Citizenship and Digital Mobilization in Brazil
By Alice Baroni
Community-based initiatives in Brazil’s city, Rio de Janeiro, are attempting to influence the ways in which Rio’s citizens and authorities perceive the favelas (poor districts) and their residents. This case study focuses on one of these initiatives which is being run by a non-governmental organization Viva Rio. With the advent of the Internet, the dream of a magazine produced by the people, for the people, and with the people from the favelas across Rio de Janeiro became a reality. In 2001, the Viva Favela portal was founded by 15 favela residents from different low-income suburbs in Rio, plus professional journalists who selected and trained them to become what later became known as community correspondents – or correspondents 2.0, as Viva Favela calls them.
Viva Favela marked a new way of looking at and talking about the favelas because, for the first time, favela residents could tell their own stories, using their own language and codes. This project conducts some multimedia production workshops at Viva Rio NGO settings in order to teach ordinary people how to write, photograph, record audio, edit, and upload their work on the Internet. These uniform top-down training programs, aspire to give participants the skills to become active media producers. The workshops are divided into seven different modules: One of these includes 18 introductory classes, and the others are divided in six classes each, which are independent and interchangeable. Once the introductory training is accomplished, students are supposed to be able to apply the knowledge they have gained into the reality of their own communities. If the students are interested in becoming specialized in a certain media platform, Viva Favela also offers six advanced modules, as follow: text, hypertext and social media, photography, audio, video, and the construction of sites (Chagas 2012).
These programs have resulted in the creation of short movies, photographs, podcasts, and written texts by favela residents from across Rio’s low-income suburbs. Some recurring themes include favela culture, fashion, garbage, police intervention in the favela, and social grievances. Viva Favela has approximately 2300 potential community correspondents from all corners of Brazil and overseas who have subscribed to the portal. Anyone can upload one’s content to the Viva Favela portal as long as they register on the website. In this process, there is no official gatekeeper: no one decides what will be, or should be, published. The Viva Favela staff monitor its website content only to check whether it corresponds with Viva Favela’s editorial policy.
Concerning Viva Favela’s processes of supporting deliberation and empowerment, Jucá (2011), who was the coordinator of the project, between 2008 and 2012, argued that Viva Favela has had a political impact at two different levels, personal and governmental. In the personal dimension, she stated that the project has encouraged its community correspondents to see themselves as people who are capable of generating information by using communication tools to spread their own worldviews. This process has allowed them to engage in conversations beyond social, educational, and geographical borders of the favelas. In the governmental dimension, the display of community correspondents’ work in the portal, which became source of information for the mainstream media, results in a bigger impact, since it influences communities, generates job opportunities, and/or leads to governmental actions at the local level. The main aim of Viva Favela is rather the consciousness-raising of favela dwellers, who begin looking at themselves and their neighbourhoods critically. This process is followed by the realization that they can have a voice by publishing their own stories on the website and other social networks.
Freire (1997) coined the term conscientization to speak of the importance of the awakening of a critical consciousness that expresses itself as a means for intervention in reality. “It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality. They must act together upon their environment in order to critically reflect upon their reality and therefore transform it through further action and critical reflection” (Freire 2000). Although community correspondents for Viva Favela center their discussions of larger favela communities concerns, I have not found evidence that suggests that community journalism itself is involved in assisting deliberation and conscientization in Rio’s favelas. This may suggest that Freire’s action-reflection is an area where Viva Favela is yet to achieve tangible progress (Baroni 2013).
Viva Favela though presents its own approach of empowerment and a certain independence from the NGO Viva Rio, it still subjected by its institutional framework. In other words, Viva Favela faces challenges to reconcile the interests of favela residents (community correspondents) with those of Viva Rio staff. Hamelink’s (1996) study on disempowerment and self-empowerment indicates that different approaches of empowerment depart from the principle of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’, however, whereas these approaches result in positive outcomes, in the long term, they end up leading to dependency between who is empowering and who is empowered. In order to break down the process of dependency, the people should own and control the media themselves.
Beyond the realm of Viva Favela, the wave of massive protests that sparked in the largest Brazilian cities in June 2013 shows that Brazilians started to take advantage of ICTs to digital mobilization. Latin America is the most digitally connected region in the developing world (Muggah and Diniz 2013). There has also been an exponential increase in the availability within favelas of affordable, easy-to-use technologies for communication (e.g. free or inexpensive digital cameras, mobile phones with inbuilt cameras) and for editing and sharing content (e.g. the emergence of ‘Lan Houses’, a form of cyber-cafe that provides cheap access to computers and the Internet), enabling favela residents to produce media, circulate their stories, and express wider political and social grievances. If Brazilians continue to take advantage of ICTs to digital mobilization in the years to come, and if it is harnessed towards giving voice to marginalized groups, this may equalize influence laying the basis for a path towards citizenship in Brazil.