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Brazilians are turning to Instagram to identify far-right rioters

An account dedicated to unmasking insurrectionists has named and tagged dozens of alleged attackers.

January 13, 2023
protesters in Planalto Palace
Eraldo Peres/AP Photo

In the hours after far-right insurrectionists trashed government buildings in Brazil’s capital on Sunday, a new account popped up on Instagram. 

Called Contragolpe Brasil—a clever play on words that means both “Against the coup Brazil” and “Counterblow Brazil”—it quickly started posting photos of alleged riot participants. The idea was to crowdsource information that could identify “people who attack democracy in Brazil,” making it easier for authorities to find and punish those who escaped arrest on the day. 

In just 24 hours, it reached 1.1 million followers. 

“I’m not surprised at all that this account came about so quickly,” says David Nemer, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and faculty associate at Harvard University. “We all knew [the insurrectionists] have been organizing in WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels, because they’re all open. It was all announced on social media. It was expected. There was no secrecy.” 

The groups that mounted the attack are supporters of the right-wing former president Jair Bolsonaro. Despite a lack of evidence that fraud took place, they do not accept the legitimacy of the recent election result, which returned the leftist Luis Inácio Lula da Silva to power. They camped out in front of military barracks across the country in protest before being bused to the capital for the insurrection. 

As they rampaged around the lawns of Brazil’s federal government and inside its congress, supreme court, and presidential palace, the rioters left a vast trail of posts, videos, and photos in their wake. They shared their actions on both public social media platforms and private messaging apps. Dozens of these images have been collected and posted by Contragolpe Brasil. In every photo, people’s faces are visible. Their clothes are almost always yellow and green, the colors of Brazil’s flag, which Bolsonaro supporters say represent their love for their country and their attempt to take it back from the left. 

Eventually, those running Contragolpe Brasil, who remain anonymous (interview requests for this story went unanswered), put out a call for people to start sending private messages with photos and identifying details. They also asked people to send the information to authorities. 

The Instagram account isn’t the only crowdsourced effort underway in Brazil to identify rioters. Agência Lupa, a fact-checking agency, has created a reader-generated database of text, photo, and video posts from the day of the insurrection, with all information sent anonymously and privately.

This method of identifying participants in mass criminal events by scouring social media for clues isn’t new. American citizens did the same to help identify those responsible for the insurrection on January 6, 2021. Some even formed groups, like The Deep State Dogs, to identify those who vandalized the Capitol or who assaulted law enforcement officers and the press. Members of these groups were diverse but had one common goal: accountability.  

In Brazil, a similar dynamic has emerged. 

Not long after Contragolpe Brasil started posting, comments started to roll in. One cited a possible name for a bearded man in dark sunglasses, an Adidas baseball cap, and what looked like the Brazilian national soccer team’s yellow and green jersey. He’s a civil servant in the state of Paraná, the commenter said. Someone responded by asking which entity he worked for so it could be tagged and people could “demand proper measures be taken.” Another responded, saying the man in the photo had already been fired. 

Over the past week, edits have been made to the captions accompanying photos posted to Contragolpe Brasil. Some include people’s full names, the cities and states where they live, and their Instagram handles. One by one, the accounts tagged in the posts have been disappearing. 

But trying to identify criminals online can be risky, especially if citizens get it wrong. Before going dark, one woman insisted in an Instagram Story that she hadn’t participated in the insurrection but had been hacked by someone who had, though it is a claim that is almost impossible to verify.  

At one point this week, when Instagram stopped letting Contragolpe Brasil post (an unexplained problem that has since been resolved—Instagram did not immediately respond to a request to comment), the account turned to sharing Instagram Stories.

One story announced a success: the arrest of Ana Priscila Azevedo (confirmed by the Federal District’s Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration along with another 1,166 arrests made between January 8, the day of the insurrection, and January 11). Azevedo had been identified through the Contragolpe Brasil account. It alleged she was one of the organizers of the insurrection. 

It’s unknown whether the authorities consulted Contragolpe Brasil in their investigation into Azevedo or any other individuals who have been arrested. The Ministry of Justice and Public Security did not respond to requests for comment. But if they did, says Nemer, all it could have done is helped them. 

“Social media posts are just one type of evidence,” he says. “I’m sure that just by having the names of these people, the police could find more.” 

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