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Digital citizenship rises in Brazil amid political crisis

Brazilian political crisis is like a terrible soap opera: a lot of drama, weird characters and turning points.

For the last couple of months, a web of intrigues and accusations have led to a process for impeaching and removing the elected president Dilma Rousseff. While this process takes place, Brazil’s vice-president, Michel Temer, has assumed power. In a matter of weeks, this new government took some clumsy actions, like appointing as ministers politicians investigated for corruption, or extinguishing the Ministry of Culture only to then recreate it again. And, like that really bad soap opera, this crisis became amazingly popular on social media platforms. Hashtags proliferated, in Portuguese, but also in English.  #StopCoupInBrazil, #BrazilFightsTheCoup, #ForaTemer, #LutoPelaDemocracia, #naovaitergolpe are among the most popular ones.

But the bizarreness of the current political situation is not the only explanation for the intensity of the discussion on social networks. In fact, it is not even something new in Brazil. In 2013, in another article published on IDG Connect, we discussed how social media had fuelled mass demonstrations before the World Cup and how, according to specialists, it revealed a huge discontentment with Brazil’s mainstream media. This same dissatisfaction is still present.

In a tweet, the American journalist Glenn Greenwald sums it up: “We never planned to get so involved in Brazil coverage: happened because dominant outlets so corrupted & homogenized”. Greenwald lives in Brazil and became widely known after writing a series of reports about US and British surveillance programs based on documents disclosed by Edward Snowden. In his online publication The Intercept, the American journalist made available the first interview with Dilma Rousseff after her suspension.

But long before this political crisis and even long before this intense use of social media platforms to discuss politics, a Brazilian startup understood the general dissatisfaction with the political system as an opportunity for business. Instead of trying to talk to a customer, Webcitizen understood the importance of talking to the citizen in Brazil.

“When we created Webcitizen seven years ago, we faced a big challenge: to explain what we wanted to do,” says Fernando Barreto, one of the founders of the company. “At that time nobody in Brazil talked about digital citizenship, nobody knew what it was. So we created different projects to use as cases, as examples of what we wanted to do. Votenaweb was one of these projects.”


Keep it simple

In a little bit more than a year, the platform Votenaweb has already become a success. The website promotes civic engagement by making available, in a simple and objective language, the bills that should be discussed by Brazilian Congress.

“It is about clarity,” Barreto argues. “I believe we have reached this situation, this political crisis in Brazil, because things were never really clear. Why these actions? Or those actions? Things are too obscure. The system is too obscure. What I believe is that we have to make people ask why. Why did you take this action? Or why extinguish this Ministry?”

For Barreto, the current intense debate on social media platforms is important but it is still too focused on ‘who’ and not on ‘why’.

“It seems we are talking about soccer teams… mine is better than yours. We need to talk about the problem and who is going to be able to deal with the problem.”

According to Barreto, having this better understanding of the bills, the users of Votenaweb can also monitor the actions of politicians and interact with the political landscape by voting symbolically for or against the projects that are being discussed at the Congress. It is also possible to post comments about the bills and rank them according to the user’s own perception as Urgent, Relevant, Brave, Impracticable, Irrelevant or Clueless.

The results of these interactions are translated into graphs. A map of Brazil reveals the symbolic votes according to the different regions of the country. Votenaweb then sends monthly reports to the congressmen: a significant amount of data about the feelings of citizens across such a big and complex country – the world’s fifth largest in terms of population and in terms of scale. Today, the platform has more than 720,000 users and has counted more than 11 million symbolic votes.


Weighing scale

In order to grow its projects, Barreto believes is now essential for Webcitizen to adopt new technologies.

“We need to achieve scale, to reach even more people. If you reach a lot of people, you change the system. It is not about changing the actors, it is about changing the system.”

Votenaweb is investing in the use of artificial intelligence in order to be able to translate more bills and make them available to the public.

“In Votenaweb we have translated to the public more than 6,000 bills and this is a ridiculous amount of work. So today this is one of the barriers we face, what makes it difficult, for example, to go to a municipal level. To scale up I need to read, understand, analyze and translate bills at a local level. So we are trying to get the machine to do this work for us.”

It’s a challenge but Barreto is optimistic.

“The use is, in fact, limitless. Once we got more than 16,000 comments about one specific bill. The machine could also help us also to understand the desire of these people, what this avalanche of data means.”



Also read:

Brazil: How cybercriminals may take advantage of a political crisis

Brazil’s IT sector remains steadfast despite economic decline

Brazil lures youth with IT learning schemes to fill skills gap

Teleradiology company helps solve radiologist shortage in Brazil

Is Brazil tech-ready for the 2016 Olympics?


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