Brazil has been a fertile ground for the creation and dissemination of fake news about Argentina and the rest of Spanish-speaking Latin America. However, misinformation also arises in the country about other countries of the European Union, the U.S., and other parts of the planet. And, occasionally, about world history itself.
This was the case last year of Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, who, via social media, wrote: “Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. Impossible to be more prophetic!!” Underneath, the MP printed an image of Churchill with this phrase embedded: “The fascists of the future, will call themselves anti-fascists.”
That’s right, with a comma in the middle. The comma is the least of it (but it illustrates the lack of respect for the language of Camões and Michel Teló). The problem is to attribute to Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill the phrase “The fascists of the future will call themselves anti-fascists“. Churchill did not say that because he was not tacky. And that is a cheesy phrase, typical of Facebooktown and WhatsAppland culture.
In addition (and mainly this), the International Churchill Society had already announced in 2018 that this phrase was not from the man who was twice Prime Minister of Britain. The reason for the Society’s explanation three years ago: the governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott, had published that fake phrase as if it was true (and then Society explained – with all British phlegm – that it was not true).
Brazil‘s President’s son’s phrase occurred in the context of more and more people calling Bolsonaro’s modus operandi “fascist” (on top of that is the president’s increasing use of anti-fascist slogans…. for more details, read the column “A tropical revival of fascist and Nazi expressions“). To close that topic, there is the categorical affirmation of the deputy: “more prophetic, impossible”. But there are no such thing as “prophecies”. Fairy tales. We are in the 21st century. Come out of your caves.
I would like to take this opportunity to explain that:
1 – Churchill never said, “I prefer mocotó [Brazilian dish made from cow’s feet] with mashed potatoes than with cassava”.
2 – Churchill never wrote the sentence “Go, Corinthians Sport Club!”
READ ALSO: A tropical revival of fascist and Nazi expressions
But, let’s go back to the fake news made in Brazil about South America.
The Russian base in Venezuela (the caipiroska plan)
One day in 2016 I started receiving messages on social media asking me why I was “hiding the existence of the Russian base in Venezuela with which President Vladimir Putin will bomb Brazil“.
“Russian base?” I thought. When I first read the sentence I thought some Twitter user had ingested cyclopean amounts of Brazil‘s cachaça to give my timeline the two cents on such a delirious subject. This was already entering a level of delirium of the Apocalypse of the Mayans (the Mayans, who inhabited the Yucatan peninsula…not to be confused with “Os Maias” by Eça de Queiroz) or chupacabras.
However, I learned minutes later that the collective hysteria had been generated by statements made by a Brazilian lawyer, Janaína Paschoal, about the existence of a Russian military base in Venezuelan lands.
According to Paschoal, “with the construction of a Russian military base in Venezuela, a firm position by Brazil is no longer just a humanitarian issue, but a homeland security issue. Putin is just over 60 years old, he may be an elderly man, by Brazilian law. For political purposes, he is an adolescent. An imperialist, nobody denies it. With a military base in Venezuela, Putin is one step away from attacking Brazil. Are you laughing? I’m serious. Very typical: to make people look stupid so that they shut up. But that won’t happen to me!”
The Brazilian lawyer did not cite any source for her categorical statement about the Russian base. At the time I explained that there was no Russian military base “under construction” in Venezuela. Not even the Venezuelan opposition was talking about the hypothetical and surrealistic existence of a Russian base. And, if there would be anyone willing to denounce a Russian base already built there, it would – obviously – be the Venezuelan opposition. Moreover, neither the CIA nor the Pentagon denounced the so-called Russian base built in Venezuela. Let’s review that:
1 – The Venezuelan opposition did not know about the existence of the so-called Russian base.
2 – The CIA did not know of the existence of the Russian base.
3- The Pentagon did not know of the existence of the Russian base.
4 – A lawyer in São Paulo, however, did know of the “existence” of the Russian base. That is, she knew more than the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House together.
Summary on reality: there was not in 2016 a Russian base already “built” or “inaugurated”, not even “recycled”. Nor was the plan to “re-establish” a Russian base in Venezuela as some have argued, since that would be impossible, as to “re-establish” first you have to “establish” it. And since it was never established, it could not be re-established. Thus, President Putin could not “attack” or “invade” Brazil from a hypothetical “base” in Venezuela.
The fake news about the “Russian base” was triggered by statements from Venezuelan authorities in previous years, expressing in a very general way the desire to have one day a Russian base to count on. To this was added an article in a Russian magazine from 2014 (retrieved again and again on Facebook every time) in which it discusses a supposed eventual project that perhaps – who knows, perhaps – could be agreed with a Venezuelan government. It is now 2021 and so far there has been no mention of the existence of a Russian base in the country.
Thus, Putin never invaded Brazil, Manaus has not been renamed the New Putin of the West, the frevo has not been replaced by Cossack dances and Brazilians are not naming their children after “Tchaikovsky de Oliveira” or “Tolstoi Bezerra”. And caipiroska has existed before this conspiracy theory. But we could call this delirium “The Caipiroska Plan”.
Bolivia invades Brazil
“Invasions” generate unleashed frenzy on social media, as they allow bombastic statements from political leaders and their militants about defending the homeland & similar things. Such was the case with the alleged “Bolivian invasion of Brazil“.
It all started in 2015 when then Bolivian President Evo Morales gave a speech to a group of military personnel. In the middle of his speech, Morales cited the existing crisis in Dilma Rousseff’s government. Morales, in a general way, cited the risk of “coups d’état” in South America. Afterward, he stressed that the region needed to “defend democracy”.
But, a handful of weeks later, in social networks and small media outlets in Brazil, the “news” spread that Morales had “threatened” to carry out an “invasion” of Brazilian territory. This invasion would be carried out with the small and militarily outdated “Bolivian Army”. All this to prevent the Dilma’s downfall. However, at no point in that speech (nor in other speeches) had President Morales referred to a hypothetical invasion of Brazil.
Morales had accumulated a flurry of sui generis statements in his political career, such as the occasion when he stated that eating chicken meat caused homosexuality. However, despite his ravings, he never spoke of invading Brazil and taking Brasilia with his troops or even chewing coca in a victorious pose by the shores of Lake Paranoá. Nothing ever comes close.
The subject lasted a few months in social media and disappeared. But fake news has a peculiar capacity to retread paranoia: the same “news” of the invasion plans was resurrected a year later (and as if it were a totally new subject). This occurred in the days of the vote of impeachment of Brazil‘s Rousseff.
At the time videos with the title “Evo Morales threatens to invade Brazil” were posted on Youtube. However, in the video, Morales did not make this type of threat.
But what is more impressive is that several Brazilian senators (whose salaries are paid by Brazilian taxpayers) faced disinformation as real news. These parliamentarians made emphatic speeches in the plenary against such invasion plans, as well as press releases. One of them was Brazilian Senator Alvaro Dias, who declared that “what Evo Morales is doing is a threat to Brazil since he says he could invade our country with his armed forces”. It seems no adviser explained to the parliamentarian that the news was fake.
If Evo Morales had announced that he would invade Brazil, it would have made headlines in the Latin American media: on the one hand, for the promise of a military invasion – something rare in the region since the Cenepa War between Peru and Ecuador in 1995 – on the other, for the bizarreness of the Bolivian army trying to confront the Brazilian one in the past decade. But, the greatest bizarreness turned out to be that of the Brazilian senators who believed in such social media delirium.
Coup d’état against Fernández (and Fernández’s coup d’état)
In the middle of last year, I started receiving inquisitive messages (and without the required good manners) about “Coup d’Etats” that were taking place for days in Argentina. Yes, I put it in the plural because the messages came from two different groups claiming that a military attempt was happening in the country.
Version 1: Tanks rolling through the streets of Buenos Aires. Communist President Alberto Fernández is sending troops to close Parliament and assume full powers. Troops fire on demonstrators. Media invaded, imposing censorship. Confiscation of companies. Communism threatens Argentina! A million people protest against the coup in front of the Parliament.
Version 2: Tanks rolling through the streets of Buenos Aires. The fascist opposition, the lackey of Washington, is trying to overthrow president Alberto Fernández. They won’t pass! A million people protest against the coup in front of the Parliament.
Meanwhile, friends from Buenos Aires to whom I commented on the ravings I received, reacted astonished. Argentines have mountains of problems…however, the military has not been one of them since the 90s.
Faced with these scenes of collective delirium…in fact, two collective deliriums on the same theme, I began to explain:
1 – The Argentine armed forces are scrapped. They cannot stage a coup d’état. The armored cars broke down so badly in military parades, embarrassing the public, that the authorities opted to parade only the infantry. And also with the historic grenadiers on horseback. These fine equines never let the army down… but can you imagine a “coup d’état” on horseback in the 21st century? The country has only four fully operational fighter planes. The Navy is in a state of penury (the tiny Uruguayan Navy has more hours of training at sea than its Argentine counterpart).
2 – The Argentine military is not popular. Therefore, there are no social groups of weight to request a “military intervention”.
The military themselves are not interested in running this highly complex country. Argentina is sunk in intermittent crisis. And it all got worse in 2018, with a turbocharged recession. And it got much worse with the pandemic.
But what had generated so much scandal for two classes to fire off two simultaneous conspiracy theories about a so-called “coup d’état”? Well, the police of the province of Buenos Aires, the “Bonaerense” Police, had gone on strike to demand higher salaries.
They complained about the loss of purchasing power due to escalating inflation. And they were also protesting against the excess wages that each police officer was getting due to the additional surveillance for the pandemic. To complicate matters, due to the lockdown, many commercial establishments where the policemen worked, with security guards off duty, were closed. In addition, the scenario was ideal for protest, since the government needed – more than at other times – police officers on the streets.
Everything acquired a greater magnitude because this was the first big strike of Bonaerense. Meanwhile, on the social networks, right-wing and left-wing Twitter users (each with their own neuroses) claimed that “all the police in the country” were on strike. No way. It was only the police of the province of Buenos Aires. Not even the police of the city of Buenos Aires.
The province of Buenos Aires is an administrative entity. And the city of Buenos Aires (which is the federal district) is another. But on the social media, everything becomes the same thing and there flourished the conspiracy theorists (without cartographic knowledge) who accused the porteño mayor (of the opposition) of trying to overthrow President Fernández. By the way, the opposition criticized the police strike.
But, everything went into a full hysterical rhythm in Brazil when the Buenos Aires police one day went to protest in front of the presidential residence in Olivos. The policemen protested at the door of the place. But on social media in Brazil, they claimed that the “Quinta de Olivos” (the name of the presidential residence) was “surrounded”.
The huge Quinta, in the municipality of Vicente López, has an area of 30 hectares. It would take tens of thousands of people to surround the perimeter. But it sounded more “epic” for Brazilian left-wing politicians to say that it was “totally surrounded” as if it were the white settlers in wagons in the Wild West, surrounded by Comanche Indians. Or as if it were the siege of Stalingrad. The reality was less (much less) bombastic than the claims of Brazilian left-wing and right-wing tweeters.
At the end of the day, the government agreed with the police days later and they went back to work. And about “a million people protesting in front of the National Congress building”, in real life it was 100 people. Arithmetic is not the strong point of social media.
On the rigor of data-checking
American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) once sarcastically declared that “a lie may be halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. That is the phrase circulating on social media, the vast land where information checking is as frequent as Olympic medals for Barbados, Cyprus, and Macedonia. Yet, it’s not his quote. The reality is that Twain never wrote that phrase. “What a shame!” some would lament since the phrase sounds good and Twain is famous. But, sorry, sometimes reality goes the other way.
In fact, the phrase was published before Twain was born, in 1820, in the Portland Maine Gazette: “A lie will fly from Maine to Georgia while the truth will still be putting on its boots.”
But the original phrase really is “the lie flies, while the truth comes after, limping with difficulty”. Its author, the writer Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), published it in 1710 in London’s The Examiner newspaper. Swift, in his time, was extremely famous. He is the author of Gulliver’s Travels. However, his name is somewhat forgotten nowadays. And Twain is more popular, especially in the U.S.. So, for the social networks, it’s better to say it’s by Twain.
Translated by Isabela Fleischmann