By Mehdi Farooq 27-05-2020

Speech Can Kill: Bolsonaro And The Social Distancing Experiment

(3 min read)
Resize text:

When President Trump suggests that injecting disinfectant could cure COVID-19 both health experts and the disinfectant manufacturers quickly came out and refuted the claim. Nevertheless, there was a massive spike in Google searches (Figure 1), a rise in calls to poison control centres, and several people even who consumed it. This highlights how recommendations from political leaders can have a substantial impact on their followers. We delved into the latest study by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Sao Paolo School of Economics, who decrypt how politicians can prompt their followers into dangerous behaviour using Brazil as a case in point.

The Setup

Why Brazil?

First, President Bolsonaro was dismissive of the virus and, in fact, encouraged people to not engage in social distancing. His controversial remarks were that it was ‘just a little dose of flu’, a ‘media trick’, and that Italy (one of the worst hit) was different. It provides an excellent opportunity to explore the impact of a leader’s actions and public speeches on the citizen behaviour. In particular two dates were important, the 15 March demonstration and the 24 March official presidential pronouncement. They prove to be outlier events where he boldly and comically dismissed the virus.


£39/month thereafter