Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow at the UKZN School of Social Sciences and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.
OPINION - The election of Jair Bolsonaro is a disaster for Brazil, and for democrats and progressives around the world. Bolsonaro is a right-wing strong man in the mould of Narendra Modi of India, Donald Trump of the US, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Viktor Orbá* of Hungary. Like Modi, he is regularly described as a fascist.

As is now well known, Bolsonaro is openly racist, sexist and homophobic, pro-torture and has promised to cut down the Amazon forest.

He also remembers the military dictatorship in Brazil fondly and has promised to smash the Left. Many in Brazil’s vibrant social movements fear the worst.

The election of Trump was often referred to as “the Facebook election” on the grounds that he built his support by running fake news through Facebook.

The election of Bolsonaro has been termed “the WhatsApp election” due to the manner in which Bolsonaro used fake news on right-wing WhatsApp groups to build his support.

We had a taste of this in the latter part of the Zuma period when Bell Pottinger made effective use of Twitter to drive a divisive propaganda agenda. As a number of analysts noted, propaganda that first circulated online often ended up in the mainstream press, and on occasion in the more rarefied world of the accredited academic journal.

South Africans rose against Bell Pottinger and in the end destroyed the company and stemmed much of the flood of fake news. For this we must be proud. The Americans, Indians and Brazilians were not able to do this. But, in our case, the challenge that we faced may have been made easier by the fact that the fake news flood was directed by a British firm directed by a family from India. If it had been more home-grown it might have been difficult to win a relatively quick victory.

With the defeat of the Zuma faction within the ANC things have much improved. Some remnants of the Bell Pottinger propaganda project remain, like “Black Opinion”, but they are a shadow of their former selves and have little impact on our public sphere. But it is possible that well-organised attempts to undermine democracy via social media could return. We must remain vigilant and defend the integrity of our media as a vital democratic task.

This is not always easy. The newspaper created the modern public sphere, and allowed for modern forms of democracy to develop. The collapse of the financial viability of the newspaper in the wake of the internet, which allows Google and Facebook to claim the lion’s share of advertising revenue, has been a key reason for the rise of right-wing populism across the globe.

We are no exception. Much of our established media is in crisis. Newspapers have closed down or now run on skeleton staffing arrangements with very little money for real boots on the ground journalism.

Under these challenging circumstances it is vital the media takes every step to protect its own integrity. Even the smallest sense of impropriety runs the risk of doing serious damage to the reputation of a publication.

The media needs to be vigilant with regard to all forms of power.

There is similar concern in trade union circles about recent articles. Here, too, there is a strong perception that established journalistic standards have not been met, that personal issues have been allowed to cloud matters, and that factions have free rein to use the media to settle scores. There is no personality or sector of society, including the media, that should not be subject to careful public critique. But what is clear is that if the media does not conduct itself with absolute integrity, these kinds of perceptions will flourish and vital sectors, like civil society and trade unions, will lose confidence in the media.

Once the media loses the confidence of society, it runs a risk of finding itself isolated and vulnerable.

Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow at the UKZN School of Social Sciences and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation. He promotes #Reading Revolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside.

The Mercury