I really enjoyed reporting for Eurosport in Rio last week, but there was no getting away from the feeling that the national spirit is divided over there. While all of the Brazilians I spoke to said they wanted Brazil to win the World Cup, the huge sums of money spent on stadiums, the constant allegations of FIFA corruption, and the almost paramilitary way the government’s gone about pacifying the favelas has led to protests organised and publicised through social media. In fact, as I was sat on my balcony looking out over the Copacabana after the Brazil Croatia game the other night (it’s a hard life eh?) I saw a protest happening on the beach right in front of me with loads of police cars and crowds chanting ‘FIFA go home’.
What with social media being so prominent in these protests, it was interesting to learn that free wifi had been a big part of Rio’s ‘pacification’ operation. As well as trying to wipe out organised crime, the government promised to improve everyday living conditions for people living in the favelas by providing them with free wireless internet. Santa Marta was the first to get it, and since then it’s been extended as far as Pavão-Pavãozinho, Cidade de Deus and the once notorious Rocinha, which is right behind the England team’s hotel. Now something like nine out of 10 residents have a smartphone, social media has become a big part of people’s lives, and it’s been instrumental in the anti-government, anti-World Cup and anti-FIFA protests. In fact over the last couple of years, Brazil has become the second most-represented nation on Facebook after the USA. Amazing when you think that a third of the population survive on around $1 a day, just half of the national minimum wage in Brazil.
There have been quite a few articles in the British press about the way social media’s been used and abused in the favelas. I’ve read a couple of them and some of them are hilarious: previously ‘anonymous’ gang leaders getting caught because they’ve put their real name and contact details on their Facebook profile, or police suspects ruining their alibis by posting photos of themselves at crime scenes with gold-plated guns and newly-acquired wads of cash.
But what I found really inspiring were the stories of people from the favelas using social media to give their community a voice that they would never be given by the mainstream media. With all the tension caused by pacification, the internet has become the only outlet for the people of Rio to tell the world what’s really going on. Although there have obviously been some positive results from the government’s pacification initiative, it’s had a lot of problems too. And the government has been keen to keep these problems quiet with the whole world’s media watching.
Giving people a voice
If you have a quick Google you’ll find stories about local journalists being threatened by police, peaceful protests organised by young kids being spun as the work of drug traffickers, and media cover-ups over innocents killed in military raids. So people have started fighting back to get their voices heard on social media. Most of the favelas now have their own Facebook pages which they use to report on the kind of things the government would rather keep secret, like police brutality and the attempts to suppress local journalists. Then there are the online newspapers like Voz das Comunidades, started by a young lad called Rene Silva on a borrowed laptop in his grandparents’ kitchen. It was a brave move by Silva but it’s definitely paid off – since the favelas got online it’s gone from a three to a 30-man operation, and it’s done such a good job at representing the people that Silva’s become a local hero and national celebrity.
‘I think all these advances in internet technology have made free speech more democratic,’ Silva’s said. ‘We don’t depend on the big media outlets anymore in order to know what is happening in the world.’
For me, the way that people have documented pacification and real life in the favelas shows just how powerful social media can be: it can give people a voice, enable them to come together and share news as a community, and most importantly, it can give them a means to take action on their own terms.