Much has been said and written about the role social networks played in the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and other recent protests across the world. Most of the coverage has been very positive, calling Facebook and Twitter as new tools that empower society by giving people a voice. Even the skeptics have not denied this positive aspect, preferring to instead say that their role have been overhyped.
Any technology is morally neutral, and "good" or "bad" attributes depend on how users choose to apply a given technology. While the western media extensively portrays social networks as a tool for democracy empowerment, Brazil has demonstrated that the opposite case can also happen, in which Facebook and Twitter's adoption actually harmed a legitimate movement and helped to keep the status quo.
The June 2013 protests were triggered by a 20 cents increase in the public transportation fee in several cities across Brazil. At first the protests were small but fierce, and initially the word "riot" was being used to describe the protests, with people burning cars and attacking government offices.
But something has happened after the first week: The protests at that point became massive, the media (both TV and newspaper) coverage became extremely supportive and the country experienced a kind of euphoria. "The giant has awoken!", people claimed, alluding to a successful TV ad by Johnnie Walker (considered a fancy whiskey in Brazil). The climate was one of party, with people dancing and celebrating, which Stephen Colbert brilliantly compared to a latino variety show.
And then... it was over.
President Dilma announced a package of reforms to meet the "demands"(which were, in fact, already part of her government's agenda even before the protests started), the media called it a "victory for the democracy", and the fares were not increased after all. But was it really victory?
Social networks and social castes
Differently than the image we sell abroad, Brazil is actually a very segregated country. Afro-Brazilians are the majority of the population, but the reality in any company office (IT included) shows the opposite. Any apartment complex has two segregated elevators, but we call them "social" (visitors) and "service" elevators. Apartments are perversely designed with two very distinct areas: One for the owners, and a second one for "service" -- which many times includes a tiny sleeping room without window for a maid (often a migrant). Modern Brazilian society is still very much divided into two castes: The masters and its servants. In fact, believe it or not, today maids call their clients using the Portuguese word for "master". Needless to say, our society changed little since the colonization period, when Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the Western world, receiving up to 40% of all slaves shipped to the Americas.
It is not a surprise that this reality is also reflected on social networks: Orkut (Google's first social experiment before Google+, which was a huge success in Brazil at the time) was once a trendy site for the elite because of Google's brand, but as soon as the masses started joining Orkut, the upper caste moved to Facebook and Twitter. The term "orkutized"became a slang for "ghettoized", and with that Brazil has effectively transferred segregation on to the Internet.
Who actually joined the protests
The transportation system (the initial trigger for the protests) is also segregated, Brazil-style: The masters drive cars while the servants take buses. Brazilians you may personally know will not acknowledge this fact, but an educated and well-paid business person will never be caught at a bus stop. At most you may find a few of them riding the subway line 2 in São Paulo, which is safe, clean, air-conditioned, and serve the Avenida Paulista financial district (our version of Manhattan). The Ibirapuera Park (our Central Park) is purposely very hard to reach by public transportation, and several gentrified areas of the city are also kept non-accessible by pressure of local residents.
São Paulo proper (not including the greater metro region) has a population of 11 million but only 46 miles of subway lines, compared to New York's population of 8 million and 200 miles of subway lines, or Mexico City subway's 140 miles, or Shanghai's 334 miles. The inequality is also reflected in the traffic jams: A recent research has shown that only 20% of the population commute by car but take 80% of the city's street space, while the huge majority of the population must share the remaining 20% of the space.
One could assume that the protests were driven by the working class (the ones most affected by the fare increase), and in fact that is exactly what happened in the beginning: The initial protests were organized by the "Free Fare Movement" as well as other labor unions and social justice organizations who fight for lower transportation costs for the working class. In the early beginning I vividly remember the media coverage, as well as posts from Facebook and Twitter users spreading very explicit vitriol such as calling the early protesters "vagabonds" (a racially loaded word in Brazil, similar to the n-word in English), "free loaders" and so on.
The elite does not use public transportation and obviously does not care about a 20 cents fare increase. In fact, São Paulo Bus Authority's own research shows that only 11% of public transportation users hold undergraduate degrees and (as is well-known in the Brazilian society), educational degree is directly related to social status, as only 8% of the population has access to university-level education (a subject I covered in a previous post).
What is appalling however is the fact that a poll taken during the peak days of the protests showed that 78% of protesters are university-level graduates. Also, another poll showed that almost 70% of protesters were "satisfied with their current life situation".
So what explains the high number of highly-educated, car-driving, and happy protesters in the streets?
Facebook and the gentrification of the protests
The protests clearly had two phases: The first phase was laser-focused against the fare increase, while the second larger phase was all over the place. While the first phase was driven by the working class with a single demand that directly impacted them, the second phase was clearly not about the "people": Demands have shifted to vague claims for "less corruption","more safety" and "lower gas prices" (I honestly would like someone to explain that demand in a protest supposedly about public transportation). More astonishing, 5% of protesters were actually in favor of a new dictatorship! (a right-wing military government ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985). The media classified the event as a "party" but analysts were at loss of what were really the objective of that second phase.
Let's face it: Who in Brazil cares about the Occupy Movement, Anonymous, V for Vendetta, or even hashtags? I guarantee it's not the worker who wakes up at 6am to face a 2 hours commute in a hot and crowded bus or train. Yet, the predominant imagery on both local and international TV were Guy Fawkes masks (which are imported and expensive, by the way) and hashtags that have nothing to do with the initial core demand.
I followed astonished this shift as an active Facebook user: The very same people who were calling the protesters "vagabonds" in one day switched to proudly proclaiming a "new era" in Brazil on the next day. Twitter was inundated with posts with a myriad of demands that have nothing to do with social justice, end of segregation, or even the fare itself. The so-called "PEC reform" (something that only constitutional lawyers cared about) became a national priority out of a sudden. Nothing else mattered anymore, except the chance of participating in this "historic moment".
Facebook and Twitter served as key catalysts for this shift in the following ways:
Since most active users are part of the elite, the social networks became a platform for fierce opposition against the social welfare reforms the current government had implemented, such as income redistribution programs, educational grants and affirmative action in public universities. That immediately alienated the initial protesters, and in fact the organization that started it all ("Free Fare Movement") completely withdrew itself from the protests;
Social networks provided the mainstream media an easy source to explain the shift in the protests that perfectly fitted their narrative . While in the beginning it was about the "vandals" and "riots", later became the "peaceful democracy fest brought to you by Facebook";
Now empowered by the mainstream media's legitimacy, social sites served to broadcast all kinds of demands from the elites, which unfocused the initial goal of the protests and effectively killed the momentum;
Users themselves wanted to be seen as part of the "fest" by sharing pictures and posts, now that it was safe and cool to participate, given the support of the media, celebrities, and the fact that the crowd became largely gentrified.
The middle and upper classes say that they would leave their cars at home if there was better quality public transportation. But it turns out quality is just a code word for segregation, just like the "service" elevators, the "maid" room, or "orkutization": No matter the cost or quality of the public transportation, the Brazilian elite will not be seen rubbing elbows with the working class in the buses, just as they will not be seen protesting together with the working class in the streets, much less sharing the same Facebook.
The end result was indeed a victory -- Not for the working class asking for lower cost public transportation, but for the elites in the country who effectively shifted the attention from the core demands, and once again were able to postpone the real revolution: The one that will be carried on not by tweets and Facebook selfies, but by the real People going to the streets.
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