Online Commenting in Brazil: Pathological Pundits or Hired Partisan Hacks?

Brazil is a country known for its disappearing ideological debates, its de-politicized populace, and a ‘culture of consensus’ that renders political debate among strangers or even friends much rarer than in other parts of the world. So when I read Brazilian news online, I always take a minute to scan user-generated comments, a fascinating prism into the nation’s collective consciousness and often  a great source of context and additional data. 

             As in other countries the comment streams of Brazil’s major newspapers have become the underground battlefield for ideologues. But I’m pretty sure that commentators are not just occasional observers or pathological pundits – they are also hired hacks. You be the judge:

 Case Study: Folha de São Paulo

 This past week I was surveying comments after reading an article in the Folha de São Paulo on one of Brazil’s most sensitive issues: inflation – “Increase in the basic consumer basket [consumer-price-index] surpasses 10% in three capitals during 2011”. More so than faltering economic growth or unemployment, inflation is Brazil’s boogeyman, a source of unyielding spookage for those who experienced the despair of hyper-inflation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But before describing my startling revelation, just a few numbers to reflect on newspaper consumption in Brazil:

 Paper versus Online News

 Folha is Brazil’s most widely distributed newspaper, with an average circulation of approximately 300,000 issues a day – about equal to Canada’s most printed paper, the Toronto Star. These numbers are pretty small if you consider that Canada has about 5 times fewer people than Brazil. In short, not many people read the big national newspapers in Brazil. But you might not either if you were a wage earner like 80 percent of the population[1] and a national newspaper costs a hefty US$1.25. This is precisely why online news has exploded in Brazil. The Blog Tribuna da Internet (The Internet Tribune) reports that the Folha de São Paulo broke all records for Brazilian online newspapers in June 2011, clocking-in 19.4 million individual visits – about 650,000 visitors per day. Folha does have a pay wall, but most articles are free.

           Conclusion: the internet is where most national newspaper-readers get their news, where opinions are formed, and where commentators wage words for the minds and hearts of fellow Brazilians.

 As most everyone who comments on comments has commented, online commenting is not for the faint of heart. It is where the extremes come out.

Explosive Comments on Rising Inflation

Back to my Folha de São Paulo  article: total inflation averaged above 10 percent in 17 Brazilian cities during 2011, according to the DIESSE, a government think-tank. In economic terms, this should give the PT reason to worry, especially with municipal elections coming up. In the Folha, a right-leaning newspaper, there were plenty of critical comments about the PT’s management of the economy. It was former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), after all, who broke the back of inflation and smoothed the track for his otherly PT predecessors, Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.  But for every handful of critics gibing at Brazil’s current mismanagement, there was a PT defender. Like “Adali Adali”:

During the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the PSDB the desperation of the Brazilian people reached close to 100%. We were the 14th largest economy, we had an unpayable external debt, we created 87,000 jobs a year and the minimum wage did not exceed $100 dollars per month. With the extraordinary government of Lula from Dilma’s PT, today we’re the 6th largest economy in the world, we’ve created 2,200,000 jobs per year, and the minimum salary is $350 dollars, we’ve paid the external debt and we’re creditors of the IMF.

 My suspicion is that some of these commenters are hired hands, and what is great about the Folha de Sao Paulo’s commenting system, unlike most newspapers, is that beside each contributor’s name Folha puts the number of comments they have made since registering for the website. Adali Adali has a total of 1119 comments, dating back to February 4th, 2011. That’s an average of 3.3 comments a day, including weekends. Adali Adali’s comments represent a non-stop tirade against the PSDB, the party most associated with the Folha. Folha–Adali Adali–comments against PSDB, this contributor posted the same comment (with minor variations) more than a dozen times. The core message went like this:

 The PIG, the Party of the Coup D’État Press [Partido da Imprensa Golpista], associated with the demon-crats-of-the-PSDB, are lost, desperate, and in one more useless attempt to inveigle the worker and elector, embark on a leaking ship of lies, until they gain some trifling advantage with a foul news item like this…

 Thumbs up for poetic license, but an emphatic thumbs down for substanceless, repetive, filler calumny.

 What are we to make of people like Adali Adali? Hired hacks? Or pathological partisans?

 Can Comment Systems Keep Up?

 What is clear is that in Brazil and abroad, comment forums are being colonized by noise-makers, whether they be party hacks or common quacks. The comment-software industry is already becoming a highly contested and innovative marketplace. One of the industry leaders, Disqus, is now on more than a million websites, with Facebook social plug-ins offering a relatively new alternative. In the best of cases, one can sort comments by user, ranking (e.g. “like”), or newest/oldest comments, flag abuse or search by keyword.

             More options and metrics are needed, however. One idea is to post the average frequency of comment-making. But contributors can cheat, opening up new accounts and pseudonyms. Perhaps one IP address should be limited to one contributor. One extreme solution is to include textual analysis in commenting systems, suggesting whether a contributor writing style/vocabulary is somewhat/considerably/extremely similar to that of another.

 The Old Debate: Anonymity vs Accountability

 I don’t know about my readers, but I’d rather not hear from people who comment ten times a day, especially if their comments are re-hashed thoughless reactionism.   This debate will come down to the old “internet anonymity versus accountability” conundrum— irresolvable in a normative sense, but one can imagine that technical solutions are just around the bend.

 Greater political deliberation is needed in Brazil, as it is around the world. But it’s not going to come from extreme positions or hired contributors, but from thoughtful, engaged public debate.  

7 Comments

  • Just a brief correction, and a comment. The DIEESE is not a government think-tank, but rather a labor union-fudned think-tank. Their page has a nifty description in english, here: http://www.dieese.org.br/quem_somosinglesTexto.xml

    As to the fact that comments pages are filled with people being paid to further and agenda, it is hardly surprising, and not in the least a particularly Brazilian phenomenon. Astroturfing, after all, is an industry, closely related to public relations. As an open-minded service-sector industry, astroturfing is open to anyone willing to pay their fees, be they particular political parties, individual politicians, corporations or other actors in the public sphere. Globally, I think the pervasiveness of corporate- and government-led astroturfing is extraordinary: the debate on climate change is an area where online manipulation is very clear, and certain foreign policy areas too.

    So I think there is little to say about this phenomenon in Brazil: the individual you spotted on FSP might continuously slander the PSDB. Fear not, others do so, furthering other interests, in other media. And in the case of Brazil, with a written press very much leaning to the right, it isn’t surprising that some highly vocal opposition, by unions, or left-leaning journalists is to be found in the comments sections of major media. Doubtlessly part of it is astroturfing, but that’s probably not the whole story.

    • Thanks for the correction Matthias. I have to admit that I was not familiar with the term ‘astroturfing’– I appreciate you filling me. In a way, the fact that this phenomenon occurs in Brazil’s online newspapers shows that we’re dealing with a relatively salubrious print media sector, don’t you agree?

  • Well, I have come to see astroturfing (as well as trolls) as one of the many downsides of internet debating, in comments sections or in bulletin-board-like services.

    I do think that it is mostly just a nuisance. As to the salubrity of the Brazilian printed press, I can’t really say much. Most people I know in Brazil lament the absence of more diversity in the press, though weekly journals like Piauí and Carta Capital add some variety to the opinion landscape. It is a fact that the powerful vise that Abril Editora and the Globo multimedia empire held over the ‘market of opinions’ has started to be (reluctantly) released, but we’re far away from a truly vibrant and diverse media. In the meantime, the blogosphere and online publications are not only an added feature, but truly a necessary component of the landscape.

    • Point well taken. I believed (and still to some extent believe) that the press could be much more activist here in Brazil, and yes, more diversity is needed. I do see, however, that the newspapers have really increased their aggressiveness under Dilma. I have data to show that Lula took a very active role in trying to control press coverage– I have not yet heard of such efforts in the case of his predecessor.

      • Well, every government has its spin doctors, and Dilma’s, or Cardoso’s certainly are no exception. They might have been more subtle, or more successful than Lula’s, which in turn might explain why one might find more evidence of Lula’s attempts to control/influence the media.

        The other angle I would take when investigating this issue would be to adopt an ‘elitist’ political theory perspective and recognize that the interests of the influential actors in the media landscape matched those of the government better under FHC (and perhaps even Dilma), than they did under Lula. Quiescence under FHC would just mean tacit agreement with the government’s ideology, whereas fierce opposition (and corresponding governmental attempts to control/influence the media) under Lula would result from a mismatch in ideologies and governmental priorities.

        And then there is the issue of public spending on media services, particularly advertisement and public markets (licitações) for school textbooks and such. These were huge markets for media producers, and a relatively small sliver of the public budget. From a public choice perspective, this suggests that major players (Globo, Abril) had very strong incentives to make sure to maintain their piece of the cake, by influencing elections so as to have governments that would continue to buy those services from them. And this would result in governmental capture by rent-seeking media moguls. When those major media actors failed in 2002, and Lula happened to be elected, their landscape changed quite brutally: they went from trying to stop him, to trying to bring him down (calls for impeachment and Parliamentary Inquiries, CPIs), to trying to deny him a second term, to having to deal with him for the four last years. And it is in this latter (unwanted) ‘coziness’ that Dilma stepped in. Deals must have been struck in the last years of Lula’s government on the share that each major actor got from the public purse, and the deal must have remained in force, to a certain degree.

        Don’t know if any of this makes sense to you, or whether you agree, but there you have it.

  • I would agree with much of the above. Astroturfing as described above is perhaps most evident in China, where thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hacks are employed by the government for this express purpose. (Whilst I don’t have a reference to hand, a quick Google will bring up numerous well-substantiated reports). However, it is worth noting that this has proved an inadequate measure of repression, as the government’s resort to overt censorship underlines (for just two recent examples, look at the volte-face in official government media over the bullet train crash, brought about by genuine grass roots outrage, much of it promulgated via the internet, as well as the censorship of anything remotely connected with “Jasmine Revolution”).

    I also agree that the issue of vested interest within the media is a growing problem across most of the world. Arguably, in terms of direction, this is even worse in developed countries (a typical example is cited regarding the Bush election campaign in the book “House of Bush House of Saud”: even where there may not be a direct venal interest, the competetitive commerical pressures on journalists, and the resultant lack of solidarity, have lead to a dangerous toothlessness in the media, stripping it of its democratic duty as supervisory agent). A historical sweep of the Murdoch saga provides further corroboration, notwithstanding its current disintegration. The internet is certainly a timely intruder on the status quo.

    Regarding Brazil and Rousseff: I think one needs to take a distanced, socio-political/economic viewpoint. Irrespective of the degree to which Lula’s personal contribution was responsible, one result of his administration has been the consensus on economic policy (more or less). Political as well as economic expediency dictates that economic “success” is a pre-requisite for the implementation of ideology. It is also a pre-requisite for all but the shortest-term interests of both the economic elite and even the beneficiaries of graft. No surprise then, that along with the large migration from the D & E classes to the C class since 2003, we have seen almost a 50% increase in the A and B classes in percentage terms, while the number of cabinet ministers (read: pork factories) increased from 26 to 37 under Lula.

    The extent to which Dilma is “anti-corruption” is arguably of limited relevance in the end: certainly, her authority is limited. But it helps that she has not prevaricated and that she has replaced the old guard with low profile technocrats rather than the usual reshuffle of old, corrupt faces. Again, political/economic expediency, rather than necessarly personal attributes, is the key. But the greater importance is that the combination of the growing middle class and the increased media coverage (including the blogosphere and alternative online content) that has accompanied the corruption scandals is now establishing a “causality” between the dismissals and the inchoate anti-corruption demonstrations. This leads to a dispersion of the longstanding sense of impotence and, anecdotally at least, has aroused genuine anger and the incipient flexing of democratic muscle amongst the electorate. This in turn ups the pressure upon miscreants (rather than Rousseff) and prepares the ground for reform.

    The vital link in all of the above is the economy: as a trained economist, Rousseff understands at least that the awkward mix of lax fiscal and overly tight monetary policy has run its viable course. To secure economic success, this must be reversed – and the political consensus over the requirement for ongoing economic success will most likely support the fallout from the resulting fiscal cuts, despite individual gripes. Hence the tip-offs to Veja (itself not without political allegiance)stem from disgruntled exponents of pork within the government, who have suffered from the combination of fiscal cuts and lost ministers. This sort of cannibalism largely bypasses Rousseff and is typical of organised crime when external pressure becomes too great. It is therefore perhaps not overly surprising that this should be the response to the fiscal cuts rather than an all-out backlash on Rousseff and her administration; it is also cause for cautious optimism.

    In short, whilst Rousseff’s stance on corruption is neither unequivocal nor irrelevant, nor necessarily within her power to impose, it can be argued that the current developments in Brazil reflect a much larger synergy between the ecomomic, political and social currents that have established strong momentum. To be sure, the process of reform is not unstoppable and will certainly be take many years and be subject to interim reversals. However, as China is finding out, once the genie of socio-economic progress is out of the bottle, the resulting political fallout can be difficult to contain.

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