Political engagement: not for everyone

One week before the October 7 election, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians (especially women) took to the streets to protest the rise of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. They promoted the hashtag #EleNão (Not Him) and staged demonstrations in all of Brazil’s 27 states. Still, that didn’t stop the former Army captain from earning 46 percent of valid votes and nearly snatching a first-round win. In the end, as significant as the #EleNão movement was (the biggest ever to be led by Brazilian women), it was essentially preaching to the choir.

The University of São Paulo’s Research Group on Public Policies conducted a survey during the demonstration in São Paulo. Their data showed that the people united against Mr. Bolsonaro on the street were not the most diverse bunch: being mostly white, highly-educated, higher-income, and left-leaning. This piece of information was widely used by pundits to discredit the movement, saying it was responsible for the far-right wave we observed nearly two weeks ago.

However, what the University of São Paulo researchers observed should not be shocking. Surveys carried out in just about any protest in Brazil – or in most countries, for that matter – would throw up similar results. According to Pew Research Center’s latest report on political engagement (which observed 13 other countries), highly-educated people account for most of those willing to take political action – both in the “real” world and on social media. While 29 percent of people with more years of formal education are willing to protest, the rate among people with fewer years of education drops to 8 percent.

While the trend is observed in most countries, Brazil is the one with the widest education-based gap: 21 points. Italy and Greece, the next in the line, have 17- and 15-point gaps (but their rate of engagement is much higher than Brazil’s in any category).

Beyond couch activists

A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that corruption is not primarily what pushes Brazilians into political actions.

Crowd ask the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff

Another interesting finding by Pew is the fact that social media activists are more likely to take action in the “real” world. While 72 percent of those who frequently post on social media about politics are willing to make placards and head to the streets, the rate is of only 35 percent among the rest of the population. The 37-percent gap is, again, the widest among the 14 surveyed countries.

It should come as a surprise. In 2013, when protests against higher bus tariffs evolved into a nationwide wave of demonstrations against pretty much everything – from the World Cup, to corruption, to the low quality of state-provided services – it was on social media that protesters organized their acts. The same happened in March 2016, when millions took to the streets to ask for the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff.

That data helps us understand the true impact of social media in this year’s election. Campaigns are furiously using WhatsApp, Facebook, and – to a lesser extent – Twitter in order to galvanize supporters and attract more voters. No other campaign has operated in the virtual sphere better than Jair Bolsonaro’s, the favorite to win the presidency on October 28. To the point where he can allow himself to decline invites to any televised debate during the three weeks of second-round campaigning.

Online political engagement is a growing trait of Brazilian society. Among the surveyed countries, Brazil is the one with the highest rate of people who say they have posted comments about politics over the past year: 19 percent. Four years ago, that rate was at 6 percent.

What pushes Brazilians to the streets

While corruption has emerged as one of the most-talked-about themes, it is not the biggest force behind political engagement in Brazil. Among those who say they are very or somewhat willing to mobilize, 59 percent say that they would protest corruption. Meanwhile, 69 percent say they’d act against the poor quality of Brazil’s public healthcare system, and 67 percent against poverty, or 66 percent against the poor quality of our schools.

Even fewer Brazilians would be willing to protest discriminatory policies (54 percent), police brutality (52 percent), or freedom of speech (57 percent).

That could explain why so many Brazilians are willing to vote for a candidate who has openly shown disregard for democratic values.

PowerOct 18, 2018

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BY Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist with experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets.