The angry dude on Twitter had the look of a man with few friends and a message to match. Brazilian democracy faced grave peril, he warned, scolding apolitical artists, singers and web celebrities to speak out against “fascist” right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazilians have heard this before. Just not from Felipe Neto, a celebrity web jockey famed for his online antics, carnival coif and the pied-piper hold he exerts on millions of teens and tweenagers. While Neto’s getup — a pink t-shirt emblazoned with before and after portraits of Cinderella — was familiar, the gravitas was new. “We are officially up against a fascist regime,” he pealed. “Anyone who stays silent before fascism is a fascist.”
Not every web influencer in Brazil, known for its digital shallows, took to the manifesto. Yet Neto’s rebel yell speaks to a shift in sensibilities in Latin America’s biggest and perhaps its most excitable nation, where crises from the cratering economy to coronavirus have battered a bewildered public and supercharged partisan conflict.
The result has been noisy but salutary. First, Brazilians are eager for reliable sources of information. A false tip, after all, could be dire or even fatal as Covid-19 rips unabated across the country, which trails only the U.S. in deaths. That’s good news for traditional media, which has seen a credibility bump thanks to a more discerning public.
Secondly, increasing political turmoil and perceptions of a besieged democracy are upgrading the conversation on the web. Celebrity influencers such as Neto have seen the importance of going earnest, parlaying their cachet as entertainers into a new role as opinion makers. Neto’s May 9 open letter to digital influencers has been seen 12.9 million times. At the same time, lawyers, economists, philosophers and scientists who once turned up their noses at social media are flocking online to reach a wider audience.
What gives these new messengers added heft is the size of the audience. Brazil is one of the most connected societies, with more mobile phones than people. It logs nine and a half hours daily online per capita (second only to the Philippines). Only the U.S. and India spend more time on YouTube.
The Brazilian pollster Quaest recently found that the interest in politics among social media users jumped from 32% in 2017 to 53% this year. “With the pandemic, everyone’s at home scouring the web for credible information and quality content,” said Quaest director Felipe Nunes. “That’s an opportunity for those who work the web.”
Among the emerging digital voices are Atila Iamarino, a microbiologist who parses the science of the pandemic for his 1.18 million YouTube subscribers, promoting the policies of social distancing, testing and tracing that the Bolsonaro government has disdained. Economist Ricardo Amorim saw his accumulated social media following swell from 4.5 million to 5 million since quarantine and the ensuing economic collapse. Attorney Gabriela Prioli, who quit her commentator’s job at CNN Brasil in March to launch a web channel, got a big social media bump when she invited Anitta, perhaps Brazil’s foremost new pop diva (47.4 million followers on Instagram), for a series of conversations unpacking hot button topics like fascism, communism and populism on YouTube.
Monica de Bolle has also felt the love. A senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, she had been vocal on Twitter but fled Facebook (“too toxic,” she said) and had little use for other social media. “All of us in academia, we said ‘YouTube? Not us!’ Public intellectuals don’t do YouTube,” she told me.
Along came the pandemic and Brazilian government’s clubfooted response. “I started to see how things were so wrongheaded in Brazil, not just government, but economists and intellectuals, as well, and I thought something needs to be done,” she said. She made peace with YouTube and started doing daily webcasts explaining the economics of the outbreak, and more recently just basic economics, and saw her viewership balloon from around 5,000 subscribers in March to more than 60,000.
In a way, de Bolle and other new voices on the web have Bolsonaro to thank. With his aggressive use of Facebook and later Twitter, he catapulted a fringe political party and a cash-poor campaign into the presidential palace. “Bolsonaro broke the cartel of traditional media,” said Quaest’s Nunes. “He was one of the first politicians to exploit the digital advantage in politics and gave formerly voiceless right-wingers and cultural conservatives visibility. Now others are taking advantage of the opening.”
Willian Rocha, a social media scholar at the Superior School of Advertising and Marketing in Rio de Janeiro, says the web was ripe for the taking. “Everyone is online now and feels they need to have an opinion,” he said. With the left in power during most of the last two decades, Rocha said, “the right came out of the closet, colonized social media, and in alliance with the spreading Protestant Evangelical flock began to build its own narrative.”
Then came the whiplash. Amid Covid-19 and a country increasingly polarized, “the political opposition understands it needs a narrative of its own, and that’s a digital opportunity,” said Rocha. “We’re going to see a lot more new voices occupying political space,” Nunes said. “The 2022 presidential race will be the election of influencers. This is a path of no return.” With 38.4 million YouTube subscribers, 11.9 million followers on Twitter and a knack for memes, acid parodies and lightning comebacks, Felipe Neto has more firepower than most. Others are sure to follow.
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