by Felipe Camara, Brazil
For the first time since the protests of 1992 against President Fernando Collor, Brazilians staged street rallies just moments away of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Confederations Cup. A wave of protests engulfed the entire country, which according to the police and newspapers, gathered more than one million people.
People went to the streets and protested about the bus fare hike of 20 cents Brazilian real, (about 5 eurocents). As the police brutality against civilian protesters are broadcasted live, people—no longer glued to their TV screens—started to organise online via Facebook groups following the example from the Arab Spring protests. No specific person or group spearheaded the protests although some political parties tried to use it to campaign for themselves. But the population never recognised any of them—the protests were powered by the people angered by the government’s corrupt practices.
“My American friends didn’t understand why we were protesting against football because Brazilians love football. They couldn’t understand what it was about the 20, 30, or 40 cents (of fare hike). I told them it was a combination of corrupt government actions that included the overpriced construction of stadiums, and fare hike,” said Fausto Vasconcellos, a Brazilian clergyman who lives in the USA since 2006. “The issue was not the fare hike but it united the people to tell the government: ‘Enough’.”
Renato Sérgio de Lima, sociologist and member of the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety told news website R7 on June 2013 that the protests manifest a strong dissatisfaction of how the government runs things.
“The fare hike was just the last drop (in the bucket); we have other pressing problems on basic services that remain unsolved,” explained de Lima.
For Brazilians, the fare hike was a strong symbol for corruption that both rich and poor had to endure everyday—paying high taxes while getting poor services and overpriced construction of stadiums in areas where football is not a main sport.
During the height of the protests, more than 1.25 million people around the country gathered to join the protest, reported the news website G1. This was the same day of the match between Spain and Tahiti on the Confederations Cup.
Social Media as Catalyst
“Many protests at that time seemed spontaneous, and the information reach and speed of social media were key elements to mobilise the population in a short time,” said social media expert Natalia Weber. “It went viral. The act of staging rallies to demand change that was once connected only to political parties and student groups became a movement for everyone.”
People also used social media to share “real information” on what is really happening around the country that is left unreported in mainstream media. Like in most countries, while the Brazilian press enjoys freedom, business owners still control how news is presented.
“In a popular manifestation, you don’t have a convergence in demands, people go to the street with their own demands. But without a doubt the potential of a fast and organised manifestation could only be made through the vehiculation of information not necessarily mediated by formal media. It was a movement to broadcast from inside the group of protesters,” noted political scientist and sociologist Anelise Gondar.
When Brazilian President Dilma Roussef and FIFA President Joseph Blatter said their opening speeches at the Confederations Cup, the stadium was filled with loud boos of disapproval from the crowd.
“It seemed that some change would really happen in Brazil. Even when the government said that only the rich are protesting,”noted Gondar, “you can see that everyone regardless of color or economic class went to the streets to say, ‘Enough’.”
The protests stopped right after Brazil won the Confederations Cup. The victory seemed to make people forget about the reasons for their protests even as the fare hike happened and corruption continued. When the World Cup happened, it seemed as if the protests will take wind again but it did not have the massive force and support as in 2013.
Fast forward to 2015, monthly protests against the current administration are happening on Sundays, a day civilians believed would lessen confrontations with the police.
Some protesters call for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff who stands in the middle of the biggest corruption case in Brazil’s history: a case of 88 Billions Brazilian Real stolen from public oil company Petrobras.
Interestingly, the Brazilian government is also learning to use social media to build a dialogue with the population, especially on Twitter and Facebook, said TV anchor Mario Garritano of BNB News.
During the Labour Day celebration on 1 May 2015, Pres. Rousseff did not air a national address on TV. For the first time, his pre-taped speech was posted over Facebook and Twitter.
This may seem a good way for the government to engage the public but there is another side to this story. The last presidential address aired on TV was received with protests, with videos of people going out of their windows shouting words against the government’s lack of action on its promises. Videos of these home protests are widely shared over social media.
Analysts said that it appears the government is afraid to be seen on public TV because of the mounting scandals.
A distorted reality?
“The World saw what happened in Brazil in 2013 and today, it continues to happen but in a minor scale. Before the protests, Brazil had a distorted positive image to the world that we are a developing nation and a safe country for investment,” noted Garritano.
Winning the right to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 even boosted this “distorted image”of the country, he added.
“That positive image was, in part, an illusion. When the international media covered the protests, the world, especially investors, had a better idea of our country. That didn’t help Brazil’s economic image, but at least, it showed how it really is,” added Garritano.
“The government is still figuring out how to communicate with the population and the press through social media. That is important because the press needs that agility in information delivery,”added Garritano.
But there is still a challenge to address the digital gap as half of the Brazilian population lacks Internet access.
“When the government understands that social media is an important channel to communicate with the population and get immediate feedback, I hope it will work to provide Internet access to more places in the country,” Garritano added.
And even when a repeat of the 2013 massive protests look far, Brazilians are learning from the experience on how to finally demand accountability from their government in this digital age.