To bring down far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Andre Janones had to fight fire with fire.
The little-known 38-year-old lawmaker was running a longshot presidential campaign until he joined forces in August with President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, adding bite to the leftist’s campaign with his raw, no-holds-barred approach to online politics.
Janones acknowledged in an interview that his use of ad hominem attacks, exaggerations and even physical confrontations with opponents had not been constructive for public discourse. But he said that, in order to win and prevent the president from consolidating his conservative agenda, Brazil’s left needed to steal a page from Bolsonaro’s playbook.
“This debate impoverishes democracy. It’s a scrappy debate, in which you provoke, you use debauchery, you joke around,” said Janones, who denied accusations that he uses fake news. “But we need to save democracy. Look at the scenario we’re living in.”
The son of a domestic worker and a wheelchair-bound father from a small city in the interior of Brazil, Janones paid his way through law school by working as a bus fare collector and only became a federal lawmaker in 2019.
His profile surged in recent months as he helped the 77-year-old Lula retool his communication strategy, pairing up on digital livestreams with the lawmakers’ roughly 14 million followers on social media, including younger and poorer voters.
Janones also raised eyebrows among some in Lula’s Workers Party (PT) for his vulgar attacks on Bolsonaro and his allies. He came in for public scorn after an altercation with a former environment minister in the audience of a televised debate.
‘HERE TO STAY’
It remains unclear how Lula plans to use Janones and his digital shock troops, who helped to eke out a narrow electoral win but could complicate the leftist’s delicate coalition-building in Congress, where right-wing parties gained seats.
Janones said he would accept any job Lula offered him.
In a meeting with the president-elect last week, he said Lula encouraged him “to continue with a strong and mobilized communication strategy during this government”.
One senior Lula aide defended the role of Janones, saying he could tread where the official campaign did not dare. He was the most prominent Lula ally to drop the gloves in a bruising run-off race that took even Bolsonaro’s campaign by surprise.
In recent years, Brazil’s Supreme Court has launched probes into Bolsonaro and his so-called “Cabinet of Hate” for allegedly using public resources to spread misinformation online.
Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to request for comment. He has previously called the Supreme Court probes a case of judicial overreach aimed at censoring right-wing voices.
Octavio Guedes, a journalist and political commentator, said Janones and his efforts to confront Bolsonaro in the digital trenches were “fundamental for the election of Lula”.
“You can take note: Janones is here to stay,” he added. “He’s populist. He’s theatrical. He knows how to make a scene.”
After getting his law degree, Janones advocated for locals in his hometown of Ituiutaba, in Minas Gerais state, who struggled with the public healthcare system. Over the course of a decade, he filmed “sensationalized” videos attacking the system’s failures.
“I would alter my voice, shouting, fighting, but obliging the state to fulfill the courts’ rulings,” he said. “And it started to work. It started saving lives.”
In 2018, when a truckers’ strike ground Brazil to a halt, Janones found a new cause. One video he recorded on their behalf got 60 million views. By the end of the year, he was elected a federal lawmaker.
Bolsonaro, another savvy politician who was quick to adopt the truckers’ cause, was elected president that same year, using social media to tap into anger with graft scandals and economic mismanagement under PT governments.
“They understood much faster than us, back in 2018, that the secret to social media is who defines the debate,” said Janones, referring to Bolsonaro’s aggressive, grassroots communications strategy led by his son Carlos.
He credited Bolsonaro’s team with a more agile online strategy, including an array of official and unofficial right-wing channels putting out the same coordinated message.
But Janones’ professional admiration has not prevented him from aiming below the belt: He has accused Bolsonaro of being a pedophile, and suggested he struck a secret deal with the Masons to win the election.
Old videos of Bolsonaro speaking at Masonic lodges, considered pagan temples by some of Brazil’s evangelical Christians, were recirculated online, while an anecdote he told on a podcast about visiting the home of adolescent Venezuelan girls, in which he seemed to imply they were sex workers, was used to accuse him of pedophilia.
Bolsonaro has denied any association with pagan rituals and branded the insinuations of pedophilia as slanderous lies, while also apologizing for his remarks about the teenage girls.
Despite his hell-raising, Janones has not lost sight of digital media as a public service. During the pandemic, as Bolsonaro rolled out emergency welfare for Brazil’s poor, Janones used live video addresses on social media to guide followers through the bureaucratic steps to access the money.
Brenda da Silva, a 22-year-old nanny from Sao Goncalo, in Rio de Janeiro state, said she began following Janones during the pandemic when she heard from friends, some of whom had lost their jobs, about his videos explaining how to access the aid.
“In the moment that people most needed help, he was there,” she said.