The ultraconservative extreme right in Brazil is creating moral panic by pushing fake news about “gender ideology”. The fear of anything but heteronormativity plays a central role in the ascension of authoritarian leaders and democratic backsliding.
Atop a “carro de som”—a sort of speaker-truck used in samba parades— rides Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Next to his float ride the self-titled apostle Estevam Hernandes and Bishop Sônia Hernandes, leaders of the neo-pentecostal evangelical church Renascer em Cristo (“Born Again in Christ”) - two infamous spiritual leaders who were once arrested in the United States for having entered the country with more than $50,000 in undeclared cash stashed inside a Bible.
Bolsonaro proclaims: “We are against abortion, gender ideology, and the legalization of drugs. And we are defenders of the Brazilian family.” The speech of the current president, made during the March for Jesus in São Paulo in July 2022, on the eve of one of the most important elections in the history of Brazil, continues to tip the hat to his most faithful base: Christians, especially the evangelical and ultraconservative. And we are defenders of the Brazilian family.”
The speech of the current president, made during the March for Jesus in São Paulo in July 2022, on the eve of one of the most important elections in the history of Brazil, continues to tip the hat to his most faithful base: Christians, especially the evangelical and ultraconservative.
Evangelical megachurch leaders go for Bolsonaro
Raising these topics as campaign banners in 2018—emphasizing “gender ideology” and defending a heteronormative family model—Bolsonaro managed an unprecedented feat in the history of the country: to gain the electoral support of the majority of evangelical megachurch leaders. Never before had there been so many powerful religious leaders unified around one candidate. And after three and a half years of governing —which involved a series of financial benefits, debt forgiveness, media concessions and privileges granted to churches by the three branches of government—the support of Christian leadership holds firm. But support within the evangelical base may be faltering, as shown by recent polling.
In July 2022, at the launch of the presidential campaign with the PL (Liberal Party), Bolsonaro again deployed fake news, this time referring to Senator Renan Calheiros (MDB-AL): “In 2019, besides wishing to destroy heteronormativity, he created what is called gender ideology. This is used to ambush our children and grandchildren, starting at the age of five, inside the school, to encourage them toward sex at that age.” The advice to return to “populist-nationalist” ideas upon every new political, economic and social crisis, had been provided to Bolsonaro by Donald Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon in 2018, and has been followed to a T by the current president and his government.
From his inaugural speech to the inflammatory messages from church pulpits and carros de som, Jair Bolsonaro continues in a supposed “battle of good against evil” and in the fight against “gender ideology”—which is a fantastical and flexible narrative created by the Catholic Church in the 1990s and appropriated by extreme-right politicians, evangelicals, and ultraconservatives throughout Latin America, the United States, and some European nations in recent years.
Brazil currently suffers through an annual inflation rate of nearly 12% and has been placed once again on the UN World Food Programme Hunger Map, with at least 33 million people going without food. More than 670,000 people have died after a disastrous conduct in the pandemic. Still, Bolsonaro repeats the message that led him to the Planalto, Brazil's White House. From his inaugural speech to the inflammatory messages from church pulpits and carros de som, he continues in a supposed “battle of good against evil” and in the fight against “gender ideology”—which is a fantastical and flexible narrative created by the Catholic Church in the 1990s and appropriated by extreme-right politicians, evangelicals, and ultraconservatives throughout Latin America, the United States, and some European nations in recent years. Motivated by the favorable environment toward reproductive and sexual rights in UN conferences, the creation of this term has become an effective political strategy in causing moral panic, under the central idea that the discussion of questions of gender in schools would be a threat to families and children. Professor and researcher Marco Aurélio Prado explained the appeal of the strategy in an interview with the Agência Pública de Jornalismo in December of 2021, ‘Gender ideology’ has shown itself to be this syntagma—that is, two unconnected words, an empty phrase, so I can put whatever I want in there: communism, homosexuality, pedophilia. Anything from conservative thinking can fit in the syntagma ‘gender ideology’ due to its very vagueness. It is a fantasy world where there is no thought, reflection, context, history, debate.”
Stoking homophobia and a sense of "moral panic"
Beyond stoking homophobia, aligning with gender inequality and structural sexism, “gender ideology” has become a success story for the ultraconservative extreme right as it tries to moralize uncertainties. Gender identity, reproductive rights, and sexual orientation are in fact complex, defining, and therefore susceptible to manipulation when not discussed in a conscientious manner. This uncertainty turns into fear, which becomes a moral panic. The instrumentalization of this moral panic has played a central role in democratic backsliding and the ascension of authoritarian leaders of the extreme right around the world.
It is worth emphasizing, however, that the child “protected” by the ultraconservatives is generally white, Christian or still in the uterus. If a child is raped and impregnated—and the numbers of sexual violence against children are very high in Brazil—that child’s life is worth less than the embryo in her uterus, as shown in emblematic cases during the Bolsonaro administration, with girls persecuted, exposed, or prevented from having an abortion guaranteed by law. Indigenous children receive attention from the government through the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, but it is clouded by an almost fetishistic, or neocolonialist perspective. If Black children are dying of hunger or targeted by police violence, there won’t be any response by the Ministry, as its arbitrary protection also goes hand-in-hand with structural racism.
There is no lack of concrete examples to show how “gender ideology” has become a successful subterfuge in Brazil. Since 2014, there has been a crusade promoted particularly by members of the Congressional Evangelical Caucus to prohibit discussions of gender in schools and persecute teachers. In educational plans throughout the country, the word “gênero” (gender) has been removed from texts, including “gênero alimentício” - In English, “food”. A recent report published by Human Rights Watch showed that Brazilian legislators at federal, state and municipal levels presented more than 200 proposals to prohibit “indoctrination” or “gender ideology” in schools. The movement Escola Sem Partido (“Schools Without Political Parties”) contains a template on its website for suing and prosecuting teachers, and recently, “gender ideology” was included as a possible cause of violence on the Dial 100 hotline of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, listed next to crimes involving sexual orientation. The measure would create a formal process to intimidate and criminalize teachers.
In Latin America, the movement “Con Mis Hijos no te Metas” (Don’t mess with my children) - similar to Escola Sem Partido, although larger and multinational - has been growing, and in other parts of the world, such as Hungary, gender studies are being prohibited in universities.
All of these campaigns constructed to create moral panic have benefited greatly from the rapid circulation of fake news on social media. In the campaign of 2018, for example, to demoralize Fernando Haddad’s presidential campaign, a video posted on Facebook showed a baby bottle with a nipple shaped like a penis. The clip “denounced” the alleged distribution of such items by the PT (Worker's Party) to nurseries in Brazil with the supposed objective of ending homophobia. The video had nearly three million views in just the first 48 hours. The party explained that the story was false, but moral panic, exploited by the extreme right, once again took hold in WhatsApp groups and social media.
Prevalence of fake news among evangelicals
A study by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) titled “Caminhos da desinformação: evangélicos, fake news e WhatsApp no Brasil” (Paths of disinformation: evangelicals, fake news, and WhatsApp in Brazil) showed that the intense use of WhatsApp by religious groups strengthens disinformation networks in the evangelical segment.
The study revealed that 49% of evangelicals in the sample group received fake or deceptive messages in religion-related messaging and social media groups. This means that practically half of the evangelicals interviewed received fake news in their faith community groups. Regarding the use of WhatsApp specifically, the study shows that among evangelicals, 92% participated in religious groups on WhatsApp. In comparison, 71% of Catholics, 57% of Spiritists and 66.7% of followers surveyed from other religions claimed the same. In an interview with Pública, the sociologist and director of the NUTES Institute of Education in Health Sciences at UFRJ, Alexandre Brasil, who coordinated the study, explained: “It is not religion that is the cause of the greater presence of disinformation in evangelical WhatsApp groups, but elements related to the practice of that religion, like the use of social networks.” One of the elements mapped out by researchers is interpersonal trust. For 33.3% of evangelicals interviewed, persons known to the individual are consulted as information sources more than journalistic vehicles and/or internet search mechanisms. And 13.2% said that pastors and fellow congregation members represented the most trustworthy source of news. “It is important to remember that where information circulates, disinformation also does. There is no way to wait that these flows of messages circulate separately, as the intention is that they present the appearance of reliable information. The intensive use of WhatsApp, added to the strong presence of interpersonal trust, are factors that seem to in fact make the evangelicals, on some level, susceptible to disinformation,” explained Alexandre Brasil to the reporter.
Another important point raised by the report is that evangelicals have great representation in electoral decisions, considering that 31% of the Brazilian population claims this faith, according to the Brazilian Electoral Study (ESEB) carried out in 2018.
Among those who responded to the survey, 23.6% of evangelicals said they did not usually check news sources. According to the report, nearly 30% admit to having already shared fake news, with 8.1% doing so “even knowing that it was false, but because they agreed with the viewpoint.”
Bolsonaro inspires ultraconservatives abroad
A report from Jamil Chade for UOL published in July shows that the October election in Brazil mobilizes ultraconservative movements and parties abroad, in a demonstration of the importance of the country in the projects of the extreme right. “For these groups, what is at stake is not the fate of a president. But the international force of a movement that, today, uses Brazil as one of its principal platforms to guarantee that its demands are defended in the international agenda” writes Jamil. And he continues: “The extreme right lost strength in Latin America, was defeated in the USA and, in Europe, is undergoing a redefinition of strategy. Jair Bolsonaro (PL), however, represents the capacity of the movement to maintain its influence in international forums, lobby toward different resolutions and slow the advance of the progressive agenda.”
In a nation that presents some of the highest rates of gender violence, femicide, murder of trans persons, rape and abuse of children, death due to unsafe abortion and social inequality, this becomes even more dire. As written by the researcher Flávia Birolli in the article “The Reaction Against Gender and Democracy” for the journal Nueva Sociedad, these agendas target fragile democracies, contribute to the undermining of the democracy of nations and weaken the institutions established to curb violations of human rights. It remains to be seen how candidates from the opposition will position themselves in relation to these agendas and if they will have the courage to face these questions head-on, once and for all.
This article was originally published in Portuguese on br.boell.org and belongs to the dossier by our Rio de Janeiro office, “Does Democracy Accept Terms and Conditions? 2022 Elections and Politics with Algorithms” - available here (in Portuguese). It was translated by Jeremy Smith.
 "A reação contra o gênero e a democracia", Flávia Birolli, revista Nueva Sociedad