Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes recently visited the United States to lecture business leaders about “the future of democracy.” That’s concerning given Moraes’s penchant for resorting to force when dealing with detractors. In the short time he spent on American soil, he nearly got into a fight with a critic at a restaurant, and when a Brazilian journalist protested outside his hotel, Moraes had his passport revoked, leaving him stateless and stranded.
These are nothing compared to the judge’s recent exploits back home, though, where he has taken up the role of chief censor on political speech.
As the New York Times summarized last September:
Moraes has jailed five people without a trial for posts on social media that he said attacked Brazil’s institutions. He has also ordered social networks to remove thousands of posts and videos with little room for appeal. And this year, 10 of the court’s 11 justices sentenced a congressman to nearly nine years in prison for making what they said were threats against them in a livestream.
Moraes heads Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, charged with overseeing the nation’s elections. It gained broad powers to censor election-related speech in 2019—and expanded its own powers earlier this year, declaring Moraes’s unilateral authority to censor online speech during Brazil’s 2022 presidential elections (which he’s continued using post-elections). Explaining the rationale, another justice said, “Brazil lives with the same incitement to hatred that took lives in the U.S. Capitol invasion, and democratic institutions must do everything possible to avoid scenarios like Jan. 6, 2021, which shocked the world.”
That day certainly will live in infamy, underscoring difficult questions about how to secure elections from disinformation campaigns and incitement to violence. These problems aren’t new—“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it,” said Jonathan Swift more than three hundred years ago—but social media amplifies both their spread and speed. In response to such threats as Russia’s election meddling and Myanmar’s social-media-stoked genocide, platforms themselves have gotten better at weeding out trolls. But some countries consider this too little too late, including Germany, France, and now Brazil, which have opted for censorship instead of leaving content moderation in the hands of platform owners. So how is this working out for Brazil, and what can we learn from its experience?
First, Brazil is proving that there’s no such thing as unbiased censorship—something that should inform our assessments of proposed regulations to enforce so-called “politically neutral” social media moderation in the United States. One might think that if there’s anyone who could impartially interpret and apply laws, including ones suppressing certain types of speech, it must be those in the highest of courts. But in Brazil, as in America, justices are nominated by presidents. Seven of eleven on Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court were appointed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff. The architect of the electoral court’s censorship powers began as a lawyer for Lula’s campaigns in 1998, served as Lula’s attorney general, and was appointed to the Supreme Federal Court by Lula in 2009. (He also partnered with Moraes in 2019 to investigate and punish people critical of the court.) And Lula—convicted of accepting bribes in the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history (Netflix even based a series on it)—was freed on a technicality by another judge (appointed by Rousseff) who sits on both Brazil’s supreme and electoral courts.
Little wonder then that these judges are using their powers to silence Lula’s detractors, along with any who question “the honorability” of the court or its members. Perhaps most conspicuously, Moraes ordered Twitter and Instagram to shut down the accounts of Brazil’s most popular congressman, Nikolas Ferreira (who received more votes than any other candidate in the 2022 elections) after Ferreira posted a partial transcript of a podcast questioning the presidential election results. (Lula was declared the winner.)
This points to the second thing we can learn from Brazil’s travails: Censorship backfires. Many Brazilians question the election on the grounds that court-imposed censorship compromised its legitimacy. For instance, although the substance of Lula’s corruption conviction has never been disproved, Moraes effectively outlawed referring to the ex-con as “corrupt.” After radio commentators discussed Lula’s corruption, Moraes forced their network—the largest in the Southern Hemisphere—not only to recant, but to air a message stating that “Lula is innocent.” He even censored then sitting president Jair Bolsonoaro, demanding his campaign stop ads that said, “the biggest lie of this election is to say that Lula is not a thief. Voting for Lula is voting for corrupt people.”
Understandably, Moraes’s court has earned the nickname “Ministry of Truth.” Suffering its stranglehold on public discourse, protestors across the country are calling for military intervention, a death knell for the very “future of democracy” Moraes supposedly can teach us about.
The takeaways are clear. Unbiased censorship is a contradiction in terms: Censorship is one person or group of people vested with government power to impose their views on others. And, whether the stated aim is “fair elections” or “the future of democracy,” censorship succeeds only in imperiling it.
As politicians and bureaucrats concoct means of inserting government into social media moderation and joining ranks with the many nations now employing censorship, Americans must hold fast to the First Amendment. Censorship doesn’t solve problems. Instead, it endangers the very values it is supposedly invoked to protect.