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.