Internet and Democracy: The Protests of June in Brazil

by Digital Rights LAC on September 19, 2023

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In the protests of June, online information was a key factor to the change of position of the traditional media, the great public and the political system. As already indicated, the tipping point that made the masses take the streets was the complaints, through social networks, regarding gratuitous police violence against protesters.

By Eduardo Magrani and Mariana Valente *

The so called protests of June in Brazil had an incubation phase that dates back to August 2012. That was when  the mayor of Natal city, at the northeast of Brazil, announced a raise of R$ 0,20 at the bus fare, and against such raise, approximately 2 thousand people went to the streets, resulting in its revocation. This episode was marked by media attention and police repression, launching the basis of the protests to happen in the first semester of 2013, which became very intense in June, headed then by the Free Fare Movement (“Movimento Passe Livre” or MPL, in Portuguese).[1]

The MPL organized a series of marches in different Brazilian regions, starting in the city of São Paulo, motivated by an increase, made on June 2, in the urban transport fare (metro, bus and urban trains), from R$ 3,00 to R$ 3,20. The three first protests happened on June 6, 7 and 11, and were repressed with police violence, resulting in wounded people at both sides – protesters and policemen. The traditional media did not hesitate to adopt a clear anti-protests view: the words “vandals”, “rioters” and “vandalism” were constantly repeated. A big newspaper from São Paulo published, at this moment, an editorial calling for more police repression.

The great shift in the public opinion began on June 13, when the riot police of the Military Police of São Paulo violently repressed part of the already thousands of protesters and journalists, at times in answer to acts of aggression, at other times without previous aggression. It was on the Internet that information started to pop up on the Internet: it was enough to be online to become aware  of police brutality, therefore bringing to light the distance between the traditional media version of the facts and that of the protesters, who were then organizing themselves around independent media groups on the Internet. [2]

It was on the following days that the protests gained massive adhesion all over the country[3] and the demands were widely diversified. From this moment on, the traditional media would report the protests with an enthusiastic encouraging speech, repeating emphatically the word “peaceful”.

The newspapers and opinion makers would try to explain what the protesters wanted. One thing was sure: the protests were not anymore limited to the raise of transport fares. Various monitors of online activity emerged, each of them offering their graphical analysis. The CausaBrasil platform monitored the activity on social networks on that  period (from June 16 on),[4] indicating the prominence, at the month of June, of the following demands: (i) fare price, with declining importance through the month, (ii) Dilma Rousseff’s government, a growing agenda through the month, (iii) political reform, (iv) PEC 37,[5] highlighted on June 26, (v) democracy, a demand that remained stable through the monitored period.[6] On top of those demands, it can be pointed, as structural factors of the period, a feeling of distrust in the traditional representative system and on political parties organizations, as well as a desire for new ways of political participation and the broadening of the democratic sphere, combined with a dissatisfaction with the insufficiency and partiality of traditional media coverage.

By the end of June, the pace of the protests decreased. President Dilma Rouseff made a statement on national television on June 21, trying to make a stand against the demands that still appeared to be incomprehensible. The messages were: to press the Congress to approve a proposal from the Executive, which had already been rejected, aiming to direct resources from Pre-Salt Layer oilprospection for education, and the establishment of an exclusive constituent power for political reform. The following days were taken by the discussion by constitutional experts about the adequacy of such a reform, which ended up not taking place[7]. On the other hand, the appeal for the destination of the oil royalties was partially agreed upon by the Brazilian Congress [8]. But the main achievements brought by the protests concerned the initial demands, present in the social agenda since the movement was still headed by the MPL: urban mobility and transport. In more than 100 cities throughout the country, bus fares were reduced. [9]

Brazil then entered the list of countries that, since 2011, have been the stage of broad protests, organized through the internet, as well as discussed and publicized on online platforms. However, seeking similarities between the Brazilian protests and those around the world is fruitless: Brazil is going through a very unique moment, from economic, social, institutional and political standpoints. But something that definitively connects all these protests is the role of new technologies in the articulation of social movements, protests and manifestations, andespecially the effective potential of those technologies in regards to the ends of social transformation and political impact.

Internet and information: social networks and alternative media

No one would question that the Internet was the main tool for spreading information about the protests. A research made on June 20 in Rio de Janeiro revealed that 91% of the respondents got information about the street marches through social networks[10]. Facebook, particularly, served both to organize and publicize the protests. It was common that a single event page for each city would be created, a page that would be updated for every new protest. Alternative pages regarding the same protest would also appear, each with its own internal discussion. As such, more than a platform for mobilization, Facebook was, during that period, a space for broad debate, with potential for confrontation and development of discourses.

In the protests of June, online information was a key factor to the shift of position of the traditional media, the mass public and the political system. As already indicated, the tipping point that made the masses take the streets was the denouncing, in the social networks, of police brutality against protesters.

To organize the flux of photos and videos uploaded on the networks, some personal profiles and mainly alternative media groups stood out. The most prominent of those groups was Mídia NINJA. A free acronym to Narrativas Independetes, Jornalismo e Ação (Free Narratives, Journalism and Action, in Portuguese), the group was created in 2011 by people already involved with networked initiatives (from a collective called Fora do Eixo). Gathering together texts, photos and videos of collaborators that participated in the protests, connecting with each other mainly through their cell phones, and diffusing the material via Twitter and Facebook, Mídia NINJA drew attention of Internet users and had their contents reproduced by traditional media. During the protests, NINJA’s live streaming was watched as if it were a TV show, and showed people’s perspectives in real time, crudely and without any edition, as an alternativeto those of journalists that recorded the events from helicopters, far from the heat of the moment. [11] [12]

Mídia NINJA adopted an activist profile, connected to social demands, focusing on police brutality, and such was the reception and adhesion to the model (today there are more than 200 thousand followers on its Facebook page) and even its critics (the group’s leaders were hardly questioned in an important national political television show, the Roda Viva) that one can only agree with the existence of a latent demand for alternative information in Brazil, in a less hierarchical and more decentralized format. The two-way street between informant and informer was also seen in the relations between traditional and alternative media, since the messages of the former were decoded, mainly in a critical manner, by the alternative media, which also gave subsides to traditional media information. [13]

Potential and blockades

The Internet capacity to serve as a box of resonance of citizens’ demands and opinions could be seen on all its potential during the social manifestations of June. Maybe like never before, the protests imposed themselves as an almost unique subject, what is impressive for a decentralized space, and the political specters of the discussion varied between extremes. However, it was also clear that, as debates previous to those events pointed out, this space’s potential as a way to amplify the public sphere bumps into clear limits in the architecture of private spaces of network interaction and the almost endless possibility of monitoring that the Internet presents.

In the first case, we are referring to the so called filter bubble [14], a state of ideological and cultural isolation generated by algorithms that select the information to which the Internet user has access. As private spaces of interaction – such as Facebook – offer a personalized experience to the user, showing him information arising from users that were recently added to his network or from users with whom he maintains a closer relationship, bubbles of insufficient porousness to diversity of opinions would be formed, compromising a potential improvement of our democracy. It is also necessary to pay close attention to the control of contents and users on these web sites, which is undertaken via terms of use applied unilaterally and without the possibility of recourses.[15] Users’ complaints on the disappearance of posts and on the blocking of pages and users because of allegedly abnormal utilization or term violation had been numerous.[16]

By the other hand, the protests of June happened almost simultaneously to the Edward Snowden’s scandal, which brought to the public sphere something that was being discussed in specialized circles: the huge amount of personal data that we produce and make available on the Internet and how this data has been treated as public. The state control of contents and online organization can obviously intimidate and restrict the flourish of movements from civil society. During the protests, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency – ABIN, in Portuguese – had supposedly admitted monitoring social networks in search of public information, including WhatsApp (communication app whose information cannot be considered public).[17] Moreover, the recent arrest of three managers of the Black Blocs’ Facebook page – an anarchist group that acted on the frontline of the protests, frequently through violence – on February 4 under the accusations of conspiracy and incitement to crime, apparently based only on the fact that they manage the Facebook page, was the clearest evidence that monitoring practices are a reality in Brazil.

Taking the debate about the blockades into account is essential to social movements and theorists interested in the widening of the Internet’s emancipatory potentials and the development of demands that reach the political system. Only to begin with, we claim for the immediate approval of the Marco Civil and the Data Protection Law!

* Eduardo Magrani and Marina Valente are professors and researchers in the Center of Technology and Society (CTS) of FGV-Direito Rio.

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[1] Founded in 2005 at the Fórum Social Mundial de Porto Alegre, the MPL was structured to claim zero taxes on transportation for students. Organizing marches against increases in the values of transport taxes in cities from different regions in Brazil and growing throughout the country, in a structured way, but independent of parties or other entities, the movement’s claims were increasingly focusing on the “zero taxes” cause by appropriating the theme of mobility as a social right and primary need of life in large cities. “The MPL has no finality in itself, it should be a way to build another society. On the same hand, a struggle for students’ free pass has no end in itself. It is an initial tool for the debate on the transformation of the recent understanding of public urban transportation, rejecting the market’s understanding and engaging in a fight for a public, unpaid and fine transport system, as a right of society; for a public transportation out of the private initiative, under public control (workers and users)”. (Letter of the MPL’s Principles).

[2] The “Revolt of Vinegar” spread on the Internet – becoming martyrs of June’s protests, protesters were being arrested for possessing vinegar, which works to minimize the effects of tear gases. Memes were created, defense and “how to behave in the marches” manuals spread across the network. Facebook was the primary tool for reporting, discussing and organizing the marches.

[3] Conservative estimates determined that, only on June 17, 300,000 people across the country were participating. The numbers have been contested by many people on social networks. On day 20, even after several achievements in the transportation sector, the media said 1.4 million people were on the streets.

[4] CausaBrasil’s methodology consists in monitoring Seekr, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Google+ through pre-registered hashtags, related to the protests, and listed on public file which is open to public suggestions.

[5] The proposed Amendment to the Brazilian Constitutional n. 37 (PEC 37, in Portuguese) planned to limit the power of criminal investigation to civil and federal police, with the main effect of removing such prosecutorial power from the Public Ministry (Ministério Público, in Portuguese). In an informative way or not, PEC 37 was used as a flag to anticorruption demands from the idea that the Ministério Público has a key role in investigations against public officials.

[6] Other relevant guidelines were the actions of the police in the early days of the marches of June, and the World Cup, in the final days.

[7] The exclusive constituent power was replaced by the idea of a plebiscite, which was eventually replaced by the creation of a working group, in the House of Representatives, which will submit a proposal until October for possible vote concomitant with the 2014 elections (The marches of June resurrected the theme of political reform).

[8]  Congress approved a bill (subsequently published on September 9) which states that 75% of the royalties owed to government arising from the oil exploration of the Pre-Salt Layer, 25% to health, and, in the same proportion, the equivalent to 50% of the Social Fund created by previous law.

[9] See Ermínia Maricato’s article in the September 4, 2023 edition of the Carta Maior magazine, evaluating the various victories of protesters, mainly from the urban mobility’s point of view.

[10] Research conducted by Clave de Fá Pesquisas e Projetos, Aham! Interativa e Plus Marketing, in June 20, 2013.

[11] Clearly there were also journalists from major communication vehicles in the crowd, and there were several incidents involving assaults and arrests against these journalists, especially on June 13.

[12] The tool: the “mobile units”, consisting of a laptop in a backpack (and possibly others to serve as a battery), connected to 3G or Wi-Fi from someone in the neighborhood, which binds to the cell phone. To charge the equipment, the team often counts on the goodwill of merchants and neighbors. (In the middle of the turbulence, from Estadão.com.br on July 6, and the War Memes, from Piauí Magazine, July 2013).

[13] A small controversy was established as one of the leading newspapers of Brazil stated that a survey indicated that 80% of shared links with reference to the protests originated from traditional vehicles. The statement, unvarnished, ignored that the reference to the news was often made in the form of criticism, as the type of material provided by the alternative press was not always in the form of sharable links. See article here, and a critique of it here.

[14] The basic reference for this subject is the Eli Pariser’s book “The Filter Bubble”, published by Penguin in 2011.

[15] When Lawrence Lessig, in 2005, in his book “Code”, paid attention to the risks to democracy of a world in which the code would be a regulatory instrument, he was not yet able to predict that tools which allow intensive interaction, such as social networks, could be extremely antisocial accordingly.

[16] One of the most common complaints of social movements comes from feminist movements, which often have materials and pages blocked because they use images of the female body. As one of the protests’ agendas were the LGBTT’s and  reproductive rights, the phenomenon occurred frequently during the June journeys.

[17] See ABIN assembles network to monitor the Internet, published on Estadão.com.br on June 19, 2013.