Interview: Labic's Fábio Malini on Social Media, Protests, and Transparency in Brazil

Around 90 million Brazilians are on social media today, nearly the size of the Brazilian electorate, said the social media and data researcher.

“Whether it’s the president, her ministers, or the government’s technocrats, they should be in direct contact in real time…with people who have different political positions and demands.”

How is social media affecting political participation in Brazil? Fábio Malini, who studies data patterns in Brazilian social media, spoke to AS/COA Online's Rachel Glickhouse about how Twitter is changing the ways Brazilians interact with the government, as well as the role of social media in Brazil’s June protests. One of the heads of the Research Laboratory on Internet and Cyberculture (Labic) at the Federal University of Espirito Santo, Malini uses big data and data visualization to explore the evolution of social media in Brazil. In the wake of the demonstrations, Malini observed changes in how Brazilians discuss politics online and believes the government can take steps to interact with constituents on social media. “Today about 90 million Brazilians are on social media. It’s a huge number, almost the size of the Brazilian electorate,” said Malini.

Labic's cartography of tweets mentioning Rousseff. Click to view larger.

AS/COA Online: Could you tell me about Labic’s projects related to President Dilma Rousseff and Brazil’s protests on social media?

Fábio Malini: Since 2012, Labic has been collecting public content on the internet. The focus is to create political cartography, and in May 2012 we began a project on cartographies of conflicts and of political controversies in Brazil and abroad. At the time, we weren’t convinced that large protests could happen in Brazil given the fact that the country was going through a big economic expansion, with a growth of social rights. So in 2012 we collected what is perhaps the genealogy of the Brazilian political crisis. We collected information about protests that occurred in Brazil around indigenous issues, the mensalão trial, marches, and other controversies happening on the web.

In June 2013, we had come a long way in the extraction and visualization of the data. So with the emergence of protests in São Paulo—the first hub of the protests—we already had the experience with data and we noticed that on one hand, there was a demonstration in the streets and on the other, there was a direct connection with criticisms of different state governments and the federal government. So we began to extract data from social media, particularly Twitter, of mentions related to political figures President Dilma Rousseff, [São Paulo] Governor Geraldo Alckmin, and [São Paulo] Mayor Fernando Haddad, as well as hashtags used during the protests.

We discovered something interesting: first, the local protest in São Paulo related to the increase in public transportation fares didn’t have a single hashtag, such as #passelivre [free fare], the hashtag against the increase.

Instead, there were many hashtags. In addition, there was a component of political ineptitude on the part of [those in] Brazilian politics who couldn’t understand what was happening in São Paulo and dealt with the demonstrations by accusing protesters of vandalism.

Lea a entrevista original em português.

With Dilma, we have and continue to monitor mentions related to the president. We had the first big data analysis made up of 170,000 tweets, which represent many social media profiles in Brazil, ranging from traditional media outlets to social movement profiles. Whenever we do a data visualization involving a politician, we find that there’s always a standard type of behavior: there are those against the politician and those favorable to the politician. But what began happening was that there was a third type discussing pretty different topics than the other two groups. These topics had direct connections to the demonstrations, especially in São Paulo. We also identified a wide-ranging political representation from different areas in Brazil, which is a continental-sized country. So there was a segment of social media profiles that didn’t take a position for or against Dilma, but did participate in a diverse, concrete discussion about the protests. We also saw a dynamic of territorialization of these movements. In other words, the movement in São Paulo became one thing, while the movements in Vitória, Recife, and Salvador emerged in different ways. They had common elements, but they had very local topics.

The common elements of the protests were associated with criticism of spending on the World Cup and mega-events as well as the model of development Brazil has reached. There was also the desire for better urban mobility and for cities to adapt not only to cars but to other forms of transportation. There was also the fight against privatizing public spaces. There’s this national dimension, as well as the local topics.

But what’s changing now is that the central hub of the protests is moving from São Paulo to Rio. Rio de Janeiro is the city that perhaps best represents the intensity of conflicts because it’s the stage for mega-events and the city’s structure is being taken apart and redone ahead of these large events. It’s also where major political deals are made in Brazil. So it’s really interesting to see this shift. In our analysis of millions of tweets in late June and early July, the most common hashtag used was #protestoRJ [protestRJ]. It’s interesting that this hashtag became the diagnosis of the political crisis in Brazil, which moved from São Paulo to Rio. And in Rio, there are new elements, such as the fight for peace, and not against vandalism, but against the police.

AS/COA Online: After the big protests, the government announced that it would create a “digital cabinet” to monitor and guide the online debate.  The government also launched its own version of Facebook called the Participatory Observatory. What’s your take on this?

Malini: I think that the launch of these two initiatives had different impacts in terms of how they were received. There was ironic talk that the Observatory was actually a “participatroll” or a “participaloser.” So with the Observatory what probably happened was the government said, “What possibilities do we have to start a dialogue on social media?” That was because social media became the place where political mobilization and discussions about the protests were taking place. I don’t think the Observatory has much of a future.

But the digital cabinet seems like a good solution. It comes from a similar initiative in Porto Alegre, an important city not only in Brazil but on a global level due to its experience with citizen participation. So on the one hand, there’s a possibility to start a dialogue, though the government might not understand that it’s not about guiding a debate with society. I think that’s perhaps why the digital cabinet has come under criticism, that perhaps it’s not to guide a debate, but to use the meta-data produced on the internet as an input for the console of public policies in Brazil. I believe the experience in Porto Alegre can change the government’s relationship with internet users. I think the federal government is the branch that’s working the most to establish relations, to create solutions, and to provide some sort of response, more so than local governments. If used as a public policy for open government—such as providing more transparency in government spending, creating more intelligent policies to direct how the government operates, and establishing a relationship with social movements—the digital cabinet could be a replicable model.

I see it in a positive light, and activists do, too. Obviously, since it was announced within the context of a crisis, it can sound a little bit like a tool for internet surveillance. But it seems to me that that’s not the government’s intention. I think the government is growing more open to experiences such as the cabinet in order to have a dialogue.

AS/COA Online: What can the government do on social media to make the digital cabinet work?

Malini: The first thing is to think of people on the web as producers of information as well as political constituents. So when the government starts an open dialogue online, it has to adapt to the reality of the web. It’s a reality in which there’s no possibility to construct a singular truth. The government must create space, especially multimedia spaces, to form a direct dialogue. Whether it’s the president, her ministers, or the government’s technocrats, they should be in direct contact in real time, live in some cases, with people who have different political positions and demands.

The cabinet must also begin a process to expand information transparency. Brazil is still a very closed state, and it’s not just the executive but the judiciary and legislative branch, where many corruption cases take place. One of the solutions to this is to make public spending more transparent and to open data from different agencies so they become part of the collective intelligence on the internet. Finally the cabinet should use public opinion on social networks as a strategic area to develop rapid responses to political and social demands. For example, when people participate in an internet campaign to end violence against indigenous communities, they want an immediate response. So politics in real time seems like it could be a concrete function of the digital cabinet, or otherwise it could become a unilateral space where the government speaks more and listens less.

AS/COA Online: Do Brazilians interact with politics in a different way because of social media?

Malini: Undoubtedly. Social media profiles have an important role since cell phone and internet use on computers and laptops have expanded in Brazil. So people changed how they consume media in Brazil. Instead of spending hours watching TV, they spend more time in front of the computer or accessing the internet on their phones. When people see protests happening in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, or Brasilia, they’re encouraged and empowered to hold their own protests. On June 20, there were protests in 10,000 cities in Brazil.

This change has to do with the fact that people are connected to the web in real time, and this change brings a shift in political mentality. Today about 90 million Brazilians are on social media. It’s a huge number, almost the size of the Brazilian electorate. To be constantly connected to people discussing politics and criticizing daily life in their city aids political change and in a way adds a new component to the media scene. For example, during the protests Brazil saw the success of a group called Mídia Ninja. It’s young people who use cell phones and video streaming of what’s happening in the streets. And the audience of these videos is huge; there are videos with 70,000 people watching in real time. This creates a very big sphere of influence, and this influence affects how policy is made in the country.

AS/COA Online: In an interview, you said: “Twitter has become the nervous system of our society, and we should learn to use it.” Can you explain this?

Malini: We’ve noticed in studies about politics, Twitter, and protests, there’s a certain equation. The protests act as a giant amplifier and produce a lot of emotion, transmitted through different social media channels such as Twitter. This emotion creates a process of live public commotion. This commotion ends up echoing as people spread the emotion, as if it was a nervous system where one neuron connects to the other. This motivates more people to go out to the streets or to support the protests. And the more people there are in the streets, the more content and emotion that’s spread on the internet, creating a very neural, emotional cycle that constitutes a new political element.

In the case of these protests—which is the case not just in Brazil but globally—the relationship between Twitter and the streets was aided by strong emotions and created a cycle of commotion based on sharing with people acting on the web and in the streets at the same time. And this emotion enters into politics. In Brazil, for example, one of the results of the protests was that 75 percent of oil royalties will be reserved for education, a policy that previously held a distant possibility for approval. It was approved because of this popular pressure, of this strong emotion that came from one of the demands for greater investments in education.