Today’s guest post is from Victor Rodrigues, a researcher at the FGV School of Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:
How openly should prosecutors investigating corruption or other high-level wrongdoing be about their activities and their views on the larger public policy questions that their investigations implicate? As has been discussed on this blog before, there is a longstanding debate on this issue, and considerable variation across countries. The United States represents one approach, in which federal prosecutors are exceedingly discreet and tight-lipped. Consider the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, leading the high-profile investigation into possible wrongdoing by the Trump campaign, barely speaks in public.
Brazil seems to be going in a different direction. Not only does the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office have verified accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but many of the individual prosecutors are also active on social media. Perhaps the most prominent example in Brazil is Deltan Dallagnol, the federal prosecutor coordinating the Car Wash Investigation (Lava Jato). Mr. Dallagnol has used his verified account to tweet over seven thousand times, and many of his posts mention Lava Jato cases.
While we can’t know for sure what impact these tweets have had, it’s unlikely that an account with almost half a million followers would have no impact at all. I imagine that for many readers, for example, those from the United States or countries with similar traditions regarding prosecutorial (non-)communication with the public, Mr. Dallagnol’s Twitter presence might be disconcerting, perhaps troubling. But in the context of a country like Brazil, these tweets, and prosecutorial openness more generally, are likely to have a positive impact not only on specific corruption cases but also on the development of legal and democratic institutions. In particular, this widespread use of social media by Lava Jato prosecutors can have three beneficial effects:
- First, these tweets can serve educational purposes. Unlike the United States, Brazilian democracy is relatively young. Indeed, barely more than a generation has passed since Brazilians were living under a military dictatorship. As a result, most citizens may not know how government institutions work, and what their limits are—a problem exacerbated by the fact that most Brazilian schools do not teach about the current law, political institutions, or basic civics. When Mr. Dallagnol tweets about a decision in one of his cases, he usually explains what is at stake, who has the decision power, and when and how that decisionmaker is supposed to reach a decision. In doing so, he provides his followers, many of whom never really understood how the judicial system worked, with an opportunity to connect with what is happening inside the government.
- Second, prosecutors’ use of social media to connect with the mass public can help protect the prosecutors’ autonomy. When prosecutors or others fight systemic corruption, it is to be expected that many forces will try to hinder their work. In many countries around the world, we have seen that strong public support for the anticorruption investigators and prosecutors can be crucial to protecting them against interference. The fact that Mr. Dallagnol has half a million followers, and can use his social media presence to raise awareness when, for example, the National Congress tries to undermine anticorruption efforts. His social media presence helps protect his autonomy.
- Third, prosecutorial tweeting can help raise awareness of the need to address institutional deficiencies in the judiciary that impede the timely resolution of corruption cases. Sometimes the Brazilian judiciary takes more than a decade to decide a case, and every time this happens, there’s a risk that the statute of limitations on the crime could expire. Tweeting the state of those cases to many Brazilian citizens could be a cost-efficient way of keeping the population aware of what is happening, and citizen attention can in turn help keep the judiciary in check. There’s some evidence that some of the recent Lava Jato cases have indeed moved much faster than is typical: For example, the Court of Appeals resolved former President Lula’s case in 154 days, and the same court resolved only two other public corruption cases in under 150 days. While we can’t necessarily attribute this unusual speed directly to Mr. Dallagnol’s tweets, the more general point is that calling public attention to the slow pace of justice may have salutary effects.
Of course, prosecutorial presence on social media has risks. Excessive openness about strategy or evidence could jeopardize the whole investigation. And if prosecutors seem overly political, this could undermine their credibility and legitimacy. Indeed, some in Brazil are already complaining that the Car Wash investigation is becoming too politicized. Yet on the whole, at least in a country like Brazil, there are distinct and considerable benefits when prosecutors responsible for investigating high-level corruption take advantage of social media to provide information and to participate in more general public discussions about how to move forward with the fight against corruption.