PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – With their faces painted green and yellow, young Brazilians took to the streets in the 1990s to add their voices to the democratic process that resulted in the impeachment of then-president Fernando Collor de Mello.
Two decades later, in the midst of the digital age, entertaining protests are gaining momentum on the Internet.
It only takes a few clicks for younger generations to get together on social networks and organize demonstrations. The power of the web is being used to attract supporters to a wide variety of causes, specialists say.
The potential is proportional to the increase in social network users in Brazil. Facebook alone reported nearly 23 million users earlier this month compared to about 12 million in February, according to the statistics website Social Bakers.
“The Internet brings together and connects like-minded people,” says philosopher Luiz Felipe Coruja, 27. “Young people are spending increasing amounts of time online and they can choose between using that time for games or for rallying around a social cause.”
Coruja was one of the organizers of the Marcha da Liberdade (March for Freedom) in Porto Alegre. The demonstration, which was organized over the Internet, featured marches in a number of Brazilian state capitals on June 18. The demonstrators were demanding everything from a more rational use of natural resources, to sexual and intellectual freedom and increased security.
“Our march is a collective and independent construct,” Coruja says. “They’re just people, with different opinions, but also with a shared point of view.”
The implementation of democracy, the increased access to formal education and the rights that were guaranteed by the 1988 Federal Constitution encouraged the population to increasingly express its opinions, says Hermilio Santos, professor of Sociology and Politics at the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS).
“The use of technology facilitates and spreads these public demonstrations, especially through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter,” he adds. “But technology doesn’t do anything by itself.”
Marcelo Branco, an Internet strategist, says the world is witnessing the introduction of new ways in which to organize people into networks. There is now a capacity for mobilization and demonstration – or even revolution, in the cases seen this year in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya – that was absent during the industrial age.
“The digital revolution empowered individuals in a way that we hadn’t seen before,” says Branco, who was responsible for the Internet campaign for Dilma Rousseff’s presidential bid in 2010.
Web-based movements lack hierarchies, as actions occur through engagement, and alliances are not permanent, Branco says.
An average citizen can join a group in defense of one ideal in the morning and, that same night, have allies in support of another objective, Branco says. “Young people are testing the limits of democracy,” he says. “These same Internet resources that can be used to mobilize people are providing clues about the new democracy of the 21st century, which is currently being shaped.”
Each generation uses unique language and tools to express themselves, says Ivana Bentes, professor and director of the School of Communication at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University (UFRJ).
“Most importantly, we are seeing that networks have a potential for intervention and mobilization that goes beyond mere opinion and can materialize into concrete acts of pressure and social organization,” she says.
The mobilization for the clarification of Bill 84/99 – also known as “AI-5 Digital” – is held up by Bentes as a successful example of cyberactivism in Brazil.
By classifying the types of crimes committed over the Internet, the proposal also criminalizes the sharing of content online – music, for example – and restricts users’ privacy rights.
The bill, which is being considered by the House of Representatives, has provoked negative reactions throughout the country. In June, a petition against the proposal, with 163,000 signatures, was delivered to Representative Bruno Araújo (PSDB, Pernambuco), who serves as president of the Commission on Science and Technology in the House of Representatives.
“This proposal creates an atmosphere of criminalization on the Internet before we’ve even had a chance to introduce a legal framework that guarantees, first and foremost, people’s rights on the web,” Bentes says.
The proposal to create a legal framework for the Internet, which includes the rights and responsibilities of users and providers, is being drawn up by the Ministry of Justice, following virtual forums to debate the law in 2010. It is expected to be forwarded to Congress this month.
“These new movements are rescuing people’s pleasure and the interest in fighting for common goals,” Bentes says.