A semiotic approach to political extremist vernacular on social media
Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who served as the president of Brazil from 2019 until 2022, is a far-right populist whose platform encompasses polarizing views that “broadsides against women, gay people, Brazilians of color and even democracy” (Nicas and Spigariol 2023). In his campaign, social media was used to share posts affiliated with extreme right-wing propaganda, alternative facts, and fabricated realities (Gonawela et al. 2018). In combination, his supporters have collaborated online by creating communities and echo chambers (Bruns 2013), where propaganda would be shared, and deceitful conspiracy theories co-created.
A turning point for right-wing social media activity was when in 2022 Bolsonaro was not re-elected. Motivated by election fraud conspiracy theories, broadcasted by Bolsonaro for years (Nicas et al. 2023), his supporters called for military intervention. Such demands were often expressed through the hashtags #BrazilWasStolen and #BrazilianSpring, while several on-site political riots took place, with truckers blocking roads and rioters camping in front of military headquarters, in a coordinated effort to pressure the military into overthrowing the new government in favor of Bolsonaro (Nicas and Spigariol 2023). In the sequel to weeks of peaceful protests, the coup plotters were convinced they had to attempt a “popular coup” in anticipation of military intervention (Suzuki 2023). On the 8th of January 2023 an attack on the Congress in Brasilia followed, with several sources indicating to it being coordinated mainly online on social media platforms such as Twitter, Telegram, Instagram, and WhatsApp (Leloup 2023; Gelbart, Gragnani, and Senra 2023; (Malleret, Milmo, and Hern 2023).
Indeed, by the time of the attack, the Brazilian social media environment was overflowing with right-wing propaganda and conspiracy theories. Among the various tactics of using social media for plotting the invasion was the use of the cryptic phrase “Festa da Selma”, which represents a form of so-called dog whistling (Saul 2019) or alt-signaling (McIntosh 2021). The phrase can be read as benign by an unknowing user who assumes it refers to a party of someone called Selma. However, for the in-group, its (occult) meaning was clear; the invasion of the Congress (BBC News 2023). The use of this phrase offers an interesting case to analyze the connective action of users since language is employed intentionally in an ambiguous form.
To analyze the modes of communication used by the plotters, content and semiotic analysis will be employed on social media posts pertaining to the attack planning. The aim is to highlight the characteristics and function of online subcultural vernaculars in the context of political extremism that delegitimizes democracy. While there is a significant amount of literature on the Capitol riots and extremist groups in the U.S have been extensively monitored and analyzed (Tuters 2021; McIntosh 2022), this paper contributes to the literature on right-wing extremists groups in Brazil and on of the role social media in the diffusion of political extremist speech across different cultures.
The dataset consists of multiple sourcing materials. Firstly, pertaining to the phrase “Festa da Selma”, the software 4cat (Peeters and Hagen 2022) was used to scrape 379 Twitter posts from the period before the attacks, from 4/01/2023 until 8/01/2023, since Keulenaar et al. (2023) claims that the attacks were actively planned since the 4th of January. Secondly, the dataset used by Keulenaar et al. (2023) contained the 500 most interacted with posts from Telegram and Twitter, collected in January 2023 and pertain to the dates 31/10/2022 until 10/01/2023. The processing of this data set consisted of isolating all mentions of the word “Selma” and screening further interesting cases of language use, after filtering posts from their category “calls to join January 8th riot”. In the following I present my findings regarding subcultural vernacular, memetic framing, moderation and deplatforming, and ideological embeddedness.
“Festa da Selma” is a memetic phrase that is part of the subcultural vernaculars employed by right-wing political groups in Brazil. One purpose of this and similar phrases, is to create a “calculated ambivalence” (Engel and Wodak 2013), which is “the strategy of addressing multiple and contradictory audiences via a single, cleverly layered message”(ibid). The compound sign “Festa da Selma”, consists of one signifier and two possible significations depending on context. Accordingly, the conventional reading of “party” is that of a celebration, however the symbolic mode is that of an invasion. Originally, the basic sing “Selma” was derived from the word “Selva”, which is a military expression that has been appropriated as a battle cry for the protesters.
The ambivalence contained in this phrase is characteristic of notions of alt-signaling (McIntosh 2021) and dog-whistle (Åkerlund 2022). These notions are not only relevant to understand this vernacular’s function in a broad right-wing populist frame, but also they function as preferred reading (Hall 1973) of the phrase, reliant on a dominant agreement of what the code means; the invasion of the Congress. However, a nuanced reading can be extracted from (Hagen and de Zeeuw 2022) challenging the semiotic ideology contained in the preferred reading that assumes such phrases are stable and not vulnerable to meaning change. Based on structuralist semiotics, the role between sign and signifier is based on conventions, thus the arbitrary symbolic mode of the phrase relies on the contextual convention a group attaches to it. Further, as Hall (1997) explains that interpretation is dependent on the situated context of the receiver, the process of meaning-making is always susceptible to dissonance between the encoding and the decoding. As an example in post 25, the user explains that the code “festa da Selma” means a riot, which as explained, is not the preferred reading of the phrase, due to its deeply rooted militaristic ideologies, with intentions set on a coup. Therefore, by following the logic of Hagen and de Zeeuw (2023), it is conceivable that dissimulation tactics used for the context migrations, have rendered the semiotic meaning vulnerable to change, as users with divergent levels of commitment can use the vernacular with a variety of purposes, inadvertently leading to dissonance in its signification.
Furthermore, the use of these codes functions not only as a covert mode of communication but also as means to avoid detection in deplatforming attempts (Tuters 2021; Rogers 2020), while playfulness conceals serious political intentions as mere jokes, with the use of irony and humor as a form of “dissimulation” technique (de Zeeuw and Tuters 2020). Additionally, as highlighted by Demuru (2021), the Bolsonaro conspiratorial dynamics that are semiotically intertwined with mundane interactions, promoting certain modes of communication that lead to the banalization and neutralization of extreme content inside mainstream environments. As observed on the dataset, there are several instances of creative ways users play the concept of the party to communicate. According to post 10, the main ingredients in the recipe for Selma’s party are 5 corn cobs, organization, and sugar from the brand “union”. The symbolic mode of the word “corn”, refers to million and in this context, the 5 corn cobs would mean five million people (BBC News 2023) that were hoped to attend the “party”. Further, the brand “union” is a real sugar brand that symbolized the unified ideology of the group, while the “sugar” sign is most likely instrumental to stand for the context party and cake baking, as we can see on post 24, there is a photo of the aerial view of the congress area, while the congress building is circled and captioned as the “table for the cake”.
In the case of subcultural communities that are distinctly in opposition to mainstream discourse, users might want to legitimize their membership by flaunting their knowledge of subcultural vernacular as a form of identity performance, for example by using memes. For Tuters (2021) memes serve as a vehicle to diffuse ideology given that the people sharing them need not comprehend, only to repeat and re-share. In a coordinated function, such antagonism becomes what Tuters and Hagen (2020) call “memetic antagonism”. On this connective action level, memes need to be ritualized, relying on easy formatting and repetition, and the ideologies embedded in it do not need to be understood, only replicated (Bennett and Segerberg 2012).
In the dataset several posts are very similar to each other, changing lexical items but still conveying the same discourse. Common elements of the semiotic field are party invitations, mentioning “it’s going to be awesome”, using emojis, mentioning recipes and cakes, expressing urgency, calling for attention, and using an assortment of hashtags. The phrase “Festa da Selma” is employed next to different lexical items, but all from the same semantic field (the party). This memetic framing allows for user personalization with different syntax, while still conveying the same discourse. Supported by the word tree produced from the data set by 4cat, where “festa da selma” is the root query, this phrase is mostly preceded by the following phrases: “everyone is invited to”, “let’s go to”, “arriving at the”, “the address to the”, “tomorrow is the”. Following, the phrase is often proceeded by stamens such as “Festa da Selma will be”…“awesome”, “enormous”, “a success”, “incredible”, etc.
In the memetic framing of new conspiracism, Rosenblum and Muirhead (2019), argue that new conspiracism lacks the account of the theory, evidence, and argument, as it aims at delegitimization of democratic institutions by planting doubt through repeated bare assertions, devoid of explanations, relying on reiteration and signaling of identification, much like social media works by sharing and retweeting. In fact, assertions might not even be necessary, as innuendo, suggestions, and questions are enough to cast doubt, ultimately leading to delegitimization. The use of hashtags such as #BrazilWasStolen, are good examples of memetic phrases that are replicable and contain easily digestible packs of information that do not need to be accompanied by an explanation. At first glance, the frequent repetition of phrases, vernaculars, and encoded messages can be easily dismissed and overlooked as mere playfulness. As we can see in post 8, the user acknowledges the use of codes, explaining they are not too difficult to deduce. However, for boyd (2014), the power of codes that hide in plain sight and that she calls “social steganography”, lies in the fact that they can be easily overlooked, thus circulating uninterruptedly. According to Tuters (2021), the Boogaloo Bois movement employed a lack of cohesiveness strategically to obfuscate the movement’s essence. Additionally, in light of new conspiracism, such vernacular use can also function as “subversive frivolity” (Abidin 2016), where the power of an object arises precisely from it being dismissed as unproductive, coming from a populist discursive frame.
Moderation and Deplatforming
Regarding the use of coded language, Rogers (2020) argues it is common among practice for far-right groups who want to avoid content moderation and deplatforming. Indeed, Keulenaar et al. (2023) argue precisely the same, while legislative power was being executed in Brazil for moderation, users were encouraged to find evasive strategies and self-moderation. Inadvertently, such moderation practices by the STF could also have contributed to the distrust that users had on major social media platforms, feeding into the suspicion of their lack of neutrality. Thus, moderation was associated with political partisanship, censorship, and persecution of people’s rights to express diverging points of view. For Keulenaar et al. (2023), the hyper-partisan political culture online is an expression of deep-rooted militaristic political ideologies, which cannot be dissolved without extensive dialog, thus the attempts to correct, ban, or deplatform were not effective in this case, nor widely applied, as content circulated mostly without interference in inadequate attempts by moderations who lack a proper understanding of the political context specific to Brazil.
In contrast, McIntosh (2022) presents a different view on the use of encrypted language in her analysis of Qanon. While the leader “Q “claims to use encryption for pragmatic security, it also grants them plausible deniability and creates a veil of secrecy that places the “enemies” as so untrustworthy that they could only communicate in hiding. As observed in posts 22, 8 and 19, secrecy is a style of communication that preaches in-group values and outsider antagonism. This sense of risk helps build a community that follows a common mission. Accordingly, in post 19, there is a mention of “infiltrados”, leftist people believed to be infiltrated in the right-wing movement, while post 19 cautions the audience against their “enemies” explicitly calling them “dangerous” and giving instructing to speak using codes and avoid sharing personal information.
On posts 22 and 23, we observe militaristic references as well as the frequent repetition of words implying unity. Strategized by right-wing populism, the political mythology (Oskolkov 2020) in a nationalistic frame asserts the existence of a unified homogenous people and the dichotomy between the defender of that people against the corrupt elites. This secrecy myth ties strongly with a populist ideological frame, a root tenet of Bolsonaro’s campaign combined with militarism (e.g. post 22), which idealized a nostalgic view of the military regime of 1964-1985. As found by Keulenaar et al. (2023), many bots (or hyper-partisan users that behave like bots) were responsible for propagating pro-militaristic content, from which the majority envisioned the late military regime not as an assault on democracy, but as a popular form of countercoup. For McIntosh (2022) highlights that the encoding serves not only for obfuscation but is a result of the secrecy mythology present that builds a community around the connective antagonism.
Additionally, many of Bolsonaro’s followers were accustomed to interpreting his social media posts as enigmas (Rios 2023) and would commonly find interpretations that incentivized anti-democratic actions (Estadão 2022). For Eco (1991) “hermetic semiosis” refers to the enigmatic discourse that relies on secrecy and vagueness of plots they promise to reveal one day, but never do. From the perspective of conspiracy theories, the signs can be read as empty signifiers which can be employed to mean anything in any circumstance, while also susceptible to change depending on the rhetoric it must serve.
Endorsed by Bolsonaro, supporters have been convinced of the election fraud theory. In their online mobilization, supporters developed vernacular uses, such as “Festa da Selma”, a derivation from a military expression and employed in the incitement of a military coup.
Arguably, the purpose of this phrase lies not only in obfuscation to avoid content moderation, but also stems from the conspiratorial dynamics and ideologies it is rooted in, such as the populist communication mode and militarism. However, once extremist vernaculars move across contexts they become vulnerable to meaning change according to the situated interpretation. Dissimulations techniques are employed by the users allowing subcultural vernaculars to become more acceptable in the mainstream, while the memetic framing ensures it can be easily understood and re-shared. Nevertheless, the kernel meaning of vernaculars can be maintained across the contexts migrations stemming from its use in connective antagonism, signaling belonging to a subgroup. Overall, this paper has explored the role of memetic vernaculars prefiguring the right-wing attack on the Brazilian Congress, which are crucial to better understand the multi-layered semiotic practices and sustain such refracted counter-publics.
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