To understand the removal of Dilma Rousseff from the presidency in Brazil, we should explore the anti-democratic role of the country’s media giant Grupo Globo.

In June 2013, millions of Brazilians took to the streets in the biggest street protests in national history. Brazil’s media – concentrated in the hands of a few immensely powerful companies – threw its weight into channelling public anger behind the political right’s anti-government agenda. The initial trigger for these protests was increases in public transport fares, but they soon spiralled to coalesce movements against police violence, structural racism and homophobia, while others called for decriminalisation of drugs and improved urban transport and public services. All were underpinned with anger at spending on the World Cup and Olympics.

Opponents of the many injustices within Brazilian society came together spontaneously through slogans such as ‘Brazil must change now!’. While the organised left and a student-led movement of young people occupied the streets, so did conservative protesters, including far-right groups, whose movement called for ‘national unity’ against corruption, a long-running theme of Brazil’s right.

While the initial protests were ignored by mainstream media, the incorporation of middle-class sectors attracted greater attention. Led by media giant Grupo Globo, whose nightly news broadcast Jornal Nacional is the most-watched in the country, the increased coverage emphasised division between ‘protesters’ and ‘vandals’, i.e. legitimate and illegitimate protesters, implying that police violence towards the latter was justified. Focus was on confrontation between protesters and police rather than protester demands. The media portrayed a non-partisan, spontaneous movement constantly on the verge of being taken over by the radical Marxist left. Brazilian mainstream journalists falsely declared corruption as central to the discontent.

Following the launch in 2014 of the Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigation into corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras, media coverage of the scandal was carefully managed and fuelled by scaremongering stories relating to Brazil’s economic downturn and high unemployment rate. Major outlets such as Grupo Globo and Veja (Brazil’s most widely-read magazine) focused overwhelmingly on investigations into members of the PT, despite the fact two-thirds of the senate would eventually be implicated. Television reporters appeared to elucidate fact from single testimonies to build fantastically extensive stories riffing on the melodrama of telenovelas.

Sergio Moro, the judge overseeing the Operation Car Wash investigations, demonstrated his own dubious proximity to media outlets by leaking audios of recorded telephone conversations between President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, within hours of their taking place, in which they discussed his appointment to a ministerial position and criticised the Car Wash investigations. These were duly broadcast by Grupo Globo’s TV channels as incriminating evidence of corruption despite the audios’ vagueness.

Marinho and the military

From its founding in 1925 by a wealthy Rio de Janeiro family, Grupo Globo’s path to becoming Latin America’s biggest media conglomerate would not have been possible without its historic alliance with the Brazilian right, particularly with successive military juntas. In the build-up to the 1964 military coup, major media outlets fed on Cold War fears of a communist takeover in a destabilisation campaign against left-leaning elected president João Goulart. The ensuing dictatorship carefully promoted mass media and, realising TV’s potential to shape public opinion, made it easier to buy televisions on credit. Grupo Globo, which prior to the dictatorship existed in print and radio, struck a deal with US media conglomerate Time Life Entertainment to launch Rede Globo television. Today, Rede Globo broadcasts to around 90 per cent of the population, while its parent company is one of four which control 60 per cent of all media revenues in Latin America.

In 1964, Globo supported military intervention in Brazilian electoral politics, subsequently framing the coup as rooted in democracy, the rule of law and anti-communism. The pro-coup movement advocated liberal values, such as respect for individual property rights and transparent institutions, alongside support for the authoritarian state. The championing of anti-corruption led one editorial in the flagship O Globo newspaper to deem the coup ‘the beginning of an era of honesty, the end of decadence’.

This ideological background helps to contextualise how Operation Car Wash fitted neatly into a long-standing focus on corruption in rightwing politics in Brazil. Corruption is a depoliticised issue amenable to any political agenda. While it is impossible to defend corruption, it conveniently upholds the possibility of a political spectrum free from conflict.

With the military’s intentions still undetermined in the mid-1960s, Grupo Globo’s owner Roberto Marinho was key to shaping the regime’s direction. In 1965, US ambassador Lincoln Gordon sent a telegram to his seniors detailing how Marinho identified himself as part of a group pressuring coup leader General Castelo Branco to extend his mandate. Marinho also recommended the appointment of hardline military official Juracy Magalhães, then-ambassador to the US, as Minister of Justice. Following his appointment, Margalhães swiftly tightened censorship and introduced the AI-2 law, which ended direct elections, brought in pro-military supreme court judges and dissolved existing political parties. Globo’s editorial line fell fully behind the dictatorship, and over a twenty-year period the media group flourished.

New media, old agendas

Despite Grupo Globo’s dominance, the power of big media is changing. TV Globo’s audience ratings have been declining since 2005 due to pressure from competitors and widening internet access. During the 2013 protests, Grupo Globo, in an attempt to redeem its image, publicly apologised for supporting the 1964 coup.

In 2013, political action shifted from institutions to the streets and onto social media. According to a study by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE), around 37 per cent of Brazilians use the internet daily, while 92 per cent of internet users keep a social media profile, such as Facebook, WhatsApp or YouTube. One study found that around a third of respondents use Facebook to access news stories, whereas only 6 per cent consider Grupo Globo’s flagship newspaper O Globo’s website a useful source. Social media became crucial to the pro-impeachment movement from 2014 onwards; WhatsApp was the most common means of organising protests. The right’s carefully constructed social media presence lent the movement the appearance of being organic and progressive – which it was not.

The broader dynamic was one in which the right appropriated the discourse and physical space – the streets – typically associated with leftwing and popular social movements. The clearest example of this was the pro-impeachment protest movement, whose adherents were mostly middle or upper class and overwhelmingly white. A central figure was Olavo de Carvalho, a well-known writer who advocates economic liberalism – ‘total freedom’ of the market – and social conservatism. A former O Globo columnist, Carvalho launched the website Mídia Sem Máscara (Media Unmasked) with funding from the US-based and government-financed Independent Republican Institute (IRI). Carvalho uses the website to denounce ‘censorship’ in the Brazilian media and the PT’s aspirations to tyranny, and has amassed a large following on YouTube and Facebook.

Other Facebook and YouTube pages such as Movimento Contra Corrupção (Movement Against Corruption, which has 1.4 million followers), TV Revolta (Revolt Television) and Orgulho de Ser Hétero (Proud to be Straight, 1.9 million followers) emerged after June 2013 to provide greater prominence for the rightwing presence on social media and, subsequently, in the streets. These pages’ viral content centres on anti-Lula and anti-Rousseff rhetoric, but also promotes socially-conservative and nationalist messages, all while emphasising themselves as independent media.

According to a leaked document from the PT’s Ministry of Communications, the opposition Brazil Social Democracy Party (PSDB) spent around $R10 million (£2.6 million) during the 2013 protests on the use of robots to distribute pro-impeachment WhatsApp messages and the maintenance of social media sites promoting impeachment. With the resurgence of the right in Latin America, it seems that calls for alternative media requires more than just a break with Grupo Globo, as the rise of social media presents new challenges to pressurised governments and populations.

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)