How a dead military officer brought denialism to the digital debate on Yanomami malnutrition
by Info Amazônia
Por Marcelo Soares
Updated 15 de February, 2023 at 4:55 pm
Pro-Bolsonaro profiles on the social networks worked for hours on Twitter to introduce a link with a military conspiratorial angle of indigenous people after Lula’s visit to the Yanomami in Roraima.
A denialist article was the most shared link on Twitter by Bolsonaro supporters after president Lula visited Yanomami land in solidarity to the ethnic group, which is facing a humanitarian crisis. The text was originally published by Roberto Gama e Silva, a military officer who died ten years ago, in a newspaper that is no longer circulating, the Tribuna da Imprensa (read more below).
Lula’s trip to Roraima, the state where the indigenous land is located, happened one day after the publication of a news story on the website “Sumaúma” about the Yanomami health emergency. The tragedy has its roots in the invasion of their land by miners. The residue left by the mining activities polluted the waters where the indigenous population fishes, degraded the soil where they gather food, and scared away animals that could have been hunted. The mining activities also brought infectious diseases, such as malaria, and hunger.
HOW WE MONITOR:
The project Mentira Tem Preço (“The Price of Lies”) has been carried out since 2021 by InfoAmazonia and by the producer FALA, monitoring and investigating socio-environmental disinformation. In the 2022 elections, we performed daily checks of the discourses made during the electoral campaign for all candidates for governor in the Legal Amazon. We also use keywords related to social justice and the environment to monitor disinformation about the Amazon on social networks, in public groups on messaging apps, and on platforms.
The project Mentira Tem Preço initially detected that Bolsonaro supporters were confused regarding the topic on messaging apps. While users shared photos of malnourished, suffering indigenous people, they did not have a narrative ready to respond to the situation. However, after Lula’s visit to Roraima, the denialist text of a long-dead military officer was unearthed on Twitter and shared at least 4 thousand times by profiles seeking to blame Lula, “the left”, “the Venezuelans”, “the indigenous peoples”, and “the NGOs” of creating a factoid to harm the image of the Bolsonaro administration.
The way the shared link appeared on Twitter shows the workings of the pro-Bolsonaro rhetoric on social networks when introducing arguments to the public debate. The peak of spread for the link happened on Sunday (22) afternoon, with another, lower peak on Monday (23). On Tuesday (24), there were journalistic websites analyzing the content of the article.
The timeline below shows the path of dissemination of the denialist article:
Google Trends shows the evolution of searches for the title of the book in the past seven days:
THE HISTORY OF THE DENIALIST ARTICLE BASED ON A BOOK
The link shared was published by Ecoamazônia, a website of the Foundation for the Ecodevelopment of the Amazon that reproduces complete articles published in several outlets, noting that the content is the responsibility of its authors.
However, who is the military officer who wrote the denialist article?
The article reproduced by Ecoamazônia was written by Roberto Gama e Silva (1932-2013), a retired admiral and vice-presidential candidate for Enéas Carneiro in 1994. The text was published originally in 2012 in the website of the newspaper “Tribuna da Imprensa”, whose printed edition stopped circulating in 2008. In his article, Gama e Silva denies the existence of the Yanomami people. According to him, the ethnic group was allegedly created by international NGOs seeking to dismember the Brazilian territory. He claims never to have heard the word “Yanomami” during the military dictatorship period, when he worked in the region.
Gama e Silva’s text was based on the book A Farsa Ianomâmi (“The Yanomami Farse”), published in 1995 by the gaucho Colonel Carlos Alberto Lima Menna Barreto – who came “from an illustrious family”, as observed by Gama e Silva –, in reaction to the demarcation of Yanomami land that took place in 1992. The book is not cataloged in the Brazilian Army Library publishing house, linked to the Ministry of Defense. Gama e Silva’s text even suggests the use of the National Security Law against the public servants who approved the demarcation of Yanomami land for “attempting to submit the national territory, or part of it, to the domain or sovereignty of another country” – another narrative of the Brazilian far right shared that was shared on networks – and for “attempting to dismember part of the national territory to constitute an independent country”.
In addition to the article link, the cover of the book A Farsa Ianomâmi, which contains a drawing of a blonde man hidden behind an indigenous mask, also circulated on Twitter. However, it is very difficult to estimate the number of shares when the file has several versions and receives different names every time it is shared.
FROM BOOK TO GOVERNMENTAL PRACTICE
The historian João Pedro Garcez studied the narrative contained in the book for his Master’s degree at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). He believes the book placed the Yanomami at the center of a military conspiratorial view of indigenous peoples, since it was listed as material for the Brazilian Army Command School. Since the Yanomami hold the largest indigenous territory in the country and live in a border region, the military saw the demarcation as a threat to national sovereignty.
While doing research for his dissertation, Garcez found a post made by Eduardo Bolsonaro on Facebook in 2012 recommending the same article shared on Twitter this week. However, that post was brought down. The historian also found another of the book’s readers: the pro-Bolsonaro “guru” Olavo de Carvalho, who mentioned the text to support his claim that environmentalists are the new guise of the communism defeated in 1989.
“It seems to me that the Bolsonaro administration put into practice what the book presented as a thesis”, said Garcez, highlighting that the military doctrine sees the indigenous people as puppets of foreign interests. In the newspaper “Diário do Nordeste”, the journalist Lira Neto collected everything Bolsonaro has said about the Yanomami over 30 years of his political career, and every mention he saw defended the extinction of the reserve.
“According to this logic, it would make perfect sense, in a military government, to leave them [the Yanomami] without any protection, even supporting illegal mining (and all its consequences) on their lands. Menna Barreto’s book is clear in highlighting how they [the military] see mining as a positive thing, as a civilizing force for those lands and people,” says Garcez.
Curiously, in his text, Menna Barreto attributed the “Yanomamization” of indigenous peoples to the Swiss photographer Cláudia Andujar, based in Brazil since 1955. In the 1970s, she produced photo shoots in the forest, revealing the Yanomami to the world and co-founding the Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park. Her images were the major element of a historic edition of the magazine “Realidade” about the Amazon, in 1971.
At the time, the Yanomami were considered an obstacle to the occupation of the Amazon by the military dictatorship. Davi Kopenawa, who is still active today, was Andujar’s main interlocutor in understanding Yanomami thought. In 2019, Andujar’s images picturing the struggle of the indigenous people were exhibited by the Instituto Moreira Salles.
The historian André Gobi, who researches the public perception of history in the press at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), observed that the article shared by Bolsonaro supporters in reaction to the solidarity given to the Yanomami has all the characteristics of denialist discourse.
“Denialism is always targeted at specific, historically marginalized groups,” he said. “In the case of the Yanomami issue, there is a denial of the crisis, there is a marginalized group (indigenous), there is a creation of conspiracies and enemies (left, foreigners), there is an attempt to provide intellectual endorsement (the book written by the illustrious military officer), and there is a story issue (“if I haven’t seen it, it doesn’t exist”).”
THE DEBATE ON TWITTER AND THE ANALYSIS BY INFOAMAZONIA
For this argument to extrapolate the closed networks formed in messaging applications and reach the public debate, it needs to invade other networks used by the general population, giving the impression that “everyone is talking about this”. The goal is to make the content discoverable by people who had not been exposed to the argument.
In that sense, the more engagement, the better. On Twitter, this happens through likes, replies and retweets. Even negative replies help: every time something is criticized directly, the Twitter algorithm shows the interaction to the user’s followers. Therefore, users looking for more engagement try to piggyback in posts with a high number of shares from accounts with many followers. However, to give the impression that the topic is popular, this “campaign” cannot be driven by only one account.
The way the denialist article spread on Twitter is a good example of how this mechanism works. In order to avoid reports of bot behavior, none of the multiplying accounts tweeted more than eight times, and none of the target accounts received the link more than three times.
InfoAmazonia reached the multiplied links in the pro-Bolsonaro bubble through the analysis of the behavior in the interactions collected in 635 thousand tweets mentioning the word “Yanomami” and its spelling variations in the week between January 17 and January 24.
In the aggregate of networks, the interactions repeated the “Bubblenaro” pattern, with pro-Bolsonaro profiles talking about the topic in a bubble apart from the rest of the debate, using their own sources and interacting with other groups only in confrontational situations.
“Bubblenaro” of accounts that mentioned the word ‘Yanomami’ and its spelling variations between January 20 and 24. Pro-Bolsonaro users discussing the topic with their own sources are represented by the yellow bubble, separated from the other groups. The denialist link was the most shared in the period in this bubble.
The news story captured 3,110 profiles participating in the wave, with 3,757 tweets. Only public profiles were captured. Of those, the ones that multiplied the link the most, besides those mentioned above, were @iveteguedes1 (3,115 followers), @Oilas (533 followers) and @Pudines_PF (482 followers). Each of them posted the link eight times, usually in replies to larger profiles that posted stories about the Yanomami struggle.
The profiles that most frequently received the link in replies were @alfapobre (30.6 thousand followers), the minister @FlavioDino (979.9 thousand followers), the senator @randolfeap (932.7 thousand followers), and the journalist @ miriamleitao (3.1 million).
Analyses made by the project Mentira Tem Preço also detected confusion among pro-Bolsonaro users in messaging apps. After Lula’s visit, they began to share news from pro-Bolsonaro websites denouncing the “farce of the left”, referring to the accusation that the previous administration abandoned the Yanomami, as well as statements by the former minister Damares Alves saying that there was no omission by the government.
The users shared posts made by Funai informing about assistance given to communities.
On YouTube, the project Mentira Tem Preço detected little activity. The main result was a video by the pro-Bolsonaro congressman Gustavo Gayer, from the state of Goiás, who is under investigation by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE). He accused “the PT and the left” of creating narratives of misery to gain power.
The Digital Democracy Room at FGV ECMI is an initiative to monitor and analyze the public debate on the internet. Currently, it has partnerships to help monitor politics on the networks in Brazil and in Latin America. This content was produced by the partner InfoAmazônia.