance or ideology, helping shape – and in turn being shaped by – their belief systems. On the other hand, the identities of those voicing their support for the economically liberal, but socially conservative Jair Bolsonaro, are largely founded on their roles within their much smaller family units and/or religious communities (e.g. mother, husband, Christian)

Whilst Haddad voters – more closely aligned with traditional liberals and progressives – favour the preservation of societal values above familial ones, Bolsonaro’s social conservatives tend to put the values of private communities ahead of those of public spheres. By that same token, Haddad supporters tend to favour the good of the world over the country, and Bolsonaro’s vice versa.[1]

Nevertheless, once the core values espoused by each respective camp are more closely examined, the two are shown to overlap in their common desire for a more prosperous country and improved living standards for all (e.g. Brazil, life, family).

More often than not, voters find themselves opting for the lesser of two evils.

Support for a candidate is typically underpinned by their opposition toward and fear of the values advocated by the rival candidate. Social content being shared by supporters of Bolsonaro emphasise the presumed threats posed by a left-leaning government, with words such as communism or red featuring prominently. Language used by Bolsonaro voters also reflects a fear of the corruption which, in their view, a continued Workers’ Party (PT) government would carry on enabling.

On the other hand, content shared by Haddad supporters reflects a similarly alarming fear of an extreme-right Bolsonaro government, with words like fascism, lies and hatred dominating the conversation, painting a nightmarish scenario of a resumed dictatorship.

Most mentioned keywords within social media mentions expressing support for Bolsonaro (top terms include: media, left, love, sons/daughters, shame, nation, education)

Most mentioned keywords within social media mentions expressing support for Haddad (top terms include: fascism, democracy, resistance, Lula, Brazilians, hate, world)

Most mentioned keywords within Twitter and Instagram mentions expressing support for either Haddad or Bolsonaro (September 2017 – September 2018)

As a result, many appear to have voted tactically, using the ballot box to prevent another candidate’s elections rather than to stand by any particular candidate.

The binary nature of the two final presidential candidates and their starkly opposing values meant that, prior to election day, a large proportion of voters were still uncertain as to who they’d be casting their vote towards. Among those known to have shared their vote in the 1st round of elections on social media, 33% claim to have cast a vote not in favour of a given candidate, but rather in opposition to one.

Clusters of authors not specifically claiming to support Bolsonaro or Haddad account for 33% of the analysed audience (September 2017 – September 2018)

Clusters of authors not specifically claiming to support Bolsonaro or Haddad account for 33% of the analysed audience (September 2017 – September 2018)

This is best exemplified by the various movements that took hold of social conversations in the lead-up to the elections, through which voters actively campaigned against Bolsonaro either through the #eleñao (‘not him’) hashtag, or in their support of the candidate most likely to defeat Bolsonaro in the 2nd round of elections, Ciro Gomes. Though less unified, voters determined to put an end to the Workers’ Party ‘regime’ rallied against Haddad in what became an anti-PT (Workers’ Party) movement.

Author clusters and interconnectivity between clusters (Sep 2017-2018)

Author clusters and interconnectivity between clusters (Sep 2017-2018)

This far more nuanced, complex backdrop against which the Brazilian elections unfolded helps shed new light on the final results.

The election of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right fringe figure dubbed the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, was not simply the product of an unforeseen swing to the right, but rather a by-product of voters’ fears, frustrations and motivations. It comes as no surprise that close to 30% of voters cast a null or blank vote, meaning that, whilst 57 million Brazilians voted to elect Bolsonaro (55% of votes), a combined 89 million did not.

[1] This calls to mind Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension of Individualism versus Collectivism, which explores the ‘degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups’, and more broadly where individuals’ sphere of responsibility lies within society.