Kim Kataguiri is known in Brazil for a lot of things. He’s been called a fascist. He’s been called a fake news kingpin. His organization, Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL) — the Free Brazil Movement — is like the Brazilian Breitbart. Or maybe it’s like the American tea party. Maybe it’s both. Is it a news network? Kataguiri says it isn’t. But it’s not a political party, either. He says MBL is just a bunch of young people who love free market economics and memes.
One thing is very clear: His YouTube channel, the memes, the fake news, and MBL’s army of supporters have helped Kataguiri, 22, become the youngest person ever elected to Congress in Brazil. He’s also trying to become Brazil’s equivalent of speaker of the House.
As the world panicked over whether Brazil’s far-right presidential frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, is more of a Trump or a Duterte, MBL pushed forward 16 of its own candidates. Six of them won on the federal level. More at the state and local levels. MBL’s YouTube channel has grown from zero to 1 million subscribers this year. MBL was on the front page of YouTube every day in the month leading up to the election. The plan is to have all of the group’s elected members start their own YouTube channels. Forty percent of MBL’s funding already comes from YouTube ads. MBL-affiliated YouTuber and newly elected state representative Arthur Mamãe Falei personally made $12,000 off his solo channel in October.
As Mamãe Falei simply puts it, “I guarantee YouTubers in Brazil are more influential than politicians.”
Kataguiri’s political awakening is a textbook example of the way algorithms beget more algorithms. During his last year of high school, his teacher started a debate about welfare programs in Brazil. So Kataguiri started googling. He discovered Ron Paul and the Brazilian libertarian YouTuber Daniel Fraga.
“Then I did a video to my teacher and my friends at school to talk about what I had found out,” Kataguiri says. “There was one problem: I posted this video on YouTube. So it was public and it went viral.”
He says people kept asking for more videos, but he didn’t know anything. So he went back to googling, and then made more videos about what he learned. His channel got bigger. He started connecting with other far-right and libertarian YouTubers. Brazil’s libertarian community started connecting on Facebook. Then, in 2013, Ron Paul visited a conference in Brazil, and suddenly the online community became a real-life one.
That’s when MBL started to form. He says the emphasis on economic theory within the libertarian movement was uninspiring. He wanted to start a group that got young people excited. By 2015, his videos were starting to draw a huge audience.
The main MBL Facebook page has about 3 million followers. Since 2014, it’s functioned more or less as the group’s main hub. But Kataguiri says that due to concerns over News Feed algorithm changes and Facebook’s banning of its pages this summer, MBL has begun to diversify. It has about 300,000 Twitter followers and about a half million on Instagram. Kataguiri says he doesn’t know anything about the American far-right Twitter clone Gab, which has recently become big in Brazil. But MBL does have a page there. The real crown jewels of MBL’s digital operation right now are YouTube and WhatsApp.
“First, we get news from somewhere,” he says. “There’s news from Folha de São Paulo, there’s news from Globo, there’s news from anywhere, but we choose the news that the public wants to read. We basically curate.”
Then, he says, they decide how to manipulate that news to fit their message.
“Nowadays, people only read the headline, and they already want to have an opinion before reading the news. Basically, what we offer them is, ‘This is the news, in two phrases — this is what we think about it.’”
And finally, the third step: “Basically something to make people laugh and have an incentive to share it with their friends,” he says.[…]
Brazil has a history of unorthodox candidates running for office: porn stars, footballers, a guy dressed up like Batman. A TV clown has been reelected a few times. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a YouTuber who works at a scrap metal yard and gets beat up at protests could be elected to local office in Brazil. The key difference with do Val is that he got half a million votes. That’s a fourth of his YouTube audience and an absurd number for a state election.