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Fraud is not usual, but conspiracy theories are

Coauthors Luciana Fernandes Veiga and Vitória Peres

Recently, Latin America has been following the presidential elections in Argentina. The victorious far-right candidate, Javier Milei, claims that there was electoral fraud in the first round. This discourse is not surprising, as it has become increasingly recurrent in many contemporary democracies. After all, questioning the fairness of the process is legitimate, but what has been observed is the use of this discourse as a political strategy to delegitimize the electoral result. The profile of these leaders, whom we call populists here, has a disruptive proposal with the traditional political elites, giving up political institutions as mediators of conflicts, especially by adhering to the “us against them” discourse. In the populist leadership discourse, there is the intention of joining the people, being a personality capable of confronting a corrupt political system. In this sense, any institutional mechanisms that seek to curb possible abuses of power by these leaders are understood as resistance from a political system contaminated by the interests of the elite that is feeling threatened.

This strategy has been observed by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Keiko Fujimori in Peru, Carlos Messa in Bolivia, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, López Obrador in Mexico, and, in the case of Spain, Alberto Feijóo, leader of the center-right Popular Party, with the support of the far-right Vox Party. What is achieved is to demobilize voters who are not very engaged, on the one hand, and to maintain a permanent climate of campaigning among the supporters of these leaders, on the other. Often, this culminates in cases of voters not accepting the result of the polls.

Last year, the July 2021 live broadcast by President Jair Bolsonaro was taken down by YouTube. In it, the then-president questioned the Brazilian electoral system because of the electronic ballot boxes, claiming to have proof that they are susceptible to electoral fraud and that they had already been rigged in the election that elected him years before. According to Bolsonaro, he should have been elected with a much larger margin of votes over second place. YouTube removed this live from the platform as it found conspiracy theories in its content. But what are conspiracy theories? Sociologist Ted Goerzel defines conspiracy theories as suspicions that influential actors have come together in a secret agreement and are trying to achieve a hidden, illegal, or nefarious goal.

And how does this thinking come about? Disinformation and conspiracy theory experts Lewandowsky and Cook present seven signs of conspiratorial thinking: contradiction, occurs when the conspiracy theorist believes in ideas that contradict each other as long as they disqualify the official narrative; absolute suspicion, when extreme distrust is shown in everything that does not fit the conspiracy theory; nefarious intent, in this case, he always assumes that the conspirators act with spurious intentions; something must be wrong, happens in situations where the theorist even abandons ideas that become untenable, but never the notion that something is wrong and that the official narrative is fraudulent; persecuted victim, here he perceives himself as a victim and hero simultaneously in the face of villainous conspirators; immune to evidence, occurs when he takes evidence that contradicts a theory as part of the conspiracy; finally, the reinterpretation of randomness occurs when, through absolute suspicion, the theorist believes that nothing happens by chance.

In the case of former president Bolsonaro’s suspended live, content analysis was carried out to identify the presence or absence of the categories of conspiratorial thinking in each of the 156 units of analysis identified in the speeches. It was found that he used these categories when questioning the credibility of the ballot boxes: absolute suspicion (56%), nefarious intent (42%), something must be wrong (37%), persecuted victim (25%), reinterpretation of randomness (21%), immune to evidence (12%) and contradiction (10%).

To illustrate, we take an excerpt from the former president’s speech with the two most frequent strategies: absolute suspicion and nefarious intent, insofar as he questions the intentions of Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso.

“Why, Mr. Barroso, are we offering yet another form of transparency in elections, and you are against it? What are you getting at?”

Who is affected by these strategies?  The effect of conspiracy theories is related to social and psychological aspects. Realities marked by ideological extremism increase uncertainty and insecurity, leading to anxiety in the search for meaning. Conspiracy theories work with the complexity involved in processing the reality experienced by individual belief systems. Thus, people who are more sensitive to evidence, with healthy skepticism, and who seek coherence tend to be less influenced by the strategies than those who are immune to evidence, who always carry absolute suspicion and accept contradictions.

A qualitative study with eight focus groups with voters in the city of Rio de Janeiro, on the subject of the legitimacy of the elections, reveals how people process conspiracy theories about the electronic ballot boxes and, based on how they make sense of them, reproduce or refute them. Content analysis strongly suggested that the two most recurrent strategies used by voters were absolute suspicion and something must be wrong.

The following is the use of absolute suspicion, in which there is an extreme level of distrust of reality, where everything seems to fit into a conspiracy theory.

“I believe there must be some fraud. When you fill up your car, as the hose is black, you think: ‘Did the fuel start coming out at the right time?’ It is the same with the ballot box, ‘is the vote really being counted? Is it going to the right person?’ It is very dark.”

Just as the conspiracy theory was reproduced, it was also refuted. The following passage illustrates how the voter shows more attachment to evidence, coherence, and a critical view.

“The way fraud is being presented is very trivialized, it is as if it were easy. You have to know that there are thousands of ballot boxes. I do not think it is that easy, that trivial to cheat. There is monitoring, there are bodies. There is also research. I have not seen any absurd results where we say ‘it was rigged’. I trust it.

Belief in conspiracy theories affects and is affected by democracy.  Brazil has a very low rate of interpersonal trust and a low rate of trust in political institutions. Discourses with a conspiracy appeal find fertile ground.

In Brazil’s case, the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) faced the challenge of conducting the elections while defending their legitimacy. Even in the midst of attacks, the DataFolha poll conducted in May 2022 reported that 73% of Brazilians trust the electronic ballot boxes. In Argentina, 84% of the population had little or no confidence in the electoral institution, according to Latinobarómetro in 2020. As in Brazil, in 2018, the discourse that weakens democratic institutions won out with the election of Javier Milei as the new Argentine president. We can only hope that Argentina’s institutions are resilient enough to remain strong despite attacks, regardless of where they come from.

The study was carried out by the team from UNIRIO’s Electoral Research Group (GIEL), based on the transcript of the former president’s live broadcast.

Luciana Fernandes Veiga. Professor at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). Ph.D. in Political Science from IUPERJ (now IESP / UERJ), with postdoctoral studies at the University of California-Irvine.

Vitória Peres. A political scientist with a degree from UNIRIO, she works in political communication, political strategy, and advisory services. She is also a researcher at GIEL.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Portuguese



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