CXO

In Brazil, an increasingly networked society enables new mechanisms of accountability

Digital media's role in Brazil is being embraced and questioned, reports Alex Howard. Learn how human rights, the right to record, and Brazil's Bill of Internet Rights factor into this discussion.

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When I first visited Brazil in 1998, I went in search of adventure, hungry for direct experience with a vast continent that I'd never visited but had dreamed of exploring for years. When I returned for the third time, over a decade later, I traveled southwards to share what I'd learned about technology and media in the interim and to discover what people working at the intersection of those worlds had found on the ground.

The trip came through the invitation and support of Abraji, a nonprofit that provides conference, seminars, and workshops to reporters and editors interested in investigative journalism. Over the course of four days, I gave four talks on data-driven journalism in three cities: Recife, Florianopolis, and Sao Paulo. One of the lectures in Sao Paulo was livestreamed online and subsequently published on YouTube. (While much of the video is in Brazilian Portuguese, my talk and my answers to the challenging questions from the audience of college students and faculty are in English.)

As before, in visiting Brazil I found a country that remained as wonderfully diverse and vibrant as before, with every shade of human being you could imagine, an extraordinary number of different species of plants, animals, and tropic fruit, and breathtaking natural beauty.

As before, I also encountered many men and women who were kind and generous to a tired traveler with terrible Portuguese.

And as before, I traveled through a country where social and economic inequalities remain clear everywhere, with a sharp contrast between urban destitution and subsistence farming and luxury hotels and cars. Even after a decade of reforms and government subsidies under President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva has lifted millions out of poverty, Brazil's economy is in transition, with continuing needs for improvements in infrastructure and education.

In thinking through what else had changed in the duration between my visits, aside from their purpose, I observed other changes in Brazilian society, along with an enduring national character.

One shift was as obvious as it has been in every country I've visited in the past few years: there were mobile phones in the hands of many more people everywhere, with quite a few smartphones (mostly Android devices) visible in each of the three cities I visited. (IDC estimated that 28 million smartphone were sold in Brazil in 2013 alone.) Mobile phones have become the preferred access channel to the internet in Brazil, with almost a quarter of the country logging on through them.

Another shift was in social media. Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes explored in Forbes last year what's happening on social media. Social networking use is continuing to grow in Brazil, according to eMarketer in 2013, with at least 78 million people using social media platforms, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to Whatsapp and YouTube.

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Source: eMarketer, April 2013

Everywhere I went, I saw mobile devices being used to do something that seems to come as naturally to Brazilians as enjoying music, dancing, festivals, food, the beach, and sports: socializing. They were talking, texting, emailing, watching, capturing, and sharing video, and taking "selfies" (while I don't take many selfies, I think they are a natural form of storytelling in this media-saturated age).

I visited Brazil during the final week of the presidential election there and could see how social media was playing an unprecedented role in connecting voters to candidates, media, issues, and everything in between. As consumers, Brazilians are sharing and reading social media for insights into good and services; as citizens, they're doing much the same thing for politicians.

When president Dilma Rousseff won re-election, shortly after my return to the USA, naturally, she tweeted about it.

During the journalism conferences I attended, what caught my eye in the discussions on-stage, the questions posed to the participants, and the discourse and media criticism I read elsewhere is the extent to which digital media's role in Brazilian society was being embraced and questioned at the same time.

While Brazilians have adopted and are adapting to technological innovation on their own terms, in the context of their own culture, they're facing challenges familiar to people around the world with regard to disruptive technologies and the ethical questions they provoke. Journalism students and professors wondered about how the role of journalists was changing, as more people were able to report what they saw and rebroadcast media created by others. (My answer: in a networked age, the key role for media is now verification, fact-checking, and adding context, not just reporting.)

As more people carry connected smartphones, they're facing the same decisions about which events and conversations to record, and how and where to share them. Faced with police corruption and brutality, Brazilians are increasingly recording and publishing the public actions of police or corporations, which in turn brings up conflict over who holds the right to record, and in what context. The country continues to face serious human rights challenges, which makes the networked transparency effects of citizens recording abuses a significant corrective.

While recording and publishing police or criminal activity carries obvious risks, when it happens, instances of corruption, environmental degradation, and crime can and are being shared on social media in a way that makes it difficult for government and media institutions to ignore, as an investigative journalist recounted at a panel in Recife, which included the playback of YouTube videos of protests and police actions.

Increasing access to information in Brazilian society through digital media is giving people more opportunity to learn, journalists more opportunity to hold government accountable, and entrepreneurs more opportunity to build businesses. Increasing access to one another is giving people opportunities to be more aware of what's happening in their communities, or in cities a thousand miles away. When the two are combined, every person who holds a mobile device possesses newfound powers and responsibility, as do the corporations and governments that have influence over the data and connections that enable them to connect. For that reason, amongst others, Brazil's enactment of a Bill of Internet Rights is significant, and offers a global model for other countries to consider. I look forward to watching how both it and the country's Freedom of Information law are implemented in the years to come.

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About Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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