I shivered with shock as I scrolled down a family WhatsApp group this week. What I saw was the kind of thing that people on my side of the ideological spectrum tend to dismiss as stupidity fed by fascist political groups. But words (memes, anonymous texts…), including those we despise, have power. The savage violence against Muslims in India proves we should not neglect the dangers of peer-to-peer (P2P) fear-mongering in Brazil.
So what happened is that someone shared a long text by an anonymous author. This person claimed the coronavirus is a strategic victory of communist China over the capitalist West. In the highly connected, yet unequal and under-educated Brazil that turned Bolsonarism into a nationwide phenomenon, a rhetorically sound lie (something untrue said by someone who knows it is untrue) quickly spreads as a rumour (something untrue people may consider plausible and true). In a historically fearful and violent society, the consequences of widely spread rumours can be deadly.
What I read about India this week serves as a cautionary tale. Recent weeks have seen a surge in cases of violence against Muslims in the country with thousands injured and dozens killed by Hindu men. According to The Guardian, the attacks started after “false rumours of a Muslim uprising spread across rightwing Hindu social media, alleging dozens of mosques in Delhi had announced over loudspeakers that they would throw all Hindus out of Delhi and that the police had arrested 32 imams”. Online interactions did not create the historical religious discrimination, but they did fuel the fire.
So far, in Brazil, xenophobic attacks against anyone who looks Chinese have largely remained verbal, still violent and dangerous considering the virus is only starting to disrupt everyday life. To make matters worse, the communist vs. capitalist argument feeds the anger-loaded public debates between supporters of the conservative-reactionary-nationalistic ideology represented in Bolsonaro and the rest. That’s why I shivered with shock as I read the rumoured lie in my family’s group. What are the risks of people I love being poisoned by misinformation (or poisoning others by sharing lies) to the point of resorting to verbal and physical violence against what has been constructed to them as threats and enemies?
Considering my clear politican stance against what that text shared in the WhatsApp group represented, would people I love attack me and others like me? I don’t think so. I hope not. But at the same time I wonder how many Muslim victims of Hindu wrath in India were attacked by people they considered friends… just the thought of it, even if absurd, makes me shiver again.
RECOMMENDED REFERENCE: If you are interested in following discussions about the relationship between peer-to-peer communication (e.g. WhatsApp) and right-wing radicalization in Brazil, follow the work of Dr. David Nemer, Brazilian Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia.