Brazil: Communicators and activists from marginalized communities discuss online harassment and how they protect themselves

Online attacks manifest in many forms, always with the same goal: to undermine freedom of expression and to force the voices and opinions of minorities out of the public debate, even online | Art: Magno Borges/Agência Mural

This text was written by Cleberson Santos, Katia Flora, Livia Alves, Luís Antônio, and Matheus Oliveira and was originally published on August 1, 2023, on Agência Mural's website. The report was produced with support from Artigo 19, and is republished here under a partnership with Global Voices, with edits.

Slanderous comments, insults, attempted hacks, and threats. Online attacks have become a common problem for influencers, activists, and journalists in Brazil, usually coming from those attempting to diminish or silence them. The situation is even more delicate for communicators from minority groups, people of non-white ethnicities, women, and LGBTQ+ people.

A survey conducted by Agência Mural in partnership with the NGO Artigo 19 (Article 19) talked to 82 journalists, communicators, and influencers from various states, particularly from the São Paulo region. Over half (54 percent) said they had received threats or been intimidated online, while 46 percent reported that they had already suffered hacking attempts on social media profiles.

The problem is also revealed by other studies. The report “Journalism faces hate networks in Brazil” by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) highlighted that, in 2022, during the election campaign, every three seconds a journalist was the victim of an online attack.

Another study, “The impact of disinformation and political violence on the internet against journalists, communicators, and LGBT+ [people],” by Gênero E Número (Gender and Number) and RWB shows that eight out of 10 Brazilian journalists have changed their behavior on social media in recent years to protect themselves from online attacks.

The comments section

Lua Mota, a non-binary illustrator and comic artist, says they have no peace on social media: “A day I spend without receiving something is a happy day.” Here, “something” refers to criticism and slanderous comments.

Lua identifies as pansexual and uses neutral pronouns to identify themselves. As an illustrator, comic artist, designer, and LGBTQ+ activist, Lua publishes comics about sexuality and gender on Instagram and Twitter.

“All my posts talking about neutral language get attacked, sometimes it comes at once, en masse. From saying that I don't exist, because non-binary people don't exist in their heads, to swearing,” they said. Although they never sought legal help, they say the cases have affected their mental health.

A cartoon asks: Why is gender neutral language necessary?

In 2022, during the election period, the journalist and online influencer Mateus Fernandes, 23, suffered constant attacks after the publication of a report on public policies related to funk music.

As soon as I posted the report on my profile, there were a lot of hacking attempts against me, very quickly,” Mateus recalled, mentioning as well racist and aggressive comments. “When I went to look at the comments, there were a lot of robots, it was something that really startled me.”

As a journalist who works on stories of marginalized communities and blackness, he says he feels that his work makes some people uncomfortable — Fernandes hits a monthly average of 80,000 people on his Instagram account. “There were things that hindered me, that made me more sensitive about posting my experiences,” he said.

Clara Becker, director of Redes Cordiais, a Brazilian media education organization for influencers, highlighted that, unlike haters, trolls, who usually target communicators and activists, seek to create chaos and disrupt public debate.

According to Becker, this type of psychological impact on those targeted by attacks, such as Fernandes and Lua, is common and is part of a silencing strategy. “It's an impact that can mess with a person's life, they develop panic syndrome, anxiety, not being able to leave the house, being afraid.”

Anonymity is an important way to defend freedom of expression online, as it's only this that allows many people who are threatened or monitored to speak out. However, those who try to attack and silence diverse voices online also use it to hide.

“Everything that is a crime outside the internet is also a crime on the internet. Intimidation, swearing, shaming, insults,” Becker explained. 

Off the air

The collective Nós, Mulheres da Periferia (We, Women of the Periphery) lost access to its Instagram profile for 24 hours, days after covering demonstrations against then-president Jair Bolsonaro, in May 2021. The hackers changed their posted messages.

To recover the account, they contacted Facebook (now Meta). After the incident, the team also took online safety measures, adopting security protocols and password verification.

The website Alma Preta (Black Soul) changed its official address after being hacked in 2023. In 2020, another website, Ponte Jornalismo, was also taken down after cyber attacks, which lasted about three weeks.

Although Bolsonaro is no longer president, his support base on social media is still very much active against critics, as experienced by teacher and communicator Anair Novaes, who is the host of the programs on the online radio station Boa Música FM in the outskirts of São Paulo, which often discuss structural racism, the role of Black women, legal issues, and more. In a program from July 2023, she talked about combating fake news, but the website was hacked and we could not broadcast.

“This is not the first time that, when I bring up controversial issues, we've suffered hacking attacks,” she explained. Novaes said the radio suffered another hack the previous month, and lost recordings. After reporting the case to police, they managed to recover the material and resume the program. 

Away from the computer

Danilo Pássaro also saw the threats cross the computer screen. In 2020, after leading a demonstration by football fans against Bolsonaro, he was included in an “antifascist dossier,” created by former state deputy Douglas Garcia, and had eight police cars at his doorstep to serve him a summons.

The dossier had a list of about a thousand people critical of the Bolsonaro government who, according to the deputy, were part of a “terrorist organization.” In addition to names, photos, and addresses of social media profiles, the list contained personal information such as home addresses, jobs, telephone numbers, and identity document numbers.

“I come from a place where we walk around with our spider-sense on all the time, but there were some weeks where I needed to pay [even] more attention,” Danilo said.

A historian, theologian, and member of a Corinthians football club fan group since the age of 13, he said that the relationship with evangelical churches and football is evident in the threats he gets, but also their political background.

It was through the Gaviões da Fiel group that he got close to organizations such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST). In 2022, he was an advisor for the campaign of Sônia Guajajara, who was elected a federal deputy and is currently Minister of Indigenous Peoples, under Lula's government.

“It’s important to use legal mechanisms to protect yourself,” the activist said. He went to the police regarding the antifascist dossier in 2020.

During the Bolsonaro government, another “antifascist dossier” was made by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. The document contained information on almost 600 civil servants working in public security and was handed to agencies such as the Federal Police, the Army Intelligence Center, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, and the National Force for Public Security.

In May 2022, the Supreme Federal Court declared it unconstitutional.

How to protect yourself?

While there is no 100 percent effective way to protect yourself on social media, the survey conducted by Agência Mural and Artigo 19 highlighted that 90 percent of respondents use strong passwords and two-factor authentication. Even so, 46.3 percent reported having suffered some type of hacking attempt on their social media accounts, and 41 percent said they had been targeted by robot attacks.

Some organizations give legal assistance to people targeted by trolls and hackers, such as Reporters Without Borders.

Artur Romeu, RWB's Latin America director, explained that violence against journalists and activists has always been a reality in Brazil. The country has had the second-highest number of journalists killed in Latin America since 2010. In October 2022, during the election campaign, RWB monitored insults directed at journalists: more than 3 million were recorded.

“We live in a country which has historically been violent for people who do journalistic work and other activities that involve reporting abuses, both by security forces and other power structures,” he said.

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