In 2018, I published my second book, The Internet, Politics, and Inequality in Contemporary Brazil: The Peripheral Media (Rowman & Littlefield).
The book surveys a landscape of active media producers, collectives, movements, and independent producers in modern Brazil. It features dozens of interviews with media producers of all backgrounds, based on the cities, favelas, farms, and remote villages in seven Brazilian states.
The research took three years to complete with over one hundred people contacted. The book aims to convey a distinct picture of how the impoverished and other victims of the country’s inequality get to communicate online: whether they are developing their vocabulary, imagery, and frames or rejecting previous media images of themselves.
In brief, the book studies the periphery as an entity that projects new politicised ways to talk about their reality and reach social change. Below, I debunk the main points of the research.
Where it starts from
The book has sought to capture the voice and discourse of a myriad of such media producers on a variety of platforms.
Whereas most of them have no prominence on mass media, the challenge was to map their own spheres of influence.
The Peripheral Media has originated from a PhD research. The book was later enlarged to reflect the changing political scenario. Just before the publication, the country saw the impeachment of the ex-President Dilma Rousseff and the arrival of the right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro to power.
The research has listed more than five hundred groups that are actively operating across the country. It analyses the content from a sample of fifty outlets among them. These initiatives are assessed according to the potential of making inequality a political issue in a country that has grown accustomed to it.
It is the case of Nigeria, a group of filmmakers based in Fortaleza, in the northeast, or Coletivo Papo Reto, from Rio de Janeiro. Both have brought up characters that are rarely seen in mainstream media productions. At the time of the research, Favela News was producing films and multimedia from slums in Recife, a coastal city with a high rate of violence, inequality, and extreme poverty.
The book finds a fresh generation of media producers that, directly or indirectly, has claimed this social mission to themselves. This sense of collective responsibility has existed since much before the Internet, as I discuss next.
Looking back in history
The book’s investigation has also led to acknowledging the extensive past of the alternative media in Brazil. Despite its imprecise origins, the “alternative” has grown to become a kind of media practice in the country, which branches out into non-mainstream, community, popular, grassroots communication.
In the 1970s, hundreds of middle-class journalists who fought against the military dictatorship have also campaigned for a better country in social issues arena.
Back then, the militant press, as they were then known, had weighed in for raising awareness among a generation of journalists. After the dictatorship, these journalists have flocked into the mainstream press’ newsrooms, but they never came to abandon that mission.
Because journalism has been historically committed to social causes, I contended that not only it has influenced a generation of media producers that followed their steps, as it converged into something new, more in tune with a growingly outspoken periphery.
The Peripheral Media as a new concept
To work with the concept of Peripheral Media, the media of the margins in Brazilian cities, was to recover the interest in the notion of the periphery. This term is a widely-replicated name when one refers to describe poverty and violence but at the same time a scary word for many people.
This book sustains that the periphery is key to understand modern media practice in Brazil for many reasons.
First, because it sheds light on aspects of new media that are political and now only works as a blind mirror of the mainstream.
In this sense, the peripheral media appears as a complex universe that involves flexible publication methods, a new use of vocabulary and a code of ethics that radically differs from what one conceives as professional media.
Secondly, the peripheral media matters because it includes other landscapes and individual actors as part of the media-ecology – not only social movements or NGOs. The favelas, the countryside, and the cities’ outskirts are examples traditionally excluded from the mainstream media in their own terms.
Periphery residents are not only misrepresented, as they appear far from sources of power and prestige.
Third, seeing the peripheral changes the terms with which the poor have traded with the powerful. For instance, with politicians. Whether candidates or elected-agents, politicians have played a pivotal role to downgrade the periphery as just another stage for their populist discourses, to which they threw promises of “life change”, while fuelling clientelism and weakening politics overall.
On another level, there was a necessity for having a new “the spokespeople of the periphery”. In the past, it was the case of members of the Catholic Church, social movement leaders, NGO bosses and TV presenters.
Even though the periphery’s action and voice emerge thanks to funding partners and mainstream media supporters, producers have made use of an updated language and behaved reassuringly independent.
As far as most media scholars have always assumed that these small-scale media groups (because of their size and reduced influence) are either a blind opposition to liberal media or corners for left-wing parties, the book can help to de-stigmatise the periphery. Indeed, the 2018 election saw a record number of candidates and attempts to create political parties from Brazil’s favelas. I discuss next the methods employed in this research.
The book presents the results of in-depth and semi-structured interviews with media producers from all these realities. These methods show the extent to which periphery dwellers are aware of this populist, indifferent background and have a clear idea of how they can change it.
For instance, whenever they were asked about the space they had amidst the broader media environment, interviewees were free to explore several issues that do not come up very often.
The Peripheral Media advances a model to study how Brazil’s peripheries can use media frames to their benefit.
Departing from Goffman’s frame analysis concept, the extent to which producers can capture opportunities to politicise the social demands from their communities and build their own frames is discussed.
This process also happens to allow them to project their personalities and perhaps achieve another degree of public attention. This shift radically reverses the history of top-down representation received by inhabitants of the periphery and never aimed by themselves.
This process of making media happens according to three main elements: The so-called discourse opportunities (e.g. the seizure of the mass media content and its headlines), the reframing of the news (Telling existing stories in a different way), and third, alterations, to change the existing media content (e.g. memes, viral messages) to discuss their urgency and criticality. Next, I discuss this process in practice.
Repackaging the news
An example of this different storytelling stories to achieve new frames is found at the repackaging and reframing existing media content.
Producers do so to tell their audience about daily struggles in a more assertive way. They play with words and images to sell what they believe is the fairest portrait of their reality.
If in the mainstream media a story about police intervention in favelas would appear as on a mainstream website:
“The Rio police conducts safety operations in favelas”
Producers would publish hours later on their Facebook page using very different language:
“Another one of us [is found] dead: Poor, black, and favelado“.
That is how the discourse of the “periphery media” works.
If we consider this repeated reframing, even on a small-scale, it could provoke a striking effect over multiple kinds of audiences, which is not possible to verify only by taking the numbers.
This kind of remixing of news headlines and random content is powerful because it not only breaks with the tradition of ethical and standardised narrative which informed Brazilians’ narratives of violence against the periphery (or sensationalist purposes).
These frames come up as political opportunities that seek innovation, independence, and audacity. The technical level of their production found is surprisingly high and sourced from their community activities, influence from professionalised media, cinema, among other practitioners.
They were, for example, those to film protests, and demonstrations in high quality whenever the main TV broadcasters were turning their eyes away from it. However, they can also make long length films, incorporate slangs and images from inside their homes and wearing clothes of the everyday life; they can appropriate new formats and recordings (such as CCTV images) as the raw material for different kinds of productions.
These interviews have also allowed seeing a series of social issues that remain in the collective consciousness of the periphery (e.g. quality of life, urbanisation, public services, health care, etc). And yet, it is their way of expressing their demands which has fundamentally changed.
The main highlight from these results lied in how the traditional media can underestimate their productions and bypass their will to appear in the media.
A witness of changing times
This research took place in the years before Brazil was leaving behind the 13 years of Workers’ Party government.
The fact that a left-wing party has led the country’s into one of its worst recessions had its impact on what interviewees said or thought.
While it remains to be seen if this political party gets the backing of the periphery again, many producers have still envisioned the state – despite the rule of the left – as an ambiguous institution, not to say a threatening one.
Some have looked at it as an opportunity to get funds and then create media outlets and initiatives (as they, in fact, did get funds from the policies created by the Workers’ Party). At the same time, the government is to blame for all social issues and need to be confronted.
Several of these contradictions emerge. This conditional partnership with the state (as well as with the mainstream media, a friend and foe in their words) is both “cooperative” and “politicised” in different moments.
The Peripheral Media discusses this ambiguity of expecting help and charity from some but also politicising demands and the silence from stakeholders.
For example, crime is no longer an acceptable reality and communities have put it in a very clear manner. The police is at the same time wanted and feared by the locals.
On the other hand, the disappearance of the builder Amarildo de Souza represented a shift in a tragic tale of forgetfulness that has stricken the lives of those living at the margins.
In the 1990s, the kidnapping and murder of a poor man of the favela would have run unnoticed in the media.
On the peripheral media outlets, Amarildo’s case has received much more highlight in 2013, which has led the mass media to also put efforts into publicising his disappearance, calling up his identity, and personal history, as it has never happened before.
This new pattern of fighting inequality is a departure from other cases in which the media have positioned itself far away from the truth.
Looking back, the killing of 111 men in 1992, the Carandiru Massacre has shown the politics of naming the place and the event but not its victims used to be. To reveal the degree that this practise has changed in contemporary Brazil as a result of the peripheral media is one of the major contributions of this book.
Before this massacre, the media have suppressed these men’s names, framing them as “victims”, now people demand that their residents are named and their deaths are the object of a serious investigation.
Not a single face or a name of any of these Carandiru men have reached the prominence despite the barbarity of the episode.
This image has been widespread by the media coverage of the Carandiru massacre: a line-up of dead bodies with no identification. The book argues that contemporary Brazil tends to no longer treat individuals in such anonymised and careless way, but politicise their names, appearances and personalities in search of the punishment for those who neglect and destroy peace at the periphery.
Overall, The Peripheral Media book aims to build this perception that the periphery in Brazil has changed over time. Now, these communities have displayed their efforts to create media outlets, images, and reformulate their representation to other spectators.
It amalgamates with a vast ecology of media producers under the periphery as an umbrella to many situations and distinct landscapes in which producers operate.
The peripheral media thrives because, amidst its diversity, it puts social justice at the centre, while not forgetting the soft sides of their lives, the banality of everyday rituals, and their right to build up a form of a media personality.
In recent times, the murder of Rio de Janeiro’s councillor Marielle Franco has shown how threatening the growing power of the periphery can be.
The book finally proposes seeing the value of this kind of media discourse in a different light. A few takeaways are:
- One must stop seeing the periphery as another type of “project” and start considering it as another full member of Brazil’s media ecology. It does not have the outreach of the mainstream media, but it owns different ways of telling things which can be more appealing.
- Past prejudices and stereotypes have weakened the view of the periphery as a political force. The “alternative media” in Brazil has not conveyed that images. It is necessary to restore our look to the politicised attitude from the periphery.
- Despite Brazil’s recent turn into discourses of authoritarianism and the election of Jair Bolsonaro, it is still possible to see progress over the past decade and the continuous trajectory of the periphery towards effective political representation.
In sum, the Internet, Politics, and Inequality in Contemporary Brazil: Peripheral Media sheds light on the existing potential for bottom-up, communication in Brazil. This web of blogs, social media profiles, and other kinds of spaces have revitalised the conception of micropolitics in the country and helped spread the need for radical change through the discourse.
As any reader will see, producers have subtly turned their narratives into a realistic way of re-telling stories, which can offer a communicative path to other realities