Brazil Has Made Twitter into a Tool for a Fairer Democracy

Marcelo Tas's Twitter pageWhile Twitter has revolutionized communication in the US and around the world, it has had an especially large impact on Brazil. Embraced by pop stars and politicians alike, Twitter has taken Brazil by storm and has become one of the site’s fastest growing markets. More importantly, the site has changed the way Brazilians participate in politics, and how politicians reach their constituents.

Recently, it has managed to mobilize protests and inspire a political movement during an otherwise politically apathetic period, with citizens jaded by endless corruption scandals.

Results from a June 2009 study by social media company Sysomos Inc show that Brazil is the fifth-largest nation of Twitter users, with Brazilians making up 2 percent of all users. In January 2009, Twitter had over 54 million unique visitors per month, and currently has over 10 million users, putting Brazilian users at around 200,000.

Meanwhile, Brazil has the highest percentage of users of all of the non-English speaking countries polled. The top Twitter-using countries are all English speaking: the United States leads with 62.1 percent of Twitter users, followed by the UK, Canada, and Australia.

The Brazil Twitter Census was established in May 2009 to get a clearer picture of Twitter users in Brazil. Since then, over 14,000 Brazilians have responded. Nearly 68 percent of Brazilian Twitter users are between the ages of 19 and 30, and the majority is male (55.8%). The largest group of users is located in the state of São Paulo (38.28%), and the second largest group is located in the state of Rio de Janeiro (11.95%).

According to Ibope, a Brazilian research group, Twitter is the fastest growing social networking site in Brazil this year, since it has grown by 477% in 2009, and also represents the “intellectual elite” of Brazil, since 1 in 4 users have a college education.

In April, São Paulo-based marketing agency Bullet performed its own survey of Brazilian Twitter users. According to the study, the majority of Brazilian Twitter users are unmarried, middle and upper class, and are college students and graduates. Here are some of the statistics from the survey:

* 82.8% are unmarried

* 37.6% are currently in college, and 31.7% are college graduates

* 50.7% have a monthly household income of between 1,001 and 5,000 Brazilian reais (US$ 500 – US$ 2,500)

* 29.2% have a monthly household income of between 5,001 and 10,000 reais (US$ 2,500 – US$ 5,000)

* 58.7% have blogs

* 91% use Orkut, the social networking site, and 86.6% use Youtube

* 91.4% use Twitter as their main source of new information on the Internet, followed by blogs (74.6%) and news portals (61.6%)

* 44% found out about Twitter from friends

* 43.6% created their Twitter account between January and June 2009

* 79.9% use Twitter to share links and information

* 70% use Twitter to discuss their opinions

* 80% have taken advice or tips from someone on Twitter

* 79.3% follow or have followed formal news companies on Twitter (i.e. CNN, Globo, etc)

Brazilian celebrities, like TV personalities Luciano Huck and Sabrina Sato, have used Twitter as a promotional tool. Sports teams, athletes, and coaches have also joined Twitter, announcing trades and new coaches. Major media companies have hopped on the bandwagon, creating profiles for networks, newspapers and TV shows.

Retailers have grabbed the opportunity to plug promotions and special sales. Rio de Janeiro’s Traffic Control Authority created a Twitter account to announce traffic and road conditions in the city.

As a result of its popularity, Twitter has become the subject of research and analysis in Brazil, as academics study its impact on the media and journalism, as well as social media and personal relationships. Websites analyzing Twitter have also been created, like the blog Twitter Brasil and BlaBlaBra, which tracks the most Twittered topics in Brazil. In the past few weeks, Brazilian topics have made it into the top ten trending topics on Twitter, like Corinthians (the São Paulo soccer team).


In Brazil, some politicians have joined Twitter in order to have easier access to constituents and voters. According to the Brazilian site of PoliTweets, which tracks politicians using Twitter, there are currently one governor, 17 senators, 46 federal congressmen, 11 state congressmen, and 39 councilmen in Brazil who use Twitter.

Political parties have also joined, like the PCdoB, the Brazilian Communist Party, which discusses candidates and events on the site. Even President Lula has a Twitter page, though he has only updated four times since February and has a mere 5,443 followers, less than some other Brazilian politicians on Twitter. There are also at least two fake Lula Twitter accounts, which poke fun at the president, but also discuss politics.

Senators in particular have jumped at the opportunity, like José Agripino from Rio Grande do Norte, who now has 5.038 followers, and José Serra from São Paulo, a former governor and senator and currently a potential presidential candidate with 63,980 followers. They write not only about current events in government and projects they’re working on, but also their day-to-day activities, like watching Formula 1 racing on TV and going to the movies.

In Brazil, where informality, friendship, and making important connections during leisure activities are all key elements in professional life, Twitter allows politicians to connect to voters on a personal level without having to meet them in person. Politicians on Twitter also personally respond to followers, giving Brazilians a unique voice amongst the country’s legislators.

That’s why Senator Paulo Paim from Rio Grande do Sul has become a fan of Twitter. “I have a lot of work and participate in a lot of debates. This is a way to show what I do,” he told a local newspaper from his hometown. Though he only has 901 followers, he received a petition via Twitter from his constituents, as well as compliments, questions, and criticism, and the site gives him the opportunity to respond to all of them.

While some Brazilian politicians have embraced Twitter as a communication tool, others have not, and have wound up suing users who created fake profiles in their name. In September 2008, a candidate running for mayor of Fortaleza, Luizianne de Oliveira Lins, sued Twitter for allowing the creation of a false profile with her name.

However, Lins’ lawyers wound up suing the wrong target – Twitter Brasil, which is actually a Portuguese-language blog about Twitter, and was temporarily shut down after the court case. Since then, Lins was elected and the charges against the site were dropped.

More recently, a Twitter user created a fake profile of Senate leader José Sarney, which had around 2,000 followers when it was shut down in June. Sarney has threatened legal action against the user who created the profile.

Freedom of Speech

While the Brazilian media has taken to Twitter to continue its fight for viewers and readers, some members of the media have used Twitter as a forum to voice their opinions on current events and politics. The most notable instance is that of Marcelo Tas, who the Wall Street Journal calls “a tropical version of Jon Stewart.”

The host of Band TV’s CQC show, a political satire program, Tas is one of the most followed Brazilians on Twitter with over 242,000 followers. Though he is also known for being a Twitter pioneer, accepting a lucrative Twitter advertising deal from Brazilian telecommunications giant Telefônica, gaining readers by linking to his controversial blog, and promoting his show, he is also a political pioneer as well.

Tas weighs in on Brazil’s most pertinent political issues on Twitter, stirring up debate and creating awareness about certain events and issues. He has also been a stalwart supporter of free speech. While he has been threatened with lawsuits after controversies on his TV show, he has also received flack on Twitter after making a controversial comment about a strike at the University of São Paulo.

Offended Twitter users started an “unfollow” campaign urging people to stop following the popular figure because of his supposedly offensive comment. Tas responded by apologizing for offending people, but reminding them about the importance of free speech in a democracy. But Tas’ greatest political victory on Twitter has undoubtedly been with the Fora Sarney movement.

Senator José Sarney, the president of the Brazilian Senate, has come under fire for charges of corruption, nepotism, and embezzlement, amongst other things. When congressional leaders first decided to split with Sarney, one senator, Agripino Maia, announced it on his Twitter page. Marcelo Tas was the first to circulate the news and start the Fora Sarney movement in earnest, in favor of impeaching the Senate’s president.

Soon, the movement was being promoted by famous Brazilian actors, musicians, and comedians on Twitter, and oddly, even American actor Ashton Kutcher weighed in. A website and Twitter account were created to track protests and events and to promote the movement. In the meantime, Tas continued to spearhead the effort, sharing news updates about the scandal and opinions from other Brazilians. “I think Sarney is a disease infecting Brazil,” he told journalist Ana Freitas.

(Interestingly, the Senate performed a survey, interviewing 1,277 people throughout Brazil between June 3rd and June 19th, and found that only 28% of those interviewed even knew who Sarney was.)

Though Sarney has managed to hold on to his post, the movement has been successful in that not only did it manage to create awareness of the situation due to Twitter, but was able to transfer a virtual movement from Twitter into the streets. Protests were held in Brasília, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Recife, and Macapá (Sarney’s electoral base), with smaller protests in Porto Alegre, Divinópolis, and Campinas.

A nation-wide protest is an important milestone in a country where mass protests have become sparse after the military dictatorship (1964-1985), with the exceptions of the Diretas Já! (Direct Elections Now!) Movement in 1984 demanding electoral rights and the Fora Collor movement in 1992, calling for former President Collor’s impeachment.

Though thousands of people protested in the streets then, compared to mere hundreds now, it is notable that a political movement begun on a social networking website was able to physically mobilize citizens in a country with few mass political protests.

In a country where citizens are jaded by endless corruption scandals and letdowns from the government, Twitter has allowed Brazilians to participate in politics in a completely new way, connecting one-on-one with politicians and spreading news at the speed of a single mouse click.

It has given politicians the opportunity to be more transparent and to communicate better with their constituents, and to connect much more easily to their voting bases, keeping citizens better informed.

Finally, it has allowed the formation of a political movement capable of mobilizing Brazilians across the nation, both virtually and physically. In a country that has struggled to achieve functional governance since the transfer of power from the dictatorship, Twitter has become an important tool in helping Brazilians create a more just democracy.

Rachel Glickhouse, born in 1984, spent two years living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after graduating from college in 2007. She now lives in New York with her Brazilian husband. She has also lived in Spain, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina and has traveled through Latin America. You can find more about her in her blog:


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