POLITICIANS START working only when Carnival ends, Brazilians joke. This year explosive tweets from the president, Jair Bolsonaro, delayed the serious business of reforming pensions and cleaning up crime and corruption. On March 5th the president posted a video of one Carnival reveller urinating on another in an act of performance art. “This is what many Carnival street parties have become,” he lamented. Some Brazilians cringed, but the tweet got 87,000 likes.
Then on March 10th Mr Bolsonaro excoriated a journalist from Estado de S. Paulo who is investigating his son, Flávio, a senator from Rio de Janeiro. EstadãoMentiu (“EstadoLied”) became the top trending topic on Twitter in Brazil. The bar association criticised the president. But he has not taken down either tweet.
Mr Bolsonaro relies on social media even more than does Donald Trump, some of whose views of the world he shares. They are due to meet in Washington on March 19th. Unlike the American president he does not hold raucous rallies. In contrast to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a left-wing former Brazilian president who is now serving a prison sentence for corruption, he does not relish physical contact with his supporters. He largely avoids appearances on the main television stations. Instead, Mr Bolsonaro reaches most Brazilians in miniature, via their smartphones.
His success may owe something to Brazilians’ sizzling passion for social media. More Brazilians were on Orkut, a social network owned by Google, than citizens of any other country. As late as 2011 Orkut had 33m Brazilian users. After the network’s demise in 2014, Brazilians became the third-largest nationality on Facebook, after Indians and Americans.
Social media were Mr Bolsonaro’s only outlets when he launched his long-shot presidential campaign from the backbenches of Brazil’s congress. His tiny electoral coalition gave him little entitlement to free television and radio time.
Angered by violence, scandals and a deep recession, voters were ready for Mr Bolsonaro’s chest-thumping messages on crime, corruption and family values. His early supporters distrust mainstream media, says Esther Solano of the Federal University of São Paulo, who has interviewed dozens of them. “They assume that social media is more sincere, because it’s filled with friends and family.”
As president, Mr Bolsonaro still posts often to his 10.7m Facebook followers and the 3.7m people who follow him on Twitter. (Another of his sons, Carlos, a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, is thought to manage the accounts and write many of his epigrams.) On March 7th the president gave a 20-minute talk on Facebook Live, the first of what he said would be a weekly series.
The question is whether he can or will use such events to promote his government’s most important programmes. Unlike Mr Trump, he makes no pretence of being an expert in most policy areas. He has outsourced pension reform, which is vital to stabilising the government’s finances, to Paulo Guedes, the liberal economy minister, and law enforcement to Sérgio Moro, the justice minister.
Mr Bolsonaro uses social media to gratify his supporters more than to enlighten them. An analysis by Estado of his first 515 tweets as president, sent between January 1st and March 5th, found that 95 of them congratulated friends and allies, 51 were ideological, 31 criticised the press, 30 rebutted criticism and just five mentioned pension reform. When he does broach reforms, his supporters push back. “If I’d known he would send Paulo Guedes’s rigid proposal (Trojan Horse) to congress, I never would have voted for him,” one woman wrote on Facebook.
But Mr Bolsonaro will have to risk that sort of backlash. Unlike past presidents, he does not have a big coalition held together by patronage and pork-barrel spending (though the government did recently offer 1bn reais, or $260m, for congressmen’s pet projects). To advance his agenda, he needs to rally ordinary citizens more than his predecessors did. Hamilton Mourão, the vice-president, says Mr Bolsonaro should use social networks “in language that people understand, to convince them that the current [pension] system has been drained and the country will be ungovernable if we continue like this”.
Mr Bolsonaro may be heeding him. In his first Facebook fireside chat he spent 90 seconds talking up “nova previdência” (“new pensions”) before returning to more congenial subjects. He lambasted the government for distributing pamphlets on sexual health to adolescents and promised to phase out speed cameras. Perhaps that is the way to sell pension reform. Brazilians must hope so.