Felipe Neto: how a YouTuber became one of Jair Bolsonaro's loudest critics

Neto’s outspokenness landed him on Time’s most influential people list, but also made him the target of a vicious fake news campaign

Jair Bolsonaro at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on 10 November 2020.
Jair Bolsonaro at Planalto Palace in Brasília this week. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images
Jair Bolsonaro at Planalto Palace in Brasília this week. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images
in Rio de Janeiro

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 14.19 EST

Felipe Neto is an irreverent YouTuber with 40 million followers on his channel where he plays computer games, pokes fun at celebrities and riffs on social media trends.

With another 25 million followers on Instagram and Twitter, he is one of the biggest names on Brazil’s boisterous internet.

And – when he is not goofing around – he is one of the loudest critics of the country’s far-right president.

Jair Bolsonaro has presided over a disastrous Covid-19 response that has left more than 162,000 Brazilians dead; he has celebrated Brazil’s brutal dictatorship and weakened environmental protections while the Amazon burned.

And while many Brazilian celebrities have kept quiet, Neto has only become more outspoken.

Neto called Bolsonaro “the worst Covid president in the world” in a New York Times video, and was recently featured in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 list. (The only other Brazilian included was Bolsonaro.)

“Brazil today is like a house on fire. Some residents support the fire and others simply refuse to grab the fire extinguisher because they think it’s very heavy, it’s too much work, it’s a waste of time, they’ll lose opportunities,” said Neto in a video interview.

Brazilian YouTuber Felipe Neto, 31, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 9 August 2019.
Brazilian YouTuber Felipe Neto, 31, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 9 August 2019. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

He kept up the criticisms in a two-hour conversation, barely pausing for breath as he described the “ignoble, repulsive figure of Jair Bolsonaro, with all his boorish and violent way of being”.

Such outspokenness has come at a cost: earlier this year Neto was targeted in a vicious fake news campaign that falsely associated him with paedophilia.

For weeks, thousands of slanderous videos were uploaded daily to Facebook and Instagram, even as the social media companies rushed to take them down. After he and his family received death threats, Neto strengthened his security team and sent his mother abroad.

Eventually, the deluge of defamation stopped. “They realised it hadn’t worked … that the population hadn’t turned against me,” Neto said.

But that wasn’t the end of his problems. On 5 November, after an intervention by the justice ministry, police in Rio de Janeiro recommended charges against Neto for “corruption of minors”.

Police said this was for “releasing material improper for children and teenagers on his YouTube channel and not limiting the age range of videos with language and content inappropriate for minors”.

Neto said the videos involved were made before YouTube introduced age restrictions, and that he has long flagged those unsuitable for younger viewers.

The Brazilian Press Association described the case as an example of “intimidation and political persecution” and prosecutors in Rio have yet to decide if they will take the case to court.

“It’s just one of the many attempts at persecution and silencing practiced by the extreme right,” said Neto, who believes that he attacks are part of an organized campaign against critics of Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s supreme court has launched two investigations directly linked to a so-called “Hate Cabinet” at presidential HQ that allegedly coordinates attacks on opponents. (Bolsonaro denies that any such group exists.)

“This is articulated, it’s coordinated, and this is tragic,” said Neto.

There is little in Neto’s past to suggest he would become such a high-profile thorn in the side for Brazil’s president.

He grew up in a blue-collar neighbourhood of Rio, the son of a psychologist and a secretary. After school, he studied theatre and worked as a graphic designer, before trying his luck online.

Inspired by US YouTubers, he put on sunglasses, grabbed a camera and started recording awkward, amateurish videos about his life, commenting on the Twilight series, trips to a shopping mall and even a Las Vegas nightclub.

People tuned in. And over 10 years, Felipe, and his half-brother Lucas Neto, who makes videos for children, became some of Brazil’s most famous entertainers.

The experience has made Neto an expert on the internet’s role in politics and daily life. “The algorithm is fed by us human beings,” he said. “The algorithm gives us back what we want.”

Facts, reality, science – all the dry subjects that human beings have based their understanding of the world on – are too dull for many people, he said.

Conspiracy theories, such as Flat Earth or QAnon, bring a deluded sense of belonging to those who follow them and are more entertaining, he said.

“It’s our hunger for conspiracy, our desire to hear and share lies. Because life is very boring when it’s only based on truth,” he said. “Humanity is heading for destruction if the algorithms are not regulated somehow.”

And Bolsonaro’s supporters “get stronger with lies, with radicalisation, and the use of algorithms to brainwash the population. If it wasn’t for this, Bolsonarism wouldn’t exist,” he said.

Neto said he has no plans to enter politics. But he has advice for Brazilian progressives hoping to defeat Bolsonaro in 2022’s elections: understand how Bolsonaro’s folksy style connects with voters, stop Lula’s Workers’ party believing it has to dominate the left and learn how to communicate.

“It’s easy to become a reactionary, to live in this fairytale in which you think you are in a war of good against evil,” he said. “Where are the communications specialists guiding opposition leaders in Brazil?”