#ElectionWatch: URSAL, Illuminati, and Brazil’s YouTube Subculture

August 30, 2018

A conspiracy theory that began as a throwaway joke in 2001 was amplified on YouTube and ended up being seriously quoted in a debate between Brazil’s presidential candidates on August 9.

YouTube played an important role in the spread of the ­­United Socialist Republics of Latin America (URSAL) conspiracy theory in Brazil. YouTube algorithms consistently expose viewers who watch URSAL-related content to recommendations for other conspiracy-prone topics, making the theory an entryway into further online disinformation and potential radicalization.

The acronym “URSAL” was coined as a throwaway comment in an article 17 years ago. It was subsequently taken up by far-right supporters who took it seriously and later resurfaced on YouTube, finally being denounced as a genuine Communist conspiracy by a candidate during the first presidential debate in Brazil.

The incident shows the audience impact on YouTube, and the danger its algorithms pose in steering viewers toward content promoting fictitious conspiracy theories.