Brazil’s WhatsApp HQ – a secret exercise in duping people

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Rodrigo Duterte dismissed accusations that his speeches were propaganda Millions of members of Brazil’s far-right are travelling to the world’s largest messaging platform to get their message out….

Brazil's WhatsApp HQ - a secret exercise in duping people

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Rodrigo Duterte dismissed accusations that his speeches were propaganda

Millions of members of Brazil’s far-right are travelling to the world’s largest messaging platform to get their message out.

Telegram has been co-opted by opposition, banned in Russia and rejected by several Western governments.

But inside WhatsApp’s war room a veil of secrecy is fitting.

The app, owned by Facebook, is also the target of the Intelligence Unit – the secret nerve centre of Brazil’s growing far-right, writes Franz Wild .

Originally founded by Brazil’s first-ever billionaire and internet mogul, Pavel Durov, Telegram is both a virtual private network (VPN) and a messaging service with encryption in its core.

Its founder chose to move the company from Russia to Europe, where anti-Facebook hysteria is already running high.

In February, Brazilian President Michel Temer called on Brazilians to keep Telegram switched off, provoking what he said was a “level of totalitarianism” comparable to Soviet times.

‘Far-right hustle’

Mr Temer’s government is deeply unpopular and has been in crisis ever since more than three-fifths of Brazilians voted to impeach him earlier this year.

Mr Durov, who has often accused Brazil’s goverment of censorship, accuses it of hypocrisy.

Telegram is allowing the dissemination of all sorts of “illegitimate” messages, he says.

“They’re killing off authentic and constitutional news, just as the Brazilian government is blocking all such information.”

This withering criticism adds a rhetorical added-value, depending on who you talk to. The problem, some argue, is Mr Durov himself.

The Russian, Canadian and Brazilian anti-democratic campaigners say that internet platforms such as Telegram, which are controlled by western-based corporations, are a treacherous obstacle in their fight against Twitter, Facebook and Google.

Like Durov, they say he is a self-contradictory chameleon willing to be used as a whipping boy.

“Right-wing insiders are doing incredibly well,” says Jerome Nazari, a senior adviser in the United Nations office in Colombia.

“They work on creating an information environment that befits their own ideas, and that is very dangerous.”

Image copyright Johannes Laube/Europa Press/Getty Images Image caption Andre Leduc is currently lobbying to be Brazil’s new ambassador to India

Nazari has visited the WhatsApp war room in Brasilia several times this year to try to prevent it being co-opted by the right-wing.

“They’re driving all of their objectives by themselves. It’s difficult to stay neutral,” he says.

“But if you look at it from an objective point of view, this is very alarming,” he adds.

But Andre Leduc, an Argentine lobbyist and member of the intelligence unit, argues that he and his colleagues have been accused unfairly.

“There’s some jealousy because we’re being criticised all the time, and because we’re fighting a good battle,” he says.

“You don’t get much praise from people who haven’t done a lot of good.”

Leduc, who has a master’s degree in propaganda from a military school, says that Brazilians have to separate just a little more carefully what they watch and read in order to realise that what they are seeing is just propaganda.

“This is an unusual situation for an executive post like mine to have. It’s like letting my phone randomly talk to the world, simply because I’m listening to it,” he adds.

“That’s not a good idea, of course.”

A Malaysian lobbyist, used to working with clients who represent China’s military, agrees.

“They’re scared,” he says.

“They thought it would go away. That was their biggest mistake.”

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