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Brazil's Middle Class Protestors Take the Struggle Online, With Mixed Results

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, June 19 2013

Photo of demonstration in Sao Paolo, Brazil (flickr/JubaSimoes)

In the week since Brazilians first took to the streets to protest a hike in bus fares, the demonstrations have grown and spread. The grievances have expanded to include an "Occupy" type of laundry list that boils down to a cry of rage from a middle class that feels squeezed by inflation, high taxes and an increasingly unaffordable cost of living.

Protestors in Brazil have made their war cry heard all over social media and as a result, have received quite a bit of attention from the international community with popular hashtags such as #itsnotabout20cents and #ChangeBrazil. But while they have used tools like Facebook to organize and rally, they do not seem to have figured out how to use Twitter as an effective organizing and reporting tool.

The major problem seems to be a plethora of hashtags.

There are almost a dozen different hashtags in use across social media platforms, which leads to inefficiencies in collaborating and reporting real time events on the ground. Global Voices followed the evolving Twitter hashtags:

What started as pimentavsvinagre (pepper vs. vinegar) on June 13 has already been replaced by other phrases such as #AbaixoRedeGloboPovoNaoébobo (Take Down the Globo Media Network The People Are Not Stupid) and #HACKEIAG1 (Hack the G1- a Globo News Website) as a way to criticize the company coverage of recent events. Lately, the hashtag #VEMPRARUAPVH (Come To The Streets), #ProtestoRJ (Protest Rio de Janeiro) and #ProtestoSP (Protest São Paulo) are now the most used.

In addition to those hashtags listed above, Global Voices points out the following are used on Facebook and other social networks: #passelivre and #MOBajuda. ZDNet reported #changebrazil and #mudabrasil are the “official” Twitter hashtags, and that #protestosp is used by activists in São Paulo.

ZDNet also highlights the website What is happening in São Paulo?, a protester-curated news source, as an alternative to traditional media outlets. However, with only 80 Twitter followers and 560 Facebook likes the site is either providing mediocre news or the organizers don't understand social media. Since they don't include a hashtag with every tweet, it could easily be the latter.

The Twitter conversation among protesters is actually divided by a multitude of hashtags, possibly over a dozen.

Compare that to the protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring in January 2011, where protesters used only three hashtags: #jan25, #tahrir, and #egypt. This proved an effective way to provide instant updates on the ground, while allowing foreign observers to follow the story.

One reason for the multiple hashtags and the inefficiencies it causes is that many Brazilians are relatively new to Twitter. Facebook on the other hand, which boasts 61 million Brazilian users, has been used to share information and advice to protesters, and to get the word out about events in their cities. But Facebook is not as effective in following the protests. Twitter is good for instant updates, while Facebook is effective for community building.

Still, Brazilians are primarily tuning in to Facebook for information about the demonstrations.

In advance of the protests on June 17, AnonymousBrasil shared a list that provided information on how to behave during protests (whether from home or on the streets), legal advice in the case of arrests, first aid advice and how to react to tear gas, and a list of protest events in Brazil and worldwide, with links to the appropriate Facebook pages for more information (translation from Global Voices). The list has now been shared more than 36,000 times from the AnonymousBrasil page, and at least 17,000 times from one protester, Alexandre Rosas.

A Facebook page for a 'passeata pacífica,' a peaceful march, taking place in Rio De Janeirotomorrow (June 20) lists more than 200,000 attendees, and more than 2 million others have been invited.

Interestingly, one of the demands listed on the movement's Facebook page is democratic and uncensored media, as well as impartiality of the major networks. Mainstream Brazilian media coverage has been slanted against the protesters, with editors initially labeling them vandals in newspaper headlines. In the video embedded below, broadcast journalist José Luiz Datenta of BandNews asks a loaded question that is designed to elicit viewers' condemnation of the protests in a instant poll. He shows visible dismay when they respond by voting in favor of the protestors.

Mariana Godoy from Globo News is cut off when she starts to speculate on the number of injured protesters, heard here:

“TV Globo. . . is so reviled by protesters that its reporters last night used unmarked microphones,” wrote Julia Michaels, an American journalist based in Rio de Janeiro.

Journalists have been targeted by both sides: by the police, as reported in the video above, and by demonstrators, as reported by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism. The Director wrote (Google translation) in a brief today (June 19): “Acts of violence against the press endanger the right to information of the whole society. The work of reporters in any way or companies is as essential to democracy as the protests now underway.”

Michaels identifies the protest as a crowning point in “a decade or so of social and economic change, with millions leaving poverty and joining the formal economy. Other have also interpreted the protests as a kind of awakening – some protesters have chanted “the people woke up” while marching — of Brazil's new middle class.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.