Protests in the street and direct challenges to authority are playing an interesting role in this era of greater global information access. These movements have brought down governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and beyond, and have scared many others, including most recently Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey.
In Brazil, country-wide protests erupted this month, presumably for a variety of causes (most of which involve the country’s serious social inequality and its corruption epidemic). Borrowing a page from the 2009 Iranian election protests and Arab spring revolts, activists (mostly middle class and under 30) used Twitter and Facebook to organize, mobilize, and inspire Brazilians across the country to demand real change. Specifically, Facebook is used to coordinate protest logistics and Twitter hashtags organize content/messaging and bring activists together. Both social networks also allow for targeted dissemination of powerful images of the protests and their aftermath, an important step in securing the national and international pressure needed to attain the movement’s goals.
The social media presence in Brazil has a lot to do with the country’s recent digitally-driven unrest. The explosion of users online in recent years has made Brazil Facebook’s second-largest market (after the US). The Twitter usage- an important tool for political movements- is similarly high. Such a large, connected network contributed to globally-relevant movements before these iconic protests, as witnessed by viral videos such as Michel Telo’s “Ai se eu te pego” (which made him an international pop star).
These statistics alone produce only part of the “awakening” of pan-Brazilian social consciousness we’ve been seeing. Another often overlooked element is the influence of well established indigenous rights campaigns in Brazil. The country, like many of its Latin American neighbors, is very multicultural and experiences tensions between its many disparate groups, particularly indigenous peoples in the remote (mostly Amazonian) territories that outsiders (opportunists, corporations, etc.) covet for their natural resource wealth. These groups have been able to present a strong, united front, in large part thanks to the Internet, which breaks down the tremendous barriers the remote jungle presents. Given that both indigenous groups and urban Brazilians are both fighting against government and social injustices, the example of indigenous rights groups in using social media for social change provides a framework through which we can better understand both contemporary protests in Brazil and popular uprisings that spring up globally. In this way, we can see that indigenous rights campaigns have had success primarily due to:
- Organization of people and content, which allows for coherence of narrative
- Faster communication and response
- A unified and simplified message that is powerful enough to “go viral”
While there is much to be said about the impact of recent Brazilian protest on domestic and international affairs (especially considering their role as both a BRIC country and a soon-to-be World Cup and Olympic host), I hesitate to delve further until the fallout from recent unrest becomes more apparent.
During the Arab Spring, many portrayed the use of social media as a revolutionary weapon guaranteed to lead to regime change; now such a position is highly debatable. In Brazil, we are already seeing some evidence of the pitfalls of internet-driven social movements. In particular, the leaderless nature of the movement, a condition encouraged by the very nature of social media technologies, is starting to become a liability. While the protests have continued despite government concessions, the movement online is facing some serious divisions. This has manifested itself in a competition over the most viewed Facebook page and Twitter feed. In addition, a group named Anonymous Brazil has emerged, using encryption and Guy Fawkes masks like the broader Anonymous hacktivist organization. Although the connection between this group and the Anonymous organization is unclear, we do know that the larger group was responsible for hacking into World Cup and government websites in support of the protests.
Given this backdrop, Brazil will provide for a fascinating case study in how modern political movements can be most effective, and is thus worth watching closely.