Almost thirty years after the democratic transition, Brazil is experiencing a new form of political debate.
Social networks have become the arena where Brazilians discuss politics, where they protest and express their demands.
For many, Twitter and Facebook are now virtual public spaces where political debate is constant.
Recent protests that have taken millions of Brazilians to the streets had a strong interface with social networks. As Brazilians are massively active in social media – the country is the second-largest base of users for Facebook and for Twitter – protests’ organizers have been using those networks to disseminate information and invite protesters to join their movement.
Such protests encapsulates the deep discontentment amongst Brazilians with politicians malpractice, corruption and poor public services.
“Digital social networks offer favorable conditions for the social organization for a political end. The search for new spaces for discussion and political mobilization demonstrates the importance of digital social networking at events like the Arab Spring and the protests of June 2013 in Brazil,” says Heitor Botan, specialized in digital social networks and communicational crisis management.
In June 2013, when the first wave of massive protests in Brazil in almost 20 years took the streets, collective groups such as Mídia Ninja produced multimedia content and used social media to disseminate those materials.
But in 2014, the year of presidential election, oppositionist groups started using the same strategy to get their message to a large group of Brazilians.
Recent marches in the country against Dilma Rousseff and her party (PT, Worker’s Party), as those seen in March and April 2015, were mainly organized through social media.
The group Vem Pra Rua (Come to the Streets) has set a Facebook page and even used WhatsApp to viralize messages and convocations to the marches.
The Movimento Brasil Livre (Brazil Free Movement), that demands an impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, creates memes and posts daily on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Hashtags such as #ForaPT (Get out PT) and #ForaDilma (Get out Dilma) have been used daily by members of those groups and by anonymous users, who feed a large network of oppositionists to the government and of discontent Brazilians.
Here is a look at the hashtag #ForaPT on Twitter. The bigger the dot, the more influential a user is on the hashtag. The colours represent clusters of communities.
Some visible profiles in this network are profiles such as of the singer @lobaoeletrico, famous for his harsh words against PT; the Christian minister @AlexLimaReal; the user @Ivani64, who says in her profile she wants to see “the hammer and the sickle at the garbage of History”; and the annonymous @Br_DeTodos200Mi, who identifies herself as “a Catholic, fan of Francis Pope” and says she “hates bad politics, including PT”.
The government’s tactics
The government is not watching passively. During the protests in 13th April 2015, the hashtag #AceitaDilmaVez (Accept Dilma once for all) was trending topic in Brazil, fed by supporters of Dilma.
Here is a look at the hashtag. The bigger the dot, the more influential is the user posting. By the colours here it is possible to see that one cluster dominates the posts while smaller ones gravitate around the dense number of tweets in the centre:
Visible in the network are the activist @Mirtes_Costa, who has on her profile and header on Twitter pictures written “I love Dilma” and “I trust Dilma”; @AdrianyCristine, a lawyer with more than 100,3K tweets; @Sorayabborges, with 101K tweets; @Frulanis, who defines herself as a socialist and says she has voted for Dilma; and @CosmeHenriqueRJ, who has part of the Brazilian national anthem written in his bio.
When looking at the volume of posts over the past month under the two hashtags, plus the #FicaDilma (Stay Dilma), it is possible to see that the opposition has manage to create a much larger volume of posts. Here is an analysis using Topsy:
Using social networks for publicity is not new for Dilma Rousseff and her party. During the elections, she contracted a young advertiser, creator of an alter-ego and comic character based on the president. “I am Queen of the Nation, Dive of the People and Sovereign of the Americas” says the fictional character page on Facebook.
The Dilma Bolada profile (Angry Dilma) had more than 1.6 million followers on Facebook and 300,000 followers on Twitter at the time Rousseff contracted its creator, Jeferson Monteiro.
Social mobilization on the cyberspace has led the Rousseff to create the Participa.br, a virtual platform for civil participation through social networks that brings together citizens, organizations from the civil society and public managers.
“The goal is to discuss a political agenda with stakeholders and define the most appropriate themes and methodologies for dialogue with civil society,” said the government about the project.
How good is it for democracy?
The intense interactions on social networks can turn aggressive quite abruptly. Profiles on Twitter such as Morte ao PT (Death to PT – @morre_comunista) express such aggressivity.
For analysts, the battle on social media can do little to improve the political debate if it turn aggressive and if it doesn’t open a proper space for discussion of different ideas.
“I believe social media has made us move from more balanced discussions to a more simplified version of discussions,” says Eduardo Zanelato, who researched innovation in media at City University London.
“On the one hand more people might feel more empowered to engage in political discussions, but on the other hand we still lack places where we can oppose ideas and concepts without turning it into fights.”
Botan believes the political debate has been too polarized sometimes.
“In the Brazilian political context, with its recent democratization, I see the appropriation of digital social networks as a spreading field of views without necessarily building an object with political meaning. I have the feeling that, for many people, more important than to gather around for common goals is to demonstrate ‘what side you take’ in a discussion.
“However, the country’s problems are not solved either side, but by the conjunction of all the variables represented by the political parties.”
Despite such polarization and the deep discontent feeling among Brazilians toward politics, social media can be an opportunity for politicians to engage with its electorate and clean up their image, says Zanelato.
“The threat, though, is to use it just as an old PR tool. Doing so might only reveal how old politicians operating models are. Maybe social media can be seen by them as an inspiration tool to help to establish a better dialogue with society, which in turn will require profound changes in behaviours.”