#MudaBrasil: A Model for Protests in the Social Media Age

This week I want to highlight the work of Liz McKenna, a sociology Ph.D student at UC Berkeley. She has done extensive fieldwork in Brazil and is currently analyzing patterns in Brazilian protests and social movements.

I don’t want to give too much away about her research, since I’m sure she’s working on publishing a second book, but it’s fascinating. She discusses how modern social movements, in Brazil and other countries, tend to be either organized and hierarchical or spontaneous and organized using social media.

She referenced the 2013 protests in Brazil, which became the largest social movement in the country since 1992. The protests were initially organized against increases in public transportation fares, but they soon included other issues. According to Liz’s research, protesters represented a variety of causes including anti-corruption, anti-politics, anti-government, anti-World Cup, and even protesting for the sake of protesting.

The protests are also notable for heavily utilizing social media. There was a Facebook event for the demonstrations. They posted videos of police violence against the protesters. They took to Twitter and used hashtags such as #MudaBrasil (Change Brazil) and #ogiganteacordou (the giant awoke).

A word cloud of popular words in tweets on June 17, 2013. Source: The Guardian

So many issues were represented that they did not target any specific politicians or political parties. But they were still successful in that the government responded to many of their demands, such as by increasing spending on public health and education. The general Brazilian public, however, was not impressed with the government’s response and negatively assessed the new measures.

I was surprised to learn that Liz’s findings suggest that the more organized, constant, and hierarchical movements tended to achieve more results in the long run than these social media-driven, reactionary movements. Perhaps it’s because, just like the 2013 Brazil protests, many of the latter diverge into many different sub-movements. We’ve seen that happen with the Black Lives Matter here in the US.

But Brazil gives me hope that many of these reactionary movements can have at least moderate success. Perhaps many of our social movements back home could benefit from modeling themselves after the 2013 Brazil protests.


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