Internet Trolls Derail Brazilian Pol’s Run for President

Aug 14, 2014 at 4:00 PM ET

The YouTube clip shows a man chatting with reporters on a sidewalk at dusk. There’s a slight slur in his speech and a faint lurch on his front foot, which could be a sign that he’s tired or simply had a few drinks. But the caption—“Aécio Neves gives an interview while drunk”—leaves little doubt about the intent of the person who posted the video.

Do a quick Google search of Aécio Neves and you’ll learn that he’s a current senator and former governor of Minas Gerais, one of Brazil’s largest and most developed states. The country’s newspapers are full of glowing reports about his ability to balance economic growth with advances in health and education. You’ll also learn that he’s the leading challenger to President Dilma Rouseff in the country’s upcoming presidential election. Yet in Google’s “related searches” category, “Aécio Neves president 2014” is only the third result. The top two—“Aécio Neves cocaine snorter” and “Aécio Neves drunk”—suggest a very different persona: a drug abuser with a dubious past.

So who’s behind the conflicting messages? The Neves campaign says it’s Rousseff’s left-leaning Workers Party, which denies the charges. But with the October election rapidly approaching and polls showing Neves down by just 7 percentage points, the former governor is embroiled a heated battle for his online reputation.

His campaign hired a São Paulo law firm last year to shutter fake Facebook profiles and chase down trolls who have allegedly been churning out rumors about Neves. In the meantime, critics say he’s running an overly aggressive campaign and trying to silence online dissent, something completely anathema to the openness of the Internet.

Americans know all about rumors and negative campaigning (remember the birthers?). But Brazil’s legal system has few boundaries for what candidates and parties can or cannot do online, making the digital battleground for president in this web-savvy nation particularly vicious.

Few expected the campaign to play out this way for Neves, a man who has long been groomed for power. His grandfather, Tancredo Neves, was a revered statesman whose election in 1985 marked Brazil’s return to democracy. (He died of a stomach illness before he could take office.)

The younger Neves was born in Minas Gerais. Yet as a young man, he spent considerable time hanging around the beaches and bars of Rio de Janeiro, which are known for a culture of easy living, sex and surf. Like Barack Obama, Neves admits he’s tried marijuana. But as his political career began to take off, stories about his heavy partying appeared in the gossip columns of the country’s major newspapers. Still, few expected these rumors to affect his political career.

Back then—in the mid 1990s—the center-right Social Democratic Party reigned supreme in Brazil. But in 2002, the Workers Party began a decade-long surge, thanks to the crowd-pleasing talent and poverty-lifting policies of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Suddenly, the Social Democrats were seen as gray-haired technocrats, and the party’s rank-and-file were forced to endure three defeats—two to Lula and one to his mentor, Rousseff—before Neves finally got his shot.

It’s never been clear why he didn’t rise sooner. After all, here was an articulate, urbane candidate with charisma, even when speaking about the most complex economic matters. Neves also has a strong track record as former governor of a huge industrial state. Some experts speculate that his wavering was related to the 53-year-old’s youthful indiscretions and concerns that the persistent rumors about his drug use, which have been kept out of the media in his home state, would finally become public.

Today, as the rumors proliferate online, Neves is having trouble shaking them off. Soccer supporters in Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais, have taunted Argentine opponents with the raucous boast that Neves can hold his cocaine better than Diego Maradona—a chant that was an embarrassing chorus during the recent World Cup.

Three years ago, the former governor landed in hot water when he exercised his right to refuse a Breathalyzer test at a police roadblock—technically an admission of wrongdoing—and was found to be using an expired driver’s license. And the Internet continues to churn out clips of Neves enjoying late-night drinks in Rio.

No explicit video footage has emerged to corroborate the more damaging allegations, such as the tales of drug use or fisticuffs with his girlfriend and now wife, but the rumor mill has gone into overdrive as the election approaches.

A sordid past, or mere rumors of one, might explain why Neves’ is running one of the most aggressive public relations campaigns in this history of Brazilian politics. Plenty of Brazilian politicians have skeletons in their closet, of course, and corruption allegations don’t necessarily hurt their careers, but recreational drug use doesn’t sit well with the highly conservative side of Brazilian society. There’s also the memory of President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached for corruption in 1992 and denounced as a heavy cocaine user by his brother.

Some reporters in Minas Gerais have complained that local and national media, especially the powerful Globo organization, support Neves to the point of censuring those who could hurt him. And students have been ejected from Neves events after trying to air questions about his alleged involvement with drugs.

Frivolous as such episodes may seem, they’re potentially damaging to Neves’ campaign. He could hardly contain his frustration when a question about personal drug use overshadowed an otherwise immaculate performance on the television discussion panel Roda Viva this June.

“Of course I never [used cocaine],” Neves said. “Perhaps that is exactly what they are seeking in this underworld on the Internet, that a qualified journalist like you asks such questions.”

Late last year, the Neves’ campaign hired the services of Opice Blum, considered one of Brazil’s best law firms when it comes to digital matters, and has since started a battle to find and sue those responsible for the Facebook and Twitter profiles, which lawyers call industrial-scale trolling. Neves’ attorneys are using electoral rules and defamation laws to go on the attack.

An initial lawsuit against Facebook and Twitter forced the social media giants to hand over IP data used by the creators of fake profiles that were deriding Neves. Earlier this year, a São Paulo judge went further, ordering 25 other companies with Internet services to do the same, including cellphone companies such as Telefonica and TIM.

These efforts have started to yield some results, starting with the identification of a Workers Party-led city hall administration in Guarulhos, a satellite of São Paulo, as the headquarters of one of these operations.

Juliana Abrusio, a lawyer with Opice Blum, says the legal offensive targets a highly organized form of denigration that generates a flurry of negative posts about Neves, rather than just random online chatter. “We are pursuing only the most blatantly unlawful cases,” she claimed. “We are being very careful about freedom of speech.”

Neves’ campaign continues to attract more old-fashioned financial support than that of his rivals, especially from the business sector. But his political machine is clearly struggling to cope with his Internet trolls.

His PR team, led by his sister Andrea Neves, seems to be stepping up their own trolling efforts, but supportive posts are often unconvincingly repetitive, oddly sourced and almost certainly the result of pro-Neves web robots.

As yet another “drunk Aécio” clip pops up, it seems the Neves campaign may have met its match in the infinite pool that is the Internet.

“Aécio Neves and his sister have exercised censorship in Minas Gerais and they are trying to apply similar pressure nationally as the elections get closer,” says Geraldo Elisio, a veteran journalist based in the state capital of Belo Horizonte. “But they are finding out that you cannot control the social networks.”

This week, however, the Internet gossip factory had a new topic to dig into, as another presidential hopeful, the centrist Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash on Wednesday. Strangely enough, Neves may draw some benefit from the tragedy; it may be one of the only things that can save him from the trolls.

With additional reporting by Gabriella Feigenbaum