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Elon Musk Is Now Meddling in Brazil’s Democracy, Too

X’s chief troll is inciting a “censorship” moral panic in Brazil, undermining the democratically elected government’s efforts to squash far-right extremism.

A supporter dressed as former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
A supporter dressed as former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at rally in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sunday

Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil who is barred from seeking public office until 2030, held a grievance-laden rally Sunday in Rio de Janeiro. Against the alluring backdrop of Copacabana Beach, and before thousands of supporters clad in the national colors of yellow and green, he decried his opponents while celebrating one man in particular: 

Now they accuse the richest man in the world, a man who was born in South Africa, who was naturalized as an American, who owns a platform whose aim is to make the whole world free, which is X, our old Twitter. A man who really seeks to preserve liberty for all of us, a man who had the courage to show, with some evidence, more will surely follow, where our democracy is headed, how much freedom we’ve already lost. I now respectfully ask for a round of applause for Elon Musk. 

Almost overnight, Musk, the graceless tech overlord and self-proclaimed free speech absolutist (who is anything but), has become a heroic figure among the reactionary right of Latin America’s largest nation. One rally-goer told The Guardian that Musk “is supporting Brazil against this shameless bloody dictatorship that we have in this country,” and another insisted that “Elon Musk has been an essential guy for us. God has used this man to expose the dictatorship that has taken hold in Brazil to the whole word. He is a crucial tool.” A bolsonarista member of Congress told the crowd that “Elon Musk is definitely watching what is happening here right now.”

There’s no doubt about that, as Musk’s X timeline shows—but he’s doing much more than simply watching. After years of overtures from the Brazilian right, Musk earlier this month finally plunged headlong into the country’s raging politics in a way that may sound familiar to Americans: Portraying himself as politically agnostic, and interested only in defending free speech, he is in fact taking the side of authoritarian, antidemocratic forces whose claims about government-sponsored censorship are a disingenuous rhetorical cover for attacking the rule of law.

This latest saga began on January 8, 2023, one week after the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, when Bolsonaro supporters stormed several government buildings in Brasília, the capital. The Brazilian state, particularly the courts, responded forcefully to this antidemocratic challenge stoked by the former president. Facing the rampant ongoing dissemination of misinformation and calls for further assaults on the country’s democratic institutions, Brazilian authorities—most prominently Supreme Court justice Alexandre de Moraes—have aggressively sought to limit the reach of, or in some cases deactivate entirely, certain social media accounts. The most virulent conspiracy theorists, figures like Allan dos Santos and Monark, have been barred from several platforms by court order. Moraes also happens to be overseeing multiple investigations involving Bolsonaro that could land the former president in jail. As a result, Moraes has become enemy number one for Bolsonaro, his supporters, and now, Musk and his acolytes. 

There has been legitimate debate about the tactics Moraes has employed, as The New York Times reported more than once. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that the Bolsonaro offensive of recent years has made it harder for good-faith critiques of the Supreme Court to emerge and be aired out. But that is not what the current Bolsonaro-Musk onslaught is about. What they are trying to do is convince a global audience that Brazil is under a censorious regime silencing free speech rights, and they’re doing it to undermine the Lula administration. 

While Bolsonaro’s motives are obvious, Musk’s are perhaps less so. Bolsonaro has always been a reactionary agitator uncommitted to civility and constructive democratic engagement. He might even believe that if he can sufficiently muddy the waters of Brazilian democracy, he can push the courts to overturn his ban on seeking elected office. Musk’s right-wing turn, while in the making for a long time, has only become extremely pronounced in the past few years. His tweets are riddled with pejorative references to “woke” culture that resonate with a right-wing base trained to abhor political correctness, and he has dabbled in antisemitic conspiracy theories and re-platformed some of the most vile, hateful people in America. 

He insists this is his prerogative in Brazil too, where some 40 million people—or about 18 percent of the population in Brazil—access X at least once a month. Earlier this month, in response to a court order demanding that X block an undisclosed number of accounts or face heavy daily fines, Musk made clear that he would not only ignore the ruling, which he called “aggressive censorship,” but lift restrictions on previously suspended Brazilian accounts. He also urged Brazilians to resist Moraes, whom he referred to as a “dictator” holding Lula “on a leash,” and suggested both were part of some corrupt bargain of political self-protection. The spat temporarily called into question whether Starlink, Musk’s satellite internet company, would continue to operate in Brazil, where it has facilitated illegal mining and logging operations. During a speech at the site of the future Museum of Democracy in Rio de Janeiro on April 19, Moraes subtly jabbed Musk by noting that the country’s justice system is used  “to fighting foreign mercantilists who treat Brazil as a colony, as well as extremist and antidemocratic politicians who prefer to subjugate themselves to international interests.” By that point, X in Brazil had quietly reversed itself, signaling it would abide by all judicial orders even as Musk escalated his online attacks against Moraes. 

Musk most likely identifies with the trollish, macho authoritarianism that is the stock-in-trade of bolsonarismo and doesn’t like the idea of the Brazilian government restricting his company in any way.  There is nothing high-minded about his position. “Mr. Musk is not a moral reference for defending freedom of expression,” Paulo Abrão, the executive director of the Washington Brazil Office, told me, adding that “X executes numerous content removal orders around the world and Musk himself does not criticize dictatorial governments when his economic interests take precedence. His positions on Brazil are biased and are being used as a smokescreen for his business interests in the country.” The basic problem for X is that the limits placed on its operations in Brazil are in accordance with local law, not the jurisprudence Musk carries around in his head.

The Brazilian approach to free speech is not the same as America’s; there is no First Amendment equivalent in Brazil. “The right to freedom of expression in the United States is a right that is held above other rights—it is broader,” Estela Aranha, a special adviser to the Minister of Justice and Public Security in Brazil and a member of the UN’s High-Level Advisory Body on Artificial Intelligence, has observed. She further notes that: 

In Brazil, as in Europe, freedom of expression is an essential right that is equal to other essential rights. If you try to use one right to infringe upon another right, you will face limitations. All rights are weighed side by side, and there is proportionality in the scope of how much you can interfere. For example, advocating for Nazism is illegal in Brazil because it is considered to be such a harmful discourse that it must be preemptively prohibited—that doesn’t exist in the United States.

Musk is hardly alone stateside in attacking Moraes, as members of the Republican Party have rushed to his—and thus Bolsonaro’s—cause. On April 17, the GOP-led House Judiciary Committee released a 541-page staff report containing dozens of decisions by Moraes ordering X to suspend or remove some 150 profiles, a supposedly grave violation that is nevertheless firmly rooted in Brazilian precedent. Musk is reportedly set to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the situation in Brazil on May 8. 

It is worth teasing out what each element of this antidemocratic Muskian axis hopes to gain from this effort. For Bolsonaro and his supporters, crying “censorship” deliberately and disingenuously evokes images of their country’s dictatorial past, casting them as the victims rather than the saboteurs of Brazilian democracy that they actually are. Their ultimate aim seems to be to leverage international opprobrium of Brazilian institutions to weaken the Lula administration and restore Bolsonaro’s standing. 

Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, the former president’s son, indicated as much during an April 8 appearance on Roda Viva, Brazil’s highly regarded television interview show. The younger Bolsonaro—who, like his father, is accused of a litany of crimes—noted that, just as the Biden administration has sought to curb authoritarian Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro through sanctions, Donald Trump might do the same to Brazil should he win the presidency in November: “This situation with Elon Musk placed the spotlight of the world on us Brazilians here, what is happening is not normal.… We have to defend our democracy and with Elon Musk being as close to Trump as he is, and if Trump is reelected president of the United States, I think there is a real possibility of sanctions.”

Republicans likely see a fresh avenue to link their support of Trump and right-wing populism to a broader international community. Trump and his supporters were very much attuned to the energy behind Brexit and solicitous of like-minded leaders in Hungary, Russia, and beyond. Furthermore, as Fabio de Sá e Silva, a professor of international studies at the University of Oklahoma, posited, “the American right is interested in discrediting the Brazilian [Supreme Court] because, in addition to having already left Bolsonaro ineligible, we can also provide an example for how to punish a coup, something that Trump fears suffering in the USA.”

At times like this, with the stakes so high, it is worth being categorical: Brazil is a robust pluralistic democracy. To assert otherwise plays directly into the hands of those wishing to subvert the democratically elected government of the fourth-largest democracy in the world. Despite what Bolsonaro, Musk, and their adherents might have the world believe, nobody in Brazil is being rounded up for sharing their opinion. Nobody is being tortured or exiled for their ideas. 

But Brazil is only part of a larger unfolding horror story. In the months to come, we’re certain to hear more cries from Musk and like-minded tech moguls about the supposed endangerment of free speech in the U.S., Brazil, and other democracies around the world. “We are noticing a dramatic increase in global censorship, unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Chris Pavlovski, the CEO of Rumble, the video platform popular with the far right, recently complained on X. “It’s the worst I’ve seen it. First France, then Brazil and now it feels like everyone is following France and Brazil’s lead. State Department need to intervene asap.” Expect this censorship moral panic to grow as the U.S. election nears, funded and organized by forces counting on a Trump win to facilitate exactly what Pavlovski alluded to: intervention.