Our thesis is that a small group identified with a far-right political position and with deep knowledge about the social media terrain may be able to produce a favorable polarized environment which affords inducing “thinking humans” to act as “reactive robots.” Real bots are also employed in order to amplify trends, but with a relatively limited reach (González-Bailó and De Domenico 2021). This strategy converges with the temporality of permanent crisis implicit in contemporary platform architectures, where users are continuously interpellated by “events” that demand one’s attention and intervention (Chun 2016).
In the 2018 Brazilian elections, for instance, it was common for users in the pro-Bolsonaro ecosystem to be given small tasks on a regular basis. During the campaign, this usually involved prompts to de-like anti-Bolsonaro celebrities, attack political enemies and journalists, or inspect for fraud by taking pictures of electronic ballots during the vote. Discursive patterns looped both ways: from leader to followers, while also being crowdsourced from the latter. In the aftermath of a knife attack the candidate suffered one month from the first round, this pattern intensified, as users took on the campaign on Bolsonaro’s behalf (Cesarino 2019). Spontaneous and orchestrated, organic and automated agency became blurred in the burgeoning ecosystem of self-proclaimed Jair’s Army, Jair’s shield, Jair’s marketing agents or Bolsonaro’s robots. The cyber-guerrilleros also act like post-Fordist “entrepreneurs of the self” (Dardot and Laval 2014), like political versions of the (infamous) Amazon mechanical turk.
It is also interesting to note how the cyber guerrilla resonates with the post-Fordist approach of control in warfare (King 2006). The typical management in Fordist periods was command-and-control, which is centralized with a clear hierarchy of power. This is still how military institutions are organized. In contrast, post-Fordist organizations (also identified with neoliberalism or postmodernism) are based on platform structures that offer individuals the autonomy to subject themselves to their rules (Chun 2016). As in traditional guerrillas, there is a hierarchy that is usually decentralized, based on cells and self-identification with their moral rules (Van Haaster et al. 2016). This leads to a situation where individuals in higher positions can command without responsibility while lower-ranked soldiers act with relative autonomy but, as a drawback, take full responsibility for their own actions. Similarly, in platform environments, individual users experience full sovereignty and freedom over their small digital fiefdoms, while largely ignoring the opaque influence of algorithmic systems (Chun 2016). Bolsonaro’s communication strategy during the pandemic makes evident such de-responsibilization effects, since a significant share of the population does not seem able to trace causality, and therefore accountability, back on to him (Cesarino 2021). Guerrilla warfare in social media then resembles a platform business model: anyone can be a guerrillero with full autonomy to act, subject only to the group’s moral rules, just like anyone with a car can be an Uber driver as far as he/she accepts to submit to platform rules (Srnicek 2017).
Like in techno-psychological military attacks in observe–orient–decide–act (OODA) cycles (Boyd 1987) or techniques of reflexive control (Jaitner and Kantola 2016), the actions and energy from the enemy camp were also put to work on Bolsonaro’s behalf by taking advantage of affordances that were already available in the platforms. Twitter hashtags for instance afford the kind of recursive, escalating opposition that anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson (1958) called schismogenesis. The Bolsonarist camp actively evinced schismogenic response from their enemies (“the left”) by introducing hashtags mimicking their form but inverting content, such as #EleNão (NotHim) versus #EleSim (YesHim) or #ElasNão (NotThem—in this case, feminists). Reverse mimesis of the enemy was an otherwise common move, implicit in the design of pro-Bolsonaro binary memes, slogans and logos (Cesarino, in print). Similar patterns are also found in the supporters of Donald Trump in the USA (Merrin 2019).
A relevant parallel here is the ideological struggle in scientific organizations of Stalin’s USSR after World War II (Gerovitch 2004). Scientists were autonomous but lived in a state of permanent crisis subjected to strict behavioral rules, informally defined by the Party’s command line via influential publications. Deviants were canceled from the mainstream. The strategy was to force the scientists to select one side (e.g., either one is pro-Lyssenko, or against him), and thus, subordinate to the “rules of the game” in order to remain active in Soviet science. The scientists’ self-organization was governed by a strict Party hierarchy mostly through informal norms. The political line was rarely indicated explicitly by Party leaders themselves, but rather textually signaled in Soviet scientific or philosophical publications.
In both cases, of social media and the USSR., there is a decentralized but hierarchical decision-making system. During the 2018 campaign in Brazil, the pro-Bolsonaro ecosystem on WhatsApp was constructed around large public groups with a poli-centric, hierarchical “hydra-like” structure (Santos et al. 2019). At the lowest levels of the hierarchy, there is relative autonomy for creating memes, canceling persons at will or creating new quarrels. However, such autonomy is limited by signals originating from a higher-level group (e.g., influencers or core leaders themselves, such as Jair Bolsonaro and his sons). Most often, followers already know how to respond to offline events. But whenever there are unexpected, high profile events, it is possible to note a time lag between the timing of the event itself and the response at network peripheries. This was the case for instance when Justice Minister Sergio Moro quit the Bolsonaro government early on during the pandemic, or when corruption charges against former President Lula were canceled one year later. It is as if most users will wait for the “narrative” to arrive before they can go on reproducing it. The bottom line is that there are only two possible options in order to be active and visible in social media: to be either pro or con.
In this context, the cyber guerrilla led by a far-right avant-garde may employ well-known military informational operations such as smokescreening, false flagging and firehosing (Leirner 2020). The idea is to increase the uncertainty (or information entropy) of individuals with respect to existing formal structures of power, always questioning their foundations and therefore helping corrode societal trust in the scientific, political and legal systems. Much like the “merchants of doubt” (Oreskes and Conway 2011) of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, the aim is to sustain environmental entropy, or equiprobability, at high levels. Such environments do not favor deliberation but rather simple decision heuristics like “follow the influencer,” or algorithmic instructions like “if my enemy is for it, then I am against it.” By managing such terrain, the far-right avant-garde decreases the uncertainty of actions taken by the users, generating a systemic state favorable for cyber-operations. In other words, the far right is capable of guiding the social media terrain where the two polarizing groups form highly predictable swarms in an environment characterized by operational uncertainty.