28 Oct

As the elections approach, “Chinese” vaccine becomes the focus of political polarization on the internet

Updated 3 de November, 2020 at 2:15 pm

  • New debate topics evidence the ongoing “nationalization” of the electoral debate this year, including the mandatory immunization policy, the vaccination agreement between São Paulo and China, and xenophobia, becoming campaigns in the country’s major capitals and promoting open disinformation in different platforms, according to a survey by FGV DAPP;
  • On Youtube, there was an explosion of negative videos about vaccines in general, and in particular about the possibility of acquiring the Chinese-made Coronavac for the population of São Paulo. The pro-federal government group has published thousands of videos about the topic since October 1st, with an accumulated volume of more than 15 million views; 
  • The polarized debate about vaccines was also the main topic of political discussion on Twitter in October, with 2 million posts identified about this subject. Opposition profiles and debate groups with no political alignment defend China and are willing to receive the immunization when available, while the pro-federal government group questions the legitimacy of Coronavac and demand rigorous proof of quality;
  • In the profiles of candidates for mayor of five capitals, specifically in Rio and São Paulo, the polarization about vaccines is more present than in cities of the Northeast region, with Joice Hasselmann acting as the main defender of the Chinesevaccination on Facebook and Instagram, in Rio, Crivella used the federal government support group to oppose mandatory vaccination, and Martha Rocha gained strength by using the topic of vaccination as an argument to defend against attacks and fight corruption;

The 2020 elections are municipal and the voting has been postponed to November; however, the agenda on social networks has been organized around a polarization that is not only at the national level, but also with topics regarding which future mayors will not be able to act upon directly. The spotlight at the moment is over the Covid-19 vaccine: a survey by the Department of Public Policy Analysis at FGV with data from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube between October 1st and 27 has identified millions of posts, videos, interactions and political content about immunization, with aggressive opposition between the federal government support and opposition groups regarding public health and international relations – due to the imminent arrival of the Chinese Coronavac at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo.

Similarly, the candidates for mayor of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Recife, Salvador and Fortaleza have embarked on the vaccination topic as a position that is not only related to healthcare of the local population but also serves as a strategy of political demarcation regarding the federal government – whether to support or to oppose. On Twitter, there were 2 million posts identified about the topic in October, with a clear division: the group aligned with the federal government (blue in the map), with national influencers, represents 24% of the profiles and most of the interactions: 56% – which means a strong campaign of engagement in opposition of the “Chinese” vaccine. On the other hand, with a more fragmented discussion and the participation of most of the profiles, one group supports immunization and defends mandatory vaccination (in yellow) and represents 47% of the profiles, but only 32% of the interactions, and is joined by another group of profiles with no explicit political alignment, which represents 20% of the profiles most of them young people and digital influencers. 

Map of interactions of the debate about vaccines on Twitter
October 1st to 27, 2020 2 million posts

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV DAPP

On Twitter, candidates for mayor of the capitals stood out as important mobilizers of the defense of immediate vaccination once it is available and verified by the regulating bodies. In São Paulo, Guilherme Boulos (Psol) has been acting in the same group of profiles connected with the PT, of the Jilmar Tatto ticket, and with profiles that defend the position of governor João Doria – which is the main topic of questions and criticism by the pro-government group. Because of that, profiles who support the re-election of Bruno Covas (PSDB) participate, at the same time, of the debate together with left-wing groups, as well as profiles connected to the MBL and other right-wing groups, such as Novo, which are in the electoral race in São Paulo. 

However, in Rio de Janeiro, the current mayor Marcelo Crivella is positioned (with a low reach) inside the pro-government group who is contenting mandatory vaccination, opposing the coalition of rivals who participate of the general group defending the immunization: Martha Rocha, Benedita da Silva and Eduardo Paes participate of the same pro-vaccine discussion group, but none of the 3 adversaries of Crivella has taken a position as a national-level influencer on this topic so far.

On Youtube, the traditional press lost space to anti-Chinal channels

Since the beginning of Octover, FGV DAPP has identified 5.3 thousand videos in Portuguese about the vaccines with an accumulated number of 23.5 million views. There are many channels of traditional media outlets among the main influencers of the discussion, but they lost reach and repercussion to channels of conservative portals, influencers aligned with the federal government, and the group formed around Olavo de Carvalho. The predominant topics in these groups are attacks against Doria, opposition to the Chinese vaccine with no scientific argumentation, videos using illegitimate arguments to criticize mandatory vaccination as a public policy, and even videos that are complete opposed to vaccines in general and mention isolated cases as a justification

Map of Youtube channels
October 1st to 27, 2020 group with the major channels from 5,283 videos

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV DAPP

The mapping of the major channels who approach the topic on the platform, interconnected by the video recommendations and connections between different accounts, demonstrates a large presence of non-journalistic channels of conservative orientation acting as the main influencers. In the list of the 50 channels with the most views, 25 are from this group (blue in the map), with 15 million views in their videos published in October. Another 13 channels are of traditional media outlets including TV, internet or radio, which unlike the conservative pro-government group were not able to organize a unified group of video recommendations with scientifically verified content about vaccination.

On Facebook and Instagram, the vaccine was a bigger highlight in Rio and SP 

Similarly to what happened on Twitter and Youtube, the other two major public social network platforms in Brazil saw a nationalized agenda about vaccination, which has become a polarizing topic particularly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the context of the municipal elections. Both on Facebook and on Instagram, public pages of candidates clearly state their opinions about accepting the Coronavac and, more broadly, about mandatory vaccination.

Digital capital of the candidates about vaccination on Facebook
October 1st to 27, 2020

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by: FGV DAPP

In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the discussion engaged more candidacies and had a greater digital impact on the platforms: in the capital of Rio de Janeiro, in the context of support from the pro-government base, Crivella made two high impact posts about immunization on Facebook: the announcement of a live broadcast with congresswoman Carla Zambelli (PSL-SP) and his position against mandatory vaccination. On the other hand, in São Paulo, the publication with the greatest impact on the social network was made by Joice Hasselmann (PSL-SP), who, opposing the majority view of her own party, supported the China-made vaccine and repeatedly endorsed in her official page the national immunization policy using the Chinese product – of the 10 Facebook posts with the highest volume of interactions, including candidates from Rio, SP, Fortaleza, Salvador and Recife, Joice accounted for four.

Another strong promoter of non-mandatory vaccination who saw good results was Cezar Leite in Salvador – while seeking to associate himself with the federal government for the elections, he obtained a volume of impact much higher than that of his opponents. In the Northeast region, for the 3 capitals that are part of the monitoring, the candidates’ attention to the topic of vaccination is lower than in Rio and São Paulo – none of the candidates for mayor of Fortaleza mentioned vaccines in publications in the period, and in Recife,only Charbel Maroun (Novo) addressed the subject, with low level of relevance.

In Rio, unlike in São Paulo, where opinions about the origin of the vaccine in the context of the partnership with the state government is the central focus of polarization, the debate was organized around the concept of “individual freedom” – that is, directly attempting to associate with or oppose the federal government. Notably, in addition to Crivella, who capitalized on the support of conservative profiles of national reach, Martha Rocha was highlighted on the networks  compared to her direct opponents for the second round of the elections, such as Eduardo Paes and Benedita da Silva. The candidate positioned herself in favor of mandatory vaccination and generated positive feedback from users by posting comments defending herself from disinformation campaigns about her candidacy on Instagram and Facebook, using the vaccine metaphor as protection against the “virus” of corruption.

Digital capital of the candidates about vaccination on Instagram