An intriguing case of moral panic marketing grabbed Brazilian headlines this week as beneficiaries of an income subsidy for impoverished families reacted to a rumor that the subsidy would be cancelled.
Press coverage of the case has been as confused as the speculations surrounding it, with situation and opposition trading insinuations.
The Sunday Folha de S. Paulo, for example, questions the official version, according to which the Caixa Economica Federal had reacted to the rumors with an adjustment to its payment calendar with the story of a beneficiary who withdrew her benefits days before these were due to be paid — part of an unannounced system test, the Caixa told the Folha.
In the Estado de S. Paulo, a later admission by President Rousseff that human error may have played a role and an order to supporters to await the end of the investigation before drawing public conclusions.
This represents a change to the evolving theory of the case, as reported by Viomundo, as follows:
BRASÍLIA – After less than a week of investigation, the federal police have uncovered evidence that a telemarketing center in Rio de Janeiro was used to spread the rumor that the Bolsa Family income subsidy, the principal social program of the federal government, would end.
A voice message distributed by the marketer announced the end of the program, according to findings of an investigation open early last week based on an order by the Minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo. The discovery reinforces the theory that the rumor was part of an organized campaign.
The federal police will now try to discover who hired the telemarketing firm and whether, in fact, there exists a group with a political interest in causing panic among Bolsa Familia recipients. Starting next week, the police have also decided to interview the first 200 persons to withdraw money from the fund at the same moment the rumors began to circulate. The police want to known how each beneficiary was informed about the supposed cancellation of the program.
— The use of a telemarketing firm is a proven fact — according to a source close to the investigations.
False rumors that the program would end began to circulate last Saturday and caused a run on the Caixa Econômica Federal, which pays out the benefit [using a debit card]. The first withdrawals were made in Maranhão, Pará and Ceará at around 11 a.m. last Saturday, 30 minutes after the receipt of one of the calls from the telemarketing center. The following day, Caixa ATMs recorded 900,000 withdrawals worth R$ 152 million.
President Dilma Rousseff called the rumor-mongering a criminal act. Cardozo said the most likely explanation is that of an orchestrated campaign. Minister of the National Secretariate of Human Rights Maria do Rosário insinuated in a Twitter post that the opposition was the source of the rumors. Opposition leaders fought back, raising suspicions that sectors of the government wound up benefiting politicallyfrom the confusion.
Investigators have made an effort to avoid the political dispute, but are not ruling out a political motive. The Bolsa Família has been the topic of debate in the principal elections of recent years. Based on a closer investigation of the use of telemarketing and the witness testimony of beneficiaries, the police believe they can solve the case.
Folha de S. Paulo: Caixa Alters Payout Calendar
One day after the rumor that caused long lines and public disorder in 13 Brazilian states, the Caixa Econômica Federal altered the calendar for payments of the Bolsa Família without advance warning.
All the benefits, totaling R$ 2 billion, were paid in one lump sum to the program’s 13.8 million beneficiaries,
Housewife made withdrawal on Friday before the run on the ATMs, contradicting official statements that the state-owned bank has made since the beginning of the crisis.
The payout of all benefits took place last Friday, May 17. The following day, based on rumors about the end of the program and a supposed extra payment for Mothers Day, among others, thousands flocked to their bank branches to withdraw their benefits.
The ensuing public disorder — which included attacks on ATM machines — led members of the PT to accuse the opposition of being behind the rumors.
According to the official rules, the payment of a Bolsa Familia is staggered over time, based on the final digit of the registration number. In May, for example, beneficiaries with registrations ending in “1” received the payment starting on May 17, and so on, with “0” paid on May 31.
The Folha was informed of this change in the calendar, denied by the Caixa last week, by a housewife in the Fortaleza metro area.
Diana dos Santos, 34, of the Caucaia township, provided journalists with a withdrawal slip dated Friday, which means that her payment day was brought forward 12 days.
“I have been getting Bolsa Família for years and they never pay in advance. I though it was strange, but I was happy about it and withdrew my money. I think that others may have received their money ahead of time, they went around telling their friends about it and it caused all this confusion you see,” she said.
Confronted by the Folha, Caixa changed its official version It said that in an action seeking “improvements in the registration of social information,”, the bank “decided to permit withdrawals by beneficiaries regardless of the calendar date” on Friday, May 17.
Caixa said it has paid the benefit early on other occasions, such as natural catastrophes, and said it did not inform beneficiaries about this anticipated payment.
Flagship of the PT administration, the Bolsa Família has an annual budget of R$ 23.95 billion. Each family receives R$ 151.09 [per month] on average.
On Sunday , the Ministry of Social Development, responsible for the Bolsa Família, issued a statement denying the discontinuation of the program and stating that the calendar of payments continued in force.
The following day, president Dilma Rousseff called those behind the rumors “criminal” and “inhuman.” Two days later, ex-president Lula associated the rumors with “evil-minded persons”.
On orders from the government, the federal police have begun investigating the case. Among the cases under investigation are those of persons who said they received a recorded telephone message about the end of the program.
Estado de S. Paulo: Wait and See on Human Error
President Rousseff today — May 25, 2013 — in a press conference with jornalists in Addis Ababa — said that investigations into the rumors that the Bolsa Family social subsidiary would be cancelled remain underway.
Dilma said that to date, no conclusive information had been found and that no one is in a position to say what happened. “We have to await the results of the investigation. This is a lamentable incident because of its dimension and the quantity of persons involved. Bolsa Família is one of Brazil’s most successful programs,” the president commented.
Dilma emphasized that the program is one of the best managed in Brazil, but that may may have been failures. “We use the most advanced information technology possible in the Bolsa Família program. But we are human beings. There may have been errors. The federal police and the security office of the Caixa will examine all possible motives and list all the parties that may be involved,” she said, adding that “what we are doing is ruling out internal failures” in the program.
According to Dilma, the government will not issue an opinion until a complete investigation has been completed. Asked about the possibility of involvement of persons with ties to the opposition in the rumors, the president said she would “never make a statement to this effect” and prohibited other internal opinions to this effect. “No one in the government is authorized to issue an opinion on this episode,” she concluded …
Smear campaign or technical glitch: both are among my favorite journalistic genres. Stay tuned.
Filed under: Brazil