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Did Social Media Help #ChangeBrazil?

#ChangeBrazil, #VemPraRua, #OGiganteAcordou. Whoever first thought to use these trending Brazilian protest labels must feel like an unacknowledged celebrity. Over the course of the last few months, demonstrations across a hundred cities in Brazil took the government (and the world) by surprise, shining a spotlight on an abundance of domestic issues that had been glossed over by news of economic growth. Like the Arabs, Europeans, Americans and Turks before them, many of the Brazilian protesters that took to the streets first came together in the virtual world of blogs and social networks.

Brazil’s so-called Revolta do Vinagre, or Vinegar Revolution — so named due to the substance’s use as a remedy for tear gas irritation — began early last June as a reaction against increased public transportation fares in São Paulo and several other cities. After some clashes between the free public transport advocate group Movimento Passe Livre (Free Access Movement) and the police forces, groups took to the streets in opposition, bringing more grievances to the protests and widening the movement’s scope. The now famous protests reached their peak on June 17th, with more than one million protesters joining together to denounce government corruption, lack of transparency, inefficient public services, homophobic legislation and the increasing use of public funds to cover the high price of World Cup preparations.

Explaining how these events developed can be a daunting task for those who didn’t personally live through the them: Sparked by something as obscure as bus fares, the protests have become a symbol of the wide changes that Brazilians seek in their government. Remarkably, several Brown students currently in Brazil became witnesses to the movement’s organization, expanse and aftermath.

The protests were “the best thing that happened lately,” described Marina Do Nascimento ’15 and BPR editor at large, who had much to say about the Revolta do Vinagre. Do Nascimento supported the movement and served in its Student Coalition branch, working to foster an agenda that protesters could rally behind. Do Nascimento points to the diversion of public funds toward World Cup projects as a key source of personal frustration with the present government. “Brazil is taking out billions to fund an event that won’t pay off, that serves the international public and not Brazilians,” Nascimento says. “Our services can barely support us.”

While student discontent was a driving force behind the movement, not all Brazilian Brown students engaged in such direct participation. Rising sophomore Bruno Zuccolo didn’t experience the protests firsthand, but gained exposure to the protesters and their demands largely through friends and social media. “Even though I did not participate in any of the protests, I constantly saw other people being very active about what happens,” reflected Zuccolo. “I was exposed to pictures and articles and firsthand accounts of many people who went out to the streets.”

The use of social networks was a common characteristic of the protest movement — especially as a response to shoddy or partial coverage by mainstream media. As Zuccolo notes:  “Several major newspapers and television channels seemed to not be covering the protests to the fullest extent, and a couple papers put the focus of the protests on the few violent vandals as opposed to the vast majority that chose non-violence.”

Do Nascimento also highlighted the usefulness of social networks in bypassing traditional media bias. “There [was] account after account about the police inciting or initiating violence, even though Rede Globo [a large media conglomerate] insists that the police ‘reacted,'” said Do Nascimento.  “New media, especially social media, was really important. People spread the word about the protests mostly through it, then reported on the events.”

And there were plenty of good things to expose, starting with the boundary-crossing community that joined together during the protests. As citizens of a liberal democratic state with the largest Facebook and YouTube communities outside the U.S, it was only natural that Brazilians took their protest to social networks as well as the streets. As members of a society plagued by sharp racial and class divides, Brazilians’ decision to make their voices heard through the Internet helped bridge these divides in a way that otherwise may not have been possible.  Hundreds of thousands of protesters have proved that a Facebook profile, an internet connection and a little bit of organizing wit can be enough to reach people from very different class backgrounds and initiate a massive demonstration of popular will. Zuccolo, who witnessed firsthand how online news and media transmitted the movement’s egalitarian ethos, mentioned that “one of the things that most surprised [him] about these protests, beyond their size, is the fact that it was a relatively democratically composed group of people in the streets. In general, there were people from all social classes.”

Herein lies the power of these protests. Decentralized, spontaneous and devoid of any hierarchy or traditional political organization, they connected people of different backgrounds and from all across the country, and made them all feel that they were fighting against the same corruption and inequality — not in favor of a party or a political ideology.

According to a Datafolha poll, 71% identified as first-time protesters, with 85% finding out about events through the Internet. According to a poll by IBOE, 72% of Brazilians on the Internet supported the movement, and 94% expressed belief in the legitimacy of the protest movement. While Internet access is reserved primarily to the middle and upper classes, rather than isolate Brazil’s lower class this allowed those more well-off to sympathize and march alongside workers from favelas, Brazil’s infamous poor neighborhoods, in search of the same reforms.

Chelsea Hartigan, currently taking part in Brown’s study-abroad program in Brazil, described one manifestation of this cross-class solidarity. Hartigan recalls the story of a demonstration that occurred close to the favela she currently works in, one of Rio’s most dangerous. In her words: “The police decided to run [the protesters] into the favela I work in and shoot out the community for two whole days, killing 13 people, some of whom were innocent.” These sorts of occurrences, while shocking to outsiders, are nothing new for those acquainted with favela life. “These types of shootouts have been happening for years,” says Hartigan, “but finally, and I think maybe because of the protests that were already going on, it finally resulted in a push back — a very big and very peaceful protest in the favela the next day. Celebrities went and everything, and mainstream media covered it, which is almost unheard of.”

Hartigan, do Nascimento, and Zuccolo each named inequality as one of Brazil’s most salient national problems. This isn’t really shocking news, since poor public services and a deep divide between rich and poor have been typical of Brazil for most of its history. Until recently, a very large segment of the population lived under the poverty line. Yet the new developments in the favela show how the protests reconciled narratives from the cities and slums in order to connect dissimilar communities and create a sense of national unity — an effort greatly aided by online media and social networking. As Hartigan’s experience shows, the national discourse on curbing corruption and improving public services mixed together with the cry of favela dwellers have finally begun to bear fruit. These calls from the favelas have been coming for years, but in the context of a nationwide protest, and with Brazil connected like never before, they are beginning to reach a larger audience.

Do Nascimento believes that the government, headed by left-of-center President Dilma Rousseff, will continue to debate reform. “If we [the protesters] have enough forces at least to educate the public somewhat on the issues being discussed and keep the ongoing pressure on the government, we can make decisions for the better,” she says.

Zuccolo doesn’t think that the situation will change much now that people have left the streets. “Most of the protests have died down already,” Zuccolo says, “and talk about it in major media outlets is reserved to the occasional mention of how the government is thinking about voting on new measures to restructure certain aspects [of domestic policy]. Definitely nothing drastic will happen, and probably most things will remain the same.” Whether or not the government will actually follow through with its promises to the protesters is still up for debate, and any change will only come with substantial time.

But regardless of policy results, the last months’ events have already caused a meaningful change in the Brazilian public’s perception of self. As in most democracies, the greatest obstacle to change in Brazil is not a repressive state mechanism, but general apathy. One popular chant that rang through the nights of protests was “the giant woke up” — implying that such apathy has been broken. Regular Brazilian citizens, particularly young people, have now experienced the capacity to express their frustrations, influence their government’s decisions and be heard by people around the globe. Traditional media and the Brazilian government must now contend with web-focused activist journalism and idealistic Millennials armed with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr accounts, who are no longer willing to allow old-fashioned and inflexible outlets to determine the country’s domestic and international narratives. The protests have proven how effective a social-media led protest movement can be in taking democracy back to its participatory roots. Now it’s up to the Brazilians who took to the streets to make sure the giant does not go back to sleep.

About the Author

Francis, Class of '16, is a BPR columnist and International Relations concentrator from San Juan, Puerto Rico, with an interest in Latin American politics. He also enjoys playing guitar, salsa dancing and keeping up with the Latino indie music and film scene. Perpetually in search of a Puerto Rican-themed food truck.