Huffpost WorldPost
Robert Muggah Headshot

A New Era of Digital Protest

Posted: Updated:

By: Robert Muggah and Gustavo Diniz

The mass demonstrations convulsing Brazil since June 2013 are more than a raw display of people power: They confirm a new era of digitally enhanced protest. The recent clashes in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are just the latest iteration of a protest meme sweeping across the world from Cairo to New York. Its rapid spread is the ultimate expression of open empowerment -- the emboldening of millions of wired young people worldwide to press for change.

While protests occurring in Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt and Turkey are clearly distinct, there are nevertheless some common characteristics that unite them. Chief among these is the central role of educated youth, particularly young women, in agitating for a new kind of politics. The early 21st century has given rise to a familiar agent of social change: Middle-class 20-somethings with limited horizons. These include youth with decent educations and rising expectations, but bleak employment prospects.

In Brazil, as elsewhere, these young people have real grievances. Like other vulnerable groups, they do not feel adequately represented by their governments or legislatures. Their frustrations are compounded by the resort of public authorities to batons and teargas rather than dialogue. Yet these young people also possess distinct advantages over their contemporaries from centuries past. They are technologically savvy, and navigate the virtual world with ease.

In countries that are increasingly wired -- some 40 percent of Brazilians are now online, forming the second largest bloc of Facebook users in the world -- they are an especially powerful constituency. Digital natives are highly networked and underwhelmed by conventional ideologies or top-down hierarchies. And while operating in highly decentralized and fluid networks, they have a keen sense of their capabilities, and how to use them to disrupt authority.

Not surprisingly, social networks are viewed with suspicion by the political establishment. Many governments are finding it increasingly difficult to control the public narrative in a world where information is available in realtime, and on an unfathomable scale. Their responses vary from seeking to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of e-governance through to adopting legislation and capabilities to police and securitize cyber-space. In most cases, including in Brazil, they have resorted to new forms of social media surveillance and monitoring. But they do so at their peril.

The rise of the so-called Black Bloc in Brazil is in some ways the latest iteration of this wider global trend. Originally incubated in Germany during the 1980s, Black Bloc has spread across Europe, North America and the Middle East. They are new arrivals to Brazil. One of the first instance of Black Bloc in Brazilian cyberspace appeared only in February 2012, and its real emergence can be traced to the first two weeks of June 2013.

Like most Brazilians, those affiliated with Black Bloc are prolific Facebook users. Although the Black Bloc's real-world presence is amorphous and (at least superficially) difficult to study, its social media presence in Brazil is remarkably organized. We recently examined 51 Facebook pages related to the Black Bloc in Brazil, accounting for over 72,000 posts and more than a million interactions. And what we found was surprising.

When examining the Black Bloc network it appears that notwithstanding a national presence, it can be boiled down to three authoritative online hubs: Black Bloc Brasil, Black Bloc Rio de Janeiro and Black Bloc Sao Paulo. While there are many other actors, these are the most active and influential. Black Bloc´s social media presence expanded in size and activity from mid-June 2013 onwards. The network itself consists of a large loosely connected set of users who generate considerable "one-off" content.

The Black Bloc of course is not acting in a vacuum: It is emerging in the context of massive physical and social changes underway across Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in particular. Major infrastructure projects and social programs are generating a host of grievances and exposing corruption scandals left, right and center. And while we do not condone their methods, the Black Bloc appears to be the sharpest expression of wider frustration with a political system that has yet to meaningfully engage with the voices from the street.

The response of public authorities to Black Bloc has been swift and heavy-handed. New legislation has been introduced to deter and punish would-be "vandals." And while violent demonstrations need to be managed, what is needed is less police action and more consultation if groups like Black Bloc are to be managed over the long-term. In Brazil and elsewhere, the digital revolution needs to be complemented with a similar evolution in democratic governance and the creation of new channels of participation.

Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute in Brazil and Research Director of the SecDev Foundation in Canada. Gustavo Diniz is a Research Associate with the Igarapé Institute. Together with the SecDev Foundation and with support from the IDRC they are coordinating the Open Empowerment Initiative.