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The Brazil Riots: How Does Technology Fuel The Spark?

As Brazil’s riots reach the third day, Kathryn Cave speaks to IT student Gabriel Cogo on the ground in Brazil

“Many videos are making jokes [about the riots],” Gabriel Cogo tells me: “one of my favourites is the comparison of the football star Neymar kicking and a college student kicking a tear gas bomb thrown at him by a cop. The footage shows the bomb. The voiceover [in Portuguese] is from a famous football commentator describing a goal by Neymar."

Over the last few years there have been a range of mass displays of protest from the political upheaval of the Arab Spring, to the waves of looting in the 2011 London riots and now mass disaffection in Brazil.  And each new eruption of public unhappiness reveals different cultural preoccupation and approaches to technology, as Cogo translates one of the protesters' slogans: “get out of the TV and come to the internet where the truth is”.

The catalyst for this uprising was a bus fare increase in most state capitals, which as Cogo explains “makes it very expensive for most low/middle class workers and students.” This meant taking two buses per day could equal roughly 25% of many monthly incomes.  And the protest quickly escalated to cover mass public outcry about poverty in the face of the sheer levels of investment in the 2014 World Cup.

“The Brazilia Stadium alone is costing more than 700 million USD. This is because most government constructions tend to be overpriced, with politicians being paid ‘in the dark,’” Cogo tells me, “99% of the protests are peaceful, mostly involving college students. [However] people of all ages and classes are participating. There have been some problems with abusive cops, but mostly because a small number of protesters just want to destroy [things] and create mess.”

“In the beginning, most of the media was against the protest and the politicians didn't take it seriously, but now even President Dilma Rousseff has noticed that the people are unsatisfied and aren’t going to put up with this anymore.”

Yesterday following the first wave of rioting, Rousseff - who began her political career in the 1960s as a Marxist guerrilla - told the media: "Brazil woke up stronger today. The size of yesterday's demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population."

Like most modern protests this rioting has been fuelled by technology. In London 2011, a protest without political motivation, which largely involved surges of young people rampaging through the streets nicking consumer materials from unguarded shops, there was talk of shutting down BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) as that is how the kids were communicating.

This made me wonder if in Brazil, new free IM services like WhatsApp were being widely used. Cogo answers: “[whilst] there has been a great deal of participation on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and websites, I haven't seen WhatsApp having a major role.”

“Many smartphones are being used to share what is going on at the moment. [And there are] many videos showing police behaviour on YouTube,” but citizen journalism aside, involvement here seems to take an almost ‘professional communication’ approach.

“Many Brazilians have been putting their opinions directly on the internet, and they have been largely shared,” Cogo explains, and examples like: “No, I’m not going to the World Cup” are incredibly slick, well put together and professional, utilising a combination of humour, direct personal presentation and nicely curated footage to tell a compelling story. 

The last public protest in Brazil was in 1992, this means “the internet has definitely been instrumental,” Cogo tell me. “Most of the activity is organised through Facebook and Twitter. Blogs and other social media are used to spread information that isn't being made available in the general media.”

“There have also been a lot of protests against the biggest media groups in Brazil,” Cogo continues “especially Globo because of its alleged support of the government for so many years now. Globo is the biggest media group in Brazil, owner of practically every big football tournament in the country, including the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. It is also one of the many interested in profiting from the World Cup. This means there can be a conflict of interest with criticising the government so close to the event.” Yet activists are also using conventional media to maximise their publicity. Globo itself reported “protesters were photoshopping celebrity’s photos to say they were supporting the riot.”

“How do you feel about events?” I ask Cogo, “Personally I'm very proud,” he replies. “For some time there has been a culture in which Brazilians accept public theft without any political consciousness, but after these events many Brazilians are feeling a new sense of patriotism and pride.”

“In my personal opinion, one of the greatest problems in this country is that the vote is obligatory. This means there's a large part of the population without a good education that ‘sells’ its votes for small rewards. One of the biggest pieces of government propagandas is the ‘Bolsa-Família’; in a rough translation this means something like ‘Family Aid’ and gives about [direct income] per each child to poor families. This project alone reaches 16 million Brazilians, so they tend to vote towards this type of way to do politics, unaware of the several problems regarding the public administration. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

These events are a world apart from the London riots two years’ ago, both in the texture of the protest and in the way technology is being used to galvanise action. Yet from the Woolwich attack in the UK last month, where the perpetrators clearly hoped to start a riot but failed, to the recent upheavals in Sweden and Turkey, people are using more and more ways to communicate their grievances and thus encourage a body of like-minded people to join them.

There are two sides to this of course. On the one hand, as Cogo concludes for Brazil’s specific grievances: “It’s important that the rest of the world sees the changes that we're trying to do here.” On the other, the danger, as identified by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their book ‘The New Digital Age’, is in the rise of wide scale “revolutionary tourists,” these are the online activists of the future who will "spend all day crawling the web for online protests to join…just for the thrill of it."

 

Please drop Kathryn a note if you would like to contribute information from the ground in Brazil or other parts of LatAm.

 

 

 

 

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