What really happened in Brazil?
Video Transcript: Plus, 'the data' finally confirms that Russian bots had no effect on the 2016 presidential election
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In this episode we examine the dramatic events yesterday in Brazil, where thousands of supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace, killing nobody but causing substantial property damage. Coverage by the American media has been, unsurprisingly, superficial, misleading, self-centered, and deeply confused, so we'll explain what is really happening in Brazil, why it's happening, and what the implications are.
Then we'll talk to independent journalist Michael Tracey about a new study proving what was already clear to any rational person that the handful of Russian bots on Twitter played almost no role in affecting anything during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. We'll discuss with him how the fraud of Russiagate, even with its fundamental claims long debunked, continues to wreak havoc.
Finally, we’ll end with an article by a former Vox writer published on MSNBC today that claims that former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Matt Taibbi, and myself are leading a sinister and insidious movement designed to channel leftists into right-wing populism. The article itself doesn't matter, of course, but it is worth examining because it's so highly illustrative of how most corporate journalism so fundamentally fails to understand the most basic precepts of American politics and therefore, the breach between them and most people continue to grow and they continue to squander the small amount of trust they have left -- deservedly so.
We begin tonight with news from Brazil. Whenever I speak about Brazil -- the country where I've lived for the last 17 years, where my children were born, and where my husband is a member of Congress -- I think it's helpful to underscore why the country matters beyond its role in my life.
It's the second-largest country in our hemisphere. It's the sixth most populous country on the planet -- behind only China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, and Pakistan -- and possesses some of the largest and most important oil reserves in the world, along with the single most important environmental resource, the Amazon. For those reasons and others, Brazil, despite trying desperately to maintain its neutrality and independence during the Cold War, was often the target for control between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and it remains by far the most influential country in Latin America. Its landmass is only slightly smaller than the United States.
As most of you likely know, thousands of supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday stormed the buildings, composing the three branches of government power: the Congress, the Presidential Palace, and the Supreme Court. There was some substantial damage to the interior of several of those buildings, including artwork and furniture. But there were no reported deaths or grave injuries. Unlike what the U.S. media would have done and did do, nobody invented any fairy tales about protesters bashing in the skulls of police officers with fire extinguishers. One police officer was shown being pulled off his horse and assaulted by the crowd, but no reports suggest his life was in danger.
Once a significant number of police forces arrived, the protesters were dispersed in a relatively short time with little violence. Roughly 1,200 people have been arrested thus far, though it is far from clear how many of them actually used force to enter these buildings, how many engaged in property destruction, or how many were even in the buildings at all as opposed to at the protests.
American media commentators, including some I'd bet would struggle to locate Brazil on a map, transformed into instant experts overnight and decided that this was all the fault of -- you'll never guess -- Donald Trump.
That's because many of them really have no idea that history existed prior to 2016 or, if they have a vague awareness that it did, believe that nothing truly bad happened before then -- until Trump and his movement came along and invented human Evil. Thus, goes their reasoning, no populations in human history ever previously thought to angrily storm government buildings or to doubt the integrity of their institutions until Donald Trump taught the world how to do this.
Here is just one illustrative example as CNN host Jim Earnest Scuitto -- who attended Manhattan private schools before going to Yale and is an expert in Berlin politics -- chose to speak to Joe Walsh, who served in Congress for one whole term, more than a decade ago, and who constantly was called “a deadbeat dad” by liberals every time he opened his mouth until he switched parties and decided instead that Trump was Hitler -- using their vast experience to explain why this is all the fault of Trump and US politics:
Jim Sciutto: And we're going to throw up some more of these images here, those images of supporters of the losing candidate in the Brazilian presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro, storming the houses of government there, including where their assembly meets. You know, we used to talk about, and many folks still imagine this and perhaps it's true to some extent, the U.S. exports democracy. But as you watch this and how it was ceded by the losing candidate in that election, who had a lot of rapport, one might say, with Donald Trump, is election denialism a new U.S. export?
Joe Walsh: Jim, you know this so well because you travel the world so much. We're the world's oldest democracy. The rest of the world watches us. Clearly, the rest of the world watched us on January 6th. I never would have thought, Jim Sciutto, that two years after we moved from a violent attempt to overthrow an American election, you and I would be sitting here and Donald Trump would still be the leader of the Republican Party and he would be running for president. The world watched what we did on January 6th, and Trump and the Republican Party really didn't pay a price. My fear is that this is something that the fledgling democracies around the world are learning from us.
Jim Sciutto: Yeah, and many of the folks who denied the results of the 2020 election held great sway in the Speaker fight.
That was extremely common, that commentary. And there are so many things painfully wrong with that exchange. Painfully. I mean, literally, it hurts inside to listen to that. To begin with, how drenched in American propaganda do you have to be to believe, as Sciutto claimed, that the U.S. usually “exports democracy”? In what conceivable way does it do that? The U.S.’s closest allies in the Middle East, other than Israel, are two of the most despotic regimes on the planet Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A staple of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II has been to overthrow -- overthrow -- democratically elected governments deemed insufficiently deferential to U.S. decrees or to prop up savage tyrants as long as they served U.S. interests.
The U.S. does not “export democracy” unless you're still stuck in fifth-grade civics class or doing so happens at the moment to serve as a needed pretext for justifying war -- as in, “We're going to war in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine, because we want to bring democracy and freedom to all of the soon-to-be grateful peoples in those places”. Who really still believes that?
Indeed, one of the defining episodes of current Brazilian politics and recent Brazilian history occurred in 1964, when the CIA worked with Brazilian generals to overthrow Brazil's democratically elected government that was -- at best – center-left. Both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the middle of the Cold War warned Brazil's leaders that there were too many economic reforms going on in Brazil, such as rent control and land reform, and that made them concerned that Brazil -- in the region, that the United States, since the Monroe Doctrine, regarded as its own property -- was moving too close to Moscow.
When its demands to cease those reforms, which Brazilians had voted for, were ignored by the democratically elected Brazilian government, the CIA, under Johnson, forced the Brazilian president into exile and then proceeded to impose -- for the next 21 years, from 1964 until 1985, until Brazil finally redemocratized -- a military dictatorship that stripped Brazilians of all basic civil liberties, forced artists and dissidents into exile, murdered journalists and used torture, taught to them by British intelligence services to interrogate citizens suspected of being part of armed resistance. If you tell a Brazilian, knowing that history, that the United States of America is in the business of “exporting democracy”, they will -- at least the most polite ones among them –will likely laugh in your face.
But also note the oozing but unwitting sense of the densest kind of liberal American superiority in that exchange and in this discourse that prevailed today generally. Brazil, like most complex democracies, has long experienced all kinds of civil and political unrest. Suspicions over the integrity of institutions have long been common on the left and the right in Brazil. They don’t need Donald Trump and the great political geniuses in the United States, like CNN, to teach them about protest or distrust of institutions.
As one Brazilian, Anderson Morbeck, put it when I asked if anyone knew what the basis was for CNN considering one-term Congressman Joe Walsh, an expert in Brazil, to tell us all what this meant, and when I asked Walsh if he ever even visited the country like on a tourist trip or something-- this is what he told me: “Americans are completely ignorant. The Us Brazilians have long called our elections bogus for decades now.”
Now, I wouldn't say that Brazilians in mass have distrusted the voting machines, the voting process in its democratization. There largely has been trust and integrity in it. But distrust of institutions generally, specifically in the world of neoliberalism, around the world, as governments fail, populations have become increasingly popular, increasingly pervasive, and widespread. The idea that nobody heard of any of this, nobody thought they'd think any of these things until Donald Trump went and taught the primitive Brazilians how to distrust their election system or how to protest and storm government buildings is completely ahistorical. Kind of offensive.
The idea that the world needs the United States to teach them how to think of their own democracy. There's also the fact that Joe Walsh is kind of a bizarre person to be going around lecturing everybody about the need for peaceful transitions of power, given that, prior to his incarnation as a liberal preacher of all things anti-Trump, Walsh was someone who, right before the 2016 election, tweeted this: “On November 8th, I'm voting for Trump. On November 9th, if Trump loses, I'm grabbing my musket. Are you in?”
Now, there are so many reasons why January 6 and what happened yesterday have some things in common but are radically and fundamentally different. All you need to know is a little bit about Brazil in order to see that that's the case. This has been true for many years now where, when Jair Bolsonaro emerged, mostly out of obscurity to become a leading presidential candidate and then become the Brazilian president, the American media had no ability to understand who he was except by immediately comparing him to Donald Trump, going so far as to invent a nickname for him, “Trump of the tropics,” that demonstrated they have no capacity to understand the world except through reference to their monomaniacal fixation on partisan politics in the United States, and specifically, in Donald Trump.
There are some stylistic differences between Trump and Bolsonaro. They're obviously demagogues on the right. They have a good political talent for riling people up. And I think Bolsonaro consciously sometimes copied some of Trump's stylistic techniques. But Brazil and the United States are very, very different countries. They're very complex countries with very different history, and they simply casually equate them that way, because you have no way else to understand the world and to interpret every event outside the United States as a reflection of your own simplistic partisan framework, as we just saw CNN and so many other journalists today doing, reflects an inability to think about the world, except through this kind of cable news framework of Democrats v. Republican and right v. left, when there's so much more going on than just that.
To begin with, let's take note of the fact that the protests that happened in Brazil yesterday took place on a Sunday as opposed to on a Tuesday as happened in the United States, which meant that no one was in the buildings that they entered. There was no Congress in session. There was no Supreme Court in session. Lula da Silva, the president was in Sao Paulo, on a publicized trip to visit a part of that state that had suffered from intense storms and where homes are being washed away. So, there was no objective purpose to interrupt any kind of process, nor was there any objection to prevent the inauguration of Lula da Silva, as many had predicted might have happened and as is the case on January 6, when they went there in order to prevent the certification of election results that those protesters regarded as fraudulent. Lula was already peacefully inaugurated on January 1st; the day before Bolsonaro left the country in order to go to the United States, almost certainly in part because he feared the possibility that he might be criminally charged, but whatever his reasons were, he hasn't been in Brazil for since the inauguration, and there was almost no organized effort to stop the inauguration on the day that it happened.
What has actually happened was there were millions of Brazilians who did come to believe the election was the byproduct of fraud. And, in large part, that was because Bolsonaro spent the year encouraging them to think that saying that the election processes cannot be trusted, even though they're the same ones that led to his election in 2018, and even though they're the same ones that in the first round of voting, on October 2nd, led to an extraordinarily successful night for the Bolsonaro movement. Bolsonaro’s party, using those voting machines, became the largest party in both the House and the Senate. Bolsonaro's party and his allies took over the governorships of the two most important states, Sao Paulo, as well as numerous other state houses and governorships around the country.
The Bolsonaro government had an incredibly successful night on that first night of voting, and Bolsonaro himself wildly surpassed and exceeded the polling predictions of leading polling firms in Brazil that predicted he would end up with 34% or so and the first round of voting and he instead got 43% and finished only five points behind Lula. But he did encourage people to believe that there was widespread fraud that was likely in terms of interference with voting machines. He attempted to get paper ballot backups, but that was rejected by Congress on the grounds that there was never any real doubt before about whether or not these election machines were reliable.
But there was mounting frustration on the part of Bolsonaro supporters, both before the election and after, that his very narrow loss -- Bolsonaro lost to Lula by barely two points, on October 30th -- was the byproduct of fraud. And you began seeing around Brazil large demonstrations of Bolsonaro supporters outside of notable military bases where they were encouraging and urging the Brazilian military to intervene in Brazilian politics and declare the election the byproduct of fraud and either order another election or simply declare that Bolsonaro was the rightful winner and reinstall him into a second term.
And had Bolsonaro done what Donald Trump did -- which was come out on the very night that the election results were certified instantly proclaiming that he was the victim of fraud and pounding the pavement every day after that, insisting that fraud was the only reason he lost and encouraging his followers to go out into the streets -- the potential for civil unrest, even civil war, was very real in Brazil. And had Bolsonaro lit a match, you would have seen a gigantic flame being burned.
But Bolsonaro didn't do that for reasons that I think are still a little bit mysterious. What he did instead was basically disappear. He gave a statement, a written statement the next day after the election when his supporters were already in the streets, clearly ready to protest, angrily blocking the streets using trucks. Truck drivers were a big constituency of Bolsonaro, and he told them to stop doing that -- that breaking the law and impeding business in Brazil was an illegitimate means of protest, he said, this is what the left does., I don't think we should be doing that -- and then after that, he really just disappeared from public life in a very strange way.
He just stopped making political appearances, even though he was still officially the president of the country. We heard for a while that he had an infection on his leg that prevented him from putting his pants on but whatever happened, there was very little from Bolsonaro. And so, this movement that was assembled behind him and clearly ready to act at the slightest instruction was kind of left leaderless. And I think more than anything, that was the reason why we didn't see any real disruptions or violence or civic strife. We saw lots of protests, but not anything like what I think we would have, had Bolsonaro manifested and encouraged his supporters to come out on the street and protest what he believed was his illegitimate defeat.
And then in the middle of all of this, Bolsonaro's son, one of the most important members of his movement, a congressman from Sao Paulo, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who has a lot of ties to American conservatives, including Steve Bannon and Jason Miller, Eduardo Bolsonaro, instead of being out on the street leading these protests outside of the military facility, showed up in Doha, Qatar to cheer on the Brazilian team in the World Cup. And when that picture went on to the Internet, when his wife posted a picture of them basically partying in Qatar, a lot of Bolsonaro supporters were kind of confused and angry. Why are we out on the street all day trying to undo this fraudulent election outcome when you are disappeared, nowhere to be found, and not being heard from and your son is now in Qatar, which we'd all love to be cheering on Brazilians and the World Cup.
So, what I think happened was that there was this kind of movement that was ready to act. They were mobilized. Some of them were certainly organized and armed but they were leaderless, and so, there was no real movement institutionally heading toward Lula's inauguration for any of them to do anything. They had no outlet. They were not given any kind of plan.
And so, Lula was inaugurated on a day that turned out to be almost entirely peaceful -- and we predicted that that would happen on this show because we could see that there was very little institutional movement to impede the inauguration -- and he walked right up the renowned storied ramp in Brazil, to become president. And on the last day of Bolsonaro's presidency, he took his presidential plane and left the country to Miami, where he flew, and then announced that he was staying in a home, at least for the next month or so, of a former Brazilian MMA fighter, who lives in a gated community in Orlando, like many, many MMA fighters, like many famous Brazilian soccer players, including Neymar, who were Bolsonaro supporters. So, Bolsonaro decided, bizarrely, that he was going to leave the country and not be present on Brazilian soil.
Now, there's a lot of speculation about why that happened. There's been a lot of talk about investigating Bolsonaro and his sons for corruption, especially his sons who have some extremely odd wealth that they have trouble explaining, given that they've been in public life for their entire careers. Bolsonaro's oldest son, Flavio, who's a senator, purchased a multimillion-dollar mansion in Brasilia. He has a lot of difficulty explaining what the source of that money is.
Bolsonaro’s presidency was often driven by a concern to protect his children. So, I think it's certainly feasible that there was some kind of an agreement that probably made a lot of sense knowing how much damage Bolsonaro was capable of doing, if he lit that match, suggesting that if you leave the country if you agree not to encourage your supporters to engage in violence, we will agree not to pursue you criminally and to let leave your children alone. And if you just leave Brazilian soil, go to the U.S., hang out in the U.S. for at least a couple of months, don't make any trouble, we'll honor that deal. We won't prosecute you. But whatever.
That's speculative. But whatever the case was, Bolsonaro left Brazil and almost never sent any signal to his supporters that he wanted them to engage in any kind of violence or disobedience, civil disobedience at all. Quite the contrary. The few times that he spoke, he said this is what the left does. They break the law. We don't do that. Let's not do that. They'll come a time when there's a moment to test these things to right this wrong. But we don't believe in violence. We don't believe in disrupting Brazilian society. That was the message that came from Jair Bolsonaro.
And so, what happened yesterday seemed kind of pointless from a strategic perspective. There was no ongoing process to interrupt as there was in the United States when they went to the Capitol during the election certification. I don't think it achieved very much. It didn't seem like it had any real plan to it. Nobody went into these buildings and armed themselves or had shootouts with the police who came to disperse them.
They dispersed more or less peacefully, with some smoke bombs and things like that once the police arrived. There was a pretty reasonable response from the government. They didn't deploy the military; they deployed the police. So, the dynamic here seems to have, I think, been little more than just kind of a movement that was deeply frustrating. That frustration came to a head. They had this assembled protest. The protest ended up becoming violent in the sense that they forced themselves into these government buildings, although, again, they encountered very little resistance, mostly because it was a Sunday, and there was very little police presence. The governor of the state of what essentially is the equivalent to the District of Columbia, Brasilia, is a Bolsonaro ally who appointed as his chief of security, a very close Bolsonaro ally who was Bolsonaro’s minister of justice, who's now with them in Florida.
And there's a lot of theory that they seem to have either not done anything to provide security, knowing this protest was going to happen, or maybe even encouraged it to happen itself. I'm going to get to it in a moment. A Supreme Court Justice -- who has become a lightning rod for Bolsonaristas’ protest -- that you have to understand in order to understand the context here -- on his own, with no process, ordered that governor removed from office for three months by accusing him of having either been complicit in these protests or incompetent. I don't know how a judge is allowed to remove an elected governor, but this judge did that.
So, it seems like if you were really going to do some kind of attempted coup, you would have done a lot more than sending a bunch of aimless people into buildings to smash some art, to topple over some sculpture, and then leave as soon as the police came. It seems to have been a protest that turned into a lot of anger from pent-up rage. And it was obviously something you can't tolerate as a country. No country would tolerate that. You would immediately go and arrest whoever enters your building and essentially destroys the symbols of national power.
And that's what they did. They've arrested at least 1,200 people already. They're planning a much wider investigation into who financed this, who led it if anybody. Yesterday, the minister of justice was asked at a press conference whether he believes Bolsonaro himself is responsible. And I think very wisely, he was very prudent in his answer, he said: “I believe, of course, Bolsonaro is politically responsible, since he's the one who spent months telling these people that the election was fraudulent. But I don't see any evidence that he's legally responsible.”
And that's one of the really ignorant parts of American discourse as well. You have these social media stars like Joaquin Castro, the Democratic congressman from Texas, and AOC, whose finger is always up in the air trying to figure out what emotion she can exploit for likes and retweets on social media, the only purpose she seems to serve. She went on to Twitter and said: “We demand that you extradite Jair Bolsonaro and kick him out of our country and remove and send him back to Brazil”. How? How could that possibly happen?
The United States can't extradite a foreign citizen who's not charged with any crime, and his government is not seeking their extradition. Obviously, Bolsonaro is not a U.S. citizen, he has no right to remain on U.S. soil even though he has a visa. The U.S. government could say we're revoking your visa on whatever grounds and ordering you to leave, but they can't force him to go back to Brazil unless and until the Brazilian government charges Bolsonaro with a crime and seeks his extradition, something the Brazilian government has not done.
I think Lula has a lot of challenges ahead of him. I don't think he wants Bolsonaro on Brazilian soil, let alone standing trial. That would incite a great deal of civic unrest. But there you have AOC worried, as always, about nothing more than her likes and her retweets, demanding that the Biden administration force Bolsonaro to leave the country and go back to Brazil -- For what? How could they possibly do that until the Brazilian government seeks that extradition? -- and, of course, entering her head, which is empty when it comes to many things, including Brazil.
It was never the question of: does the Brazilian government actually want Bolsonaro back on Brazilian soil, let alone to stand trial? There's a very serious question about whether they do, which may be the reason why they have yet to charge him with any crime, allowing him to take the presidential jet on the last day that he could before he was succeeded by Lula, and have not sought his extradition or even objected to his presence in the United States. So that's part of the critical context.
The other critical context is this. We covered this on a show before. We talked about whether we thought the election outcome in Brazil was the byproduct of fraud. And I said that I have not yet seen any systemic evidence to suggest that it was. And I would encourage people in the United States, including conservatives, who heard Steve Bannon making this allegation, that you do not trust people who tell you things unless they show you evidence that it's true. And if you want to believe that Brazil, a country that is difficult to understand, it took me many years to do so, even with my husband as a politician here, if you want to believe that Brazil was the byproduct of fraud, ask to see evidence for that, ask for whoever is telling you that to show you evidence.
But what we also covered was the censorship crisis that is taking place in Brazil and the fact that the Brazilian Supreme Court has become incredibly authoritarian when it comes to what it believes is its existential attempt to defeat the Bolsonaro movement. And this is a crucial part of what happened yesterday. If you don't understand this, you can understand nothing. And obviously, it has nothing to do with January 6 too.
It's not me who is saying that the Brazilian Supreme Court, and especially one specific member of that court, Alexandre de Moraes, has become tyrannical and authoritarian in the name of stopping Bolsonaro. It's actually The New York Times that right before the election, ran not one but two articles warning of how extremist and repressive the Brazilian government has become. So, here you see the first one, from October 2022, the headline of which was “To Fight Lies, Brazil Gives One Man Power Over Online Speech”, and it explained how one member of the Supreme Court, Alexandre de Moraes, has almost unilateral, unchecked power to essentially order anyone to be banned from the Internet that he wants, including ten members of Congress, either just elected or who are already serving. He's ordered ten members of Congress to be completely silenced on the Internet, forced Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and every other one to remove them, even though they don't judge them to be violating their terms of service.
But the even more important article was in the month earlier, in September, where The New York Times in this headline “To Defend Democracy, Is Brazil's Top Court Going Too Far? Brazil's Supreme Court has acted as the primary check on President Jair Bolsonaro's power. Now, many are worried the court is posing its own threat”. In other words, just like in the United States, where these institutions of power decided that Donald Trump was a threat to American democracy and therefore they became authoritarian using censorship, systemic censorship, and manipulation of the public. In other words, using authoritarian tactics to stop what they said is authoritarian.
The New York Times suggests, and I agree, that the Brazilian Supreme Court has become authoritarian, and has become the main threat to Brazilian democracy. I want you to listen to what The New York Times said, because, as you know, they are a liberal newspaper, not inclined to do anything other than call Jair Bolsonaro Hitler. But the Brazilian Supreme Court has gone so far in its repression that it was a bridge too far even for The New York Times. They described here how there was a WhatsApp group that was composed of Brazilian businessmen who basically got caught saying things like, ’Wouldn't it be better if there was some kind of military intervention?’ and they were discussing the possibility of what they thought should happen. And that leak, that WhatsApp leak, took place and it caused controversy. The New York Times said this:
But what followed was perhaps even more alarming for the world's fourth-largest democracy. […] Federal agents raided the homes of eight of the businessmen. The authorities froze their bank accounts, subpoenaed their financial phone and digital records, and told social networks to suspend some of their accounts. The order came from one Supreme Court judge, Alexander de Moraes. The only evidence it cited was the WhatsApp group messages, which had been linked to a journalist. In those messages, only two of the eight businessmen, only two of them had suggested they supported the coup. It was a raw display of judicial force that crowned a trend years in the making: Brazil's Supreme Court has drastically expanded its power to counter the antidemocratic stances of Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters. […] In the process, according to experts in law and government. The court has taken its own repressive turn. […]
Mr. Moraes has jailed five people without trial for a post on social media that he said attacked Brazil's institutions. He has also ordered social networks to remove thousands of posts and videos with little room for appeal. And this year, 10 of the court's 11 justices sentenced a congressman to nearly nine years in prison for making what they said were threats against them in a live stream. […] Political leaders on the left and much of the Brazilian press and public have largely supported Mr. Moraes’s actions as necessary measures to counter the singular threat posed by Mr. Bolsonaro (The New York Times, Sept.26, 2022).
Let me stop you there. Alexandre de Moraes is a justice of the Supreme Court because he was appointed, in 2017, by a president, Michel Temer, who was installed after Dilma Rousseff, a member of Lula’s Worker's Party, whom Lula handpicked, was, in the view of many, including myself, illegitimately impeached. The Brazilian left considered that a coup and considered that President Michel Temer was an illegitimate president, and he, appointed to the Supreme Court, this coup president appointed Alexandre de Moraes, who has now become a hero of the Brazilian left and much of the Brazilian media, the corporate media, precisely because of how repressive he has become.
The New York Times goes on:
Many legal experts say that Mr. Moraes’s shows of force, under the banner of saving democracy, are themselves threatening to push the country toward an antidemocratic slide. ‘It's the story of all bad stuff that ever happens in politics’, said Luciano da Ros, a Brazilian political science professor who studies the politics of the judiciary, ‘In the beginning, you had one problem. Now you have two’. […] To run the investigation, [The Supreme Court] tapped Mr. Moraes, 53, an intense former federal justice minister and constitutional law professor who had joined the court in 2017. In his first action. Mr. Moraes ordered a Brazilian magazine, Crusoé, to remove an online article that showed links between a [member of the Supreme Court] and a corruption investigation. Mr. Moraes called it ‘fake news’ (The New York Times, Sept.26, 2022).
It then turned out that that news was actually accurate. By the way, this is a right-wing magazine that got censored. And when I was still at The Intercept Brazil, we purposely republished that censored article simply in solidarity with their free press rights, even though we didn't agree with the article itself.
Over time, Mr. Moraes opened new investigations and reframed his work around protecting Brazil's democracy. Mr. Bolsonaro was increasing his attacks on judges, the media, and the nation's electoral system. Mr. Moraes ordered major social networks to remove dozens of accounts, erasing thousands of their posts, often without giving a reason, according to a tech company official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid provoking the judge. Social media companies are saying to The New York Times ‘they're ordering us to remove content we don't want to remove, but we're afraid to speak out because they're afraid of this Judge’ (The New York Times, Sept.26, 2022).
The New York Times goes on:
When this official’s tech company reviewed the post in accounts that Mr. Moraes ordered it to remove, the company found that much of the content did not break its rules, the official said. In many cases, Mr. Moraes went after right-wing influencers who spread misleading or false information. But he also went after people on the left when the official account of a Brazilian Communist Party tweeted that Mr. Moraes was a “skinhead” and that the Supreme Court should be dissolved (The New York Times, Sept.26, 2022).
That's a left-wing party, by the way, that supports free speech and objected to what the court was doing when they posted that. “Mr. Moraes ordered tech companies to ban all of that party's accounts, including a YouTube channel with more than 110,000 subscribers the companies complied.” Mr. Moraes went even further, in seven cases, he ordered the arrest of far-right activists on charges of threatening democracy by advocating for a coup or calling people to antidemocratic rallies. At least two are still in jail or under house arrest. Some cases were initiated by the Attorney’s General office, while others, Mr. Moraes began by himself.
So, this is the critical context to understanding all of this.
One of the reasons I'm so opposed to censorship is because free speech, even when it's speech that you regard as hateful or dangerous, or even when it asserts things that are quote-unquote false in the eyes of officials or experts or even objectively, still provides people an outlet. Free Speech provides people a way to engage in activism peacefully. And if, for example, there was debate aloud over whether the Brazilian election was actually fraudulent or not and instead of jailing people who suggested they didn't believe in its integrity or censoring those who raised questions about it, an attempt was made instead to engage them in debate and convince them, there'd be more of an idea that people have the right to be heard and to engage in activism.
Now, some of these people are beyond redemption. They're really not people who can be reasoned with. That's true in every political faction and maybe there would be violence anyway. But a critical context here is not just the belief that the Brazilian elections themselves are fraudulent, but instead the belief that the most basic civil liberties, the one I described earlier as having been removed and stomped on by the Brazilian dictatorship imposed by the United States and the UK in 1964, are now being stripped away by a Supreme Court in the name of saving democracy. Many of those concerns are very legitimate to the point that I just read from you, The New York Times, not an op-ed, but a news article detailing how repressive and extreme they've become. And that was why so much of the rage yesterday was directed at the Supreme Court, which they view as the source of antidemocratic repression.
So, as we go forward, as we go forward, obviously we want to make sure that there's no further trespassing in government buildings or violence or destruction because that does no good. But in order to understand what's happening in Brazil, you can't just look at it through the prism of Donald Trump on January 6. There's much more going on here in terms of how institutions responded to Jair Bolsonaro, just as American institutions responded with authoritarianism to Donald Trump and his movement as well.
Earlier today, The Washington Post reported on a new study from the New York University Center for Social Media and Politics that extensively analyzed the impact of Russian Twitter bots on the 2016 election and found – surprise! -- that their impact was trivial to nonexistent.
One of the things that we see from this study, which is entitled “Exposure to the Russian Internet Research Agency Foreign Influence Campaign on Twitter and the 1916 election and its relationship to attitudes and voting behavior” is the following:
We find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure of the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior. The results have implications for understanding the limits of election interference campaigns on social media”
It goes on:
“We find that exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts was concentrated among a small group of users, with only 1% of users accounting for 70% of all exposures. Exposure to Russian foreign influence tweets was overshadowed by the amount of exposure to traditional news media and U.S. political candidates, meaning the billions of dollars poured into our election overshadowed the handful of bots on social media from Russia
They went on:
Respondents with the highest levels of exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts were those arguably least likely to need influencing: those who identified themselves as highly partisan Republicans who were already likely favorable to Donald Trump
And then finally,
We did not detect any meaningful relationships between exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts and changes in respondents’ attitudes on the issues, political polarization, or voting behavior. Each of these findings is not independently dispositive (January 9, 2023).
Now, Michael Tracey, the independent journalist who's been on the show before, who was one of the few journalists with the courage to express deep skepticism of the Russiagate fraud, from the very first moment it emerged from the bowels of the FBI, CIA and Hillary Clinton's embittered desperation to win what was rightfully hers, the American presidency. And we'll discuss this new study and much more with him in our interview segment right now.
The Interview: Michael Tracey
G.G.: Good evening, Michael. Thank you so much for taking the time from your very busy schedule to join us tonight.
M.T.: Always a boundless joy to do so.
G.G.: It's thrilling to see you always out of a car. We're very happy when you appear in a more civilized setting. So, first of all, let me…
M.T.: I am considering renting a car...
G.G.: Exactly. Let me just ask you. I know you read that study. I don't think it's full of what I'd call bombshells, although it's good to see, I suppose, liberal data experts affirm what has been clear for a long time. What do you make of that study?
M.T.: Well, I know that I'm supposed to stand up and cheer that my so-called narrative or my interpretation of the significance of Russian social media interference was supposedly vindicated by the study, but I have to say, I wasn't in a particularly joyful mood having read it, because I couldn't help but wonder why it is that there is such an enormous amount of resources still being poured into this area of study where you have these associations of academics from the world over spending all their time getting incredibly deep into the granularity of the effects of this particular alleged social media campaign from over six years ago.
One of the first people to actually share this study on social media was Craig Newmark, the Craigslist founder who hasn't been associated with Craigslist for some time. But he runs one of these philanthropic networks that go around funding study after study on the supposedly pernicious influence of social media interference on democracy. So, you know, he along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, all kinds of other endowments, and so forth, they're listed as the financial benefactors of this particular study in the acknowledgments section of the research article. And you have to wonder, like, why is it that this is such a major priority of this nonprofit entity still at this juncture?
Well, there's a clue in the conclusion that they arrive at. So, you're right that they do conclude that there was negligible impact that they could discern based on their methodology of the Internet Research Council having proliferated a certain number of bots on Twitter and the months ahead of the 2016 election on the individual political preferences or voting behavior of the self-selected panel of people that were studied. I mean, some of the methodology here is questionable. I mean, they're talking about people who voluntarily chose to submit themselves for research study based on their Twitter accounts, and then they study impressions of Twitter content that these specific individuals garnered as a result of extrapolations, based on the accounts that they followed on Twitter. Like they can't even verify if they saw any one individual piece of content. It's a lot of just extrapolation and like statistical finessing going on to seem more impressive or reliable than it is.
But then they come to the conclusion that, again -- although there was no major difference that could be established in terms of voting behavior before and after these individuals were exposed to this allegedly Russian-derived content, --they do come up with this kind of more theoretical conclusion, which is that Russia's foreign influence campaign on social media, “may have had its largest effects by convincing Americans that its campaign was successful”. So, they're talking about like a second or third-order effect efficaciousness of this Russian influence campaign, not based on the actual efficacy of the content that was put out onto this one particular social media platform, Twitter -- but in how the efficacy of the campaign was reported on or understood or perceived by the wider public. And so, the one place where I would have to quibble with the way that they phrased that conclusion is that they kind of lay blame on the Russian social media trolls themselves for, “convincing Americans that the campaign was successful”.
Well, as we now know and as this study even helps to establish, the campaign itself was trivial. It was negligible. Most people who interacted with this kind of scattered accounts would never have known that it had anything to do with any kind of foreign influence campaign. The only reason why that later became such a preoccupation is that it was declared as much by a kind of concerted tandem between the American security state apparatus and the media to themselves convince everyone that there was this massive problem that had to be reckoned with for the sake of democracy.
And so, think about it this way, Glenn, if they had established through whatever cockamamie methodology they're using, that let's say there was a 2% efficacy of these Russian trolls, supposedly, on influencing Americans’ individual voting behavior or political preferences without them knowing that they were vindicated in having been self-obsessed with this narrative for six years, I don't really buy that premise. I think the premise itself is sort of overblown. Even the impetus for doing the research that they're doing is overblown so that it happened to incidentally come to the conclusion in this one particular instance that, oh, they couldn’t really establish any kind of major correlation between viewership of these memes and trolling accounts and actual modification of voting behavior. I think it's just kind of, again, an incidental result that we shouldn't take too much stock in because they still buy into all the premises that undergird the narrative.
G.G.: Of course, first of all, I can't prove this because we don't have the evidence yet for demonstrating that it's the case, but these are people who are affiliated with NYU, which is not exactly a bastion of political conservatism. If I'm not mistaken, it's the same data lab or one associated with it that last year purported to prove that I stimulate hatred, as does Tucker Carlson, online, because when we criticize Taylor Lorenz, there's a notable increase in the amount of attacks that she gets, which is kind of the point of journalism. When you attack or critique someone for engaging in wrongdoing, the public increases their level of criticism as happens when she criticizes me. So, these are the kind of people we're dealing with. There's so many people inclined to want to find this. Also, as you say, what possible impetus would there be for people to try and go do this research, other than people like Craig Newmark, who I actually noted, too, and flagged his tweet because he's the one who kind of funds this stuff.
You know, it reminds me, last year, The Intercept set out to prove that a lot of these conspiracy theories about Anthony Fauci were false. So, they did a quest to prove that he has nothing to do with gain of function research and the Wuhan lab. And what they found instead was the exact opposite of what they set out to prove. They found some of the most incriminating documents yet that Fouci was actually funding gain of function research in the Wuhan lab, and to their credit, published because I guess they had to. It strikes me that that's probably what happened here as well. They said to go prove with data that these Russian bots actually made a big difference and they just couldn't do it and finally published a study saying we just don't have the evidence to show it.
M.T.: Yeah, it must have pained The Intercept to publish that material but like you said, to their credit, they worked through the pain and the turmoil and the dread that they must have had in making you enjoy yourself as a result of that publication that actually went through it.
G.G.: Yeah, I mean, imagine the scandal if they were determined and then didn't actually publish it.
I was looking for some of the responses to this -- how Russiagaters were grappling with this -- and they were saying, well, this has nothing to do with Facebook. It's like, yeah, it's a study of Twitter. It also doesn't prove anything about whether Mastodon affected the 2016 election or if people on Mars did. But the idea that Russian bots on Twitter specifically played a major role was, of course, a central part of the Russiagate hysteria. What always amazes me about that is for so long enough in politics, the idea of huge money in politics, dominating politics, has been a major issue -- it used to be at least -- and it is true that each party or each campaign now spends close to a trillion dollars, billions and billions of dollars on these campaigns. Major media corporations poured huge amounts of time and energy and effort into doing everything possible to defeat Donald Trump. How is it that anyone got convinced that a handful of Twitter bots with 85 followers played any kind of concrete or tangible role in the election outcome?
M.T.: They were convinced because it was narrativized by certain key actors in society, namely, again, this fusion of the American National Security State apparatus and the American media, with elements of American academia coming in the back end to provide like quasi empirical validation for the narrative, as had already been pre-construction. I mean, one of the reasons given by these researchers why they undertook the study was because, as they put it, was something to the effect of: Russian interference is one of the most high-profile instances of social media influence yet.
So, they're studying it because they claim that it was already notable, not because they all of a sudden ascertained the existence of this notable phenomenon out there in the empirical universe and decided it just must be studied for the sake of the betterment of humanity. They are studying it because it had already been kind of propelled into the center of the American media and sort of governmental consciousness. And so, with that already having been done, you see in the aftermath, these attempts to put some sort of empirical gloss on it.
And even if they do, in this particular instance, again, seem to undermine one of the core thrusts of the more hysterical version of the narrative, I think you'll find that a lot of people who were among the most hysterical about warning of Russian interference contemporaneously, or in the aftermath, kind of assigning outsized culpability to it for the election of Trump -- I think even now you'll see a lot of them trying to back off and suggest that, no, it was always more proportionate than maybe the critics are now suggesting. It's funny, they always try to retroactively claim that the critics of the Russian interference narrative were actually the ones who were exaggerating it more than they were, as though, you know, critics, meaning you and I and a handful of others, we're the ones who put this on the agenda and were the right…
G.G.: …As opposed to that, making it the number one, dominant political debate of at least the first three years of the Trump presidency.
But let me ask you about that. There's an article that was out today that we were going to dissect -- we probably are running out of time. I'll probably save it for tomorrow because we spent a lot of time talking about Brazil -- which basically says that there are a handful of people leading a sinister plot to steer good, innocent, well-intentioned leftists, without their knowledge, into the funnel, into the populist, right-wing sector, and among the leaders are me, Tulsi Gabbard, Matt Taibbi, and you're included along with Red Scare.
M.T.: I haven’t seen this article yet. I need a laugh tonight.
G.G.: You should definitely read it. It has every media trope. That's why we wanted to dissect it. We're probably going to get to it tomorrow because we don’t have time tonight. But the point is, you know, for me, the big breach with the American left began when I began expressing skepticism -- and then kind of repulsion -- at this Russiagate fixation. I know you were doing it, too.
And for me, it wasn't that it was so offensive because it was a fake scandal, unfairly accusing Donald Trump of something he didn't really do, which is illegally conspiring with the Russians, although that was true. For me, it was so clear, especially given the involvement of the CIA, that it had much broader geopolitical implications way beyond just the idea of creating a domestic scandal for Donald Trump, including reteaching Americans to hate Russia and playing a leading role, as you pointed out, in at least the first impeachment of Donald Trump as well as now what's happening in Ukraine. Talk about what you regard as the lingering sinister effects of Russiagate itself as a fraudulent scandal.
M.T.: Well, yeah, I think one of the long-lasting impacts that I personally tried to highlight at the time but was usually met with derision and scorn is that it created a whole set of new incentives for the American domestic political scene in terms of how one perceives Russia or how one fashion sort of policy responses to the behavior of Russia and so forth. So, you'll probably recall that throughout the bulk of Trump's presidency, he was operating under the perverse incentive that in order to demonstrate that he was not in hock to Putin or not collusively in some sort of sinister or underhanded relationship with Putin, he had to demonstrate his independence by taking a relatively more belligerent action than he might otherwise have been inclined to do.
So even when he first started sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, in 2017, which people wouldn't have expected him to do if he actually had in fact been engaged in this collusive plot with the Kremlin, that was seen as something that was almost incumbent upon him to undertake. Otherwise, he'd be showing that he was, in fact, in some sort of collusion relationship with the Kremlin and on and on and on. You can find examples like this. There were even statements leaked to the media by members of the Trump administration, the first time he bombed Syria, in 2017, that this was great for him for domestic political purposes because it showed that he couldn't possibly be just a stooge of Putin because he's bombing one of Putin's chief client states, namely its most important ally in the Middle East, that being Assad. And over and over and over again, that was sort of the refrain as to the operative set of incentives imposed on Trump's decision-making and the decision-making kind of matrix of the wider American political class as a result of this narrative being foisted on them.
G.G.: …and they basically made it impossible, almost criminal, to even have communications with the Russians. Remember, they prosecuted Michael Flynn for doing what any national security adviser incoming would have done, which is reaching out to their counterparts. They tried to basically say that Jeff Sessions, who had these two very fleeting normal-in-Washington conversations at cocktail parties with the Russians, did something really insidious by having a go at them. So, they criminalized basically the just normal diplomatic channels as well in poisoning those relationships to such an extent, I think quite deliberately.
Let me ask you about that. There's this video online that I've seen before that I think is from late 2016 or early 2017, where Amy Klobuchar traveled with John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Ukraine, to vow that, because Russia had interfered in our elections, -- remember, these two Republican senators and one Democratic senator we’re told never get along about anything -- they went together and they all together said, we're going to stand by Ukraine and we're going to arm them and we're going to make the Russians pay for what they've done, using Ukraine as our weapon against them, our bulwark against the Russians. I mean, you can just draw the clearest thorough line between the Russiagate fraud and everything that's happening so dangerously right now in Ukraine in this proxy war between the US and Russia.
M.T.: Yeah. I mean, just to summarize very quickly, because there are so many dimensions to this, but McCain and Graham - who accompanied Klobuchar on that gloriously bipartisan journey to Ukraine, in 2016, where they met with this battalion of, you know, fully armed Ukrainian soldiers and pledged the undying support of the U.S. to win the war for them against Russia - McCain and Graham were then the ones who successfully lobbied Trump, who seemed to be instinctually against the idea of sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. They're the ones who pushed him over the finish line and got him to authorize the deployment of weaponry for the first time, which, as you've mentioned many times, was resisted even by Barack Obama in the prior administration, which, I guess, you know, in more contemporary terms, would make Obama a stooge of Putin -- although Democrats never seem to reconcile themselves to that paradox.
But then, yeah, going years ahead, Russiagate hysteria and this whole hysteria around Russian interference or foreign interference more broadly was a crucial component of why Ukraine became only the third impeachment in U.S. history -- against Donald Trump at the time, and the idea was that Trump had solicited foreign interference on his own behalf for a corrupt purpose to penalize or investigate his political enemies, that being Joe Biden, that kind of gave a horse-like narrative underpinning to that third impeachment -- which was still the only impeachment in U.S. history that was done for any kind of national security reason. And it enshrined that Russia was this eternal foe of the United States.
So, fast forward to the next Democratic administration, that being Joe Biden, you had an incoming Democratic political and national security class who were extremely radicalized against Russia and who had this emotional sort of grudge that they needed to nurse against Russia. The Financial Times, as Biden was getting ready to take office, in late 2020, reported on the phenomenon where these national security apparatchiks like Jake Sullivan -- they didn't name Sullivan in particular but people in Sullivan’s cadre of democratic national security professionals -- they just had this uncontainable loathing toward Russia that was obviously then going to manifest in terms of the policy.
And where did we see it manifest in terms of policy ultimately? Well, the United States at the direction of Biden and Blinken and so forth, didn't entertain any kind of diplomatic but real route with Russia to avert some sort of initiation of war in Ukraine. Now, people say, oh, well, Putin still ultimately bears ultimate responsibility. He's the one who has the agency for launching the invasion.
Of course, he does, but the United States was still the key factor in whether or not there would be any kind of resolution attained in the run-up to the actual launching of the invasion because -- at least if you look at what Putin cites for his reasoning for why the invasion was undertaken -- it has to do with the expansion of NATO and the integration of the United States military with the Ukraine military and the neutral status or lack thereof of Ukraine and the only foreign country that could have had some sort of dispositive effect on satisfying Russia's grievances in that regard would have been the United States.
And it was taken on as an article of faith by the U.S. national security apparatus at that time, including everyone from the State Department to the Pentagon to the White House, that there would be no negotiations at all, even entertained, along those lines. And I think a lot of it has to do in an underappreciated way with the radicalization against Russia that originated, at first germinated really in earnest, in 2016, in association with this interference narrative that just got exploded beyond all proportion -- even if now, six years later, we have studies by NYU and their foundation funders that suggest that maybe the actual tangible influence of those social media campaigns were negligible. But they do rightly note that the actual consequential impact of those campaigns was not the campaigns themselves, meaning not the actual trolls’ robots, but how they were perceived and interpreted, and kind of twisted into these overarching political narratives that had all kinds of multidimensional effects on our polity and on our governance.
G.G.: Exactly. And that's why even though it's not the most, you know, significant or consequential study in the history of data research, I think it's really worth taking moment every time something like this happens to remind ourselves to revisit just what a fraud Russiagate was, but what an intentional fraud it was on so many levels. Michael, thank you for taking the time to join us tonight. We're always delighted to see you.
M.T.: I'm always delighted to be in your presence.
G.G.: All right, Michael, thank you. I know you are.
So that concludes our show for this evening. As I suggested during that interview, we did spend a lot of time on our coverage of Brazil, which I thought was highly worthwhile viewing. And so, we're going to leave until tomorrow the dissection of that article that I mentioned, which, like the study, isn't necessarily important unto itself, but contains within it a lot of revelations and kind of insights into how the media sees the world that I think make it worth spending a little time on.
For those of you who have joined us tonight, we hope to see you back here tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. EST, and every night Monday through Friday at our normal time. For now, we'll be going to Locals, as we always do, for our interactive aftershow. And we hope you have a great evening, everyone. Have a nice night.
Great perspectives on Brazilian politics and leaders that are helpful in understanding what’s going on down there. Thanks!
The idea that exposing how the government manipulates public opinion is somehow authoritarianism is a triumph of Newspeak.
"When exposing crimes is treated as a crime, you are ruled by criminals."