Almost unwittingly, Felipe Neto has become a central figure in Brazil's raucous political discourse.
As the country’s biggest digital influencer, he has used the social networks to challenge far-right President Jair Bolsonaro while becoming a target for the hate speech of some of his supporters.
Neto came to wider prominence when he recorded an opinion video for the New York Times in which he called Bolsonaro the world’s worst president, and urged Americans not to vote for his ally, Donald Trump.
At 32, and with nearly 40 million YouTube followers — as well as 12 million on Twitter — Neto is one of two Brazilians on Time Magazine’s list of 2020s most influential people.
The other is Bolsonaro.
He answered questions from AFP by email.
Q: Why do you think you make the government so uncomfortable?
A: I create videos suitable for families. I like to have fun, to make people laugh, to help relieve daily stress. But on Twitter and in my personal life, I am at citizen like any other and I express my opinions. What makes the government so uncomfortable is that millions of people agree with my views on Bolsonarism and this is happening precisely in the digital environment, which they are accustomed to dominating.
Q: Do you still think Bolsonaro is the “worst president in the world,” as you said in the New York Times?
A: He is the worst president in the world in terms of actions related to the pandemic and the environment. Bolsonarism manages to be bad in practically everything. The economy is going from bad to worse. Our international policy is non-existent, we have become a laughing stock in the world. Brazil is sinking.
Q: Have you considered giving up after being attacked by the extreme-right?
A: Giving up would mean having to shut up, and for me that’s not an option. They tried everything to link my name with pedophilia, with communism, with financial extortion. But thanks to our communications strategy and my broad base of supporters, they didn’t manage to destroy my reputation.
On the contrary, they made my image grow even more. And from one day to the next, the coordinated attacks stopped.
Q: Where does your penchant for political satire come from, and what have been the consequences for you?
A: I always talk about politics. The problem is that the political scene in the country has changed and many people have begun to realize the size of the hole we have fallen into.
Financially the cost was very high. At the moment, I don’t have a single long-term sponsor. Companies walked away, those with contracts did not renew them…
And then there is the cost of my freedom, because to deal with the threats I have to have security. I fear for my relatives.
But I don’t regret anything and I can sleep peacefully at night, knowing that I am doing everything I can to fight fascism.
Q: Do you think ultimately you can be better protected by a law against fake news?
A: Legislative change is the only way of getting to organizations that spread hate on the internet.
The solution to Brazil’s digital communications problem lies in two things: mass education projects to teach people how to use the internet safely, and investments in the Federal Police and in investigative techniques.
Q: How does it feel to be on Time’s “100 Most Influential” list?
A: It was a huge surprise….Only 12 Brazilians in history have appeared on it and it is the first time that someone from the entertainment industry has been cited. It was a great honor and serves to give even more importance to the responsiblity of having that influence.
Q: Do you have any plans to enter politics?
A: I have no interest in doing so. The world of politics does not attract me, mainly because I feel that I can do so much more from the outside.