Social Media and Participatory Democracy: Lessons from Brazil and Turkey

Dr. Anita Breuer, Senior Research Fellow, German Development Institute and Sergio Burns, UK based journalist, illuminate the use of social media in protest mobilization in Brazil and Turkey and its implications for democracy.

There were simple, defiant messages on banners carried by the protestors on the streets of Brazil. ‘We Come From Facebook’, one shouted silently, as if Facebook, itself, was a nation. ‘Brazil Woke Up’ was written on another banner, an understatement for a country with hundreds of thousands of protestors on the streets.

Captured in the size and iconography of the protests was the growing prominence of digital Information and Communication Technologies as vehicles for organizing larger demonstrations, quicker.

Brazil 1Brazilian protestor wearing a Guy Fawkes mask – the visual brand of the global hacker collective
Anonymous (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

From the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Kuwait et al in 2010, to Los Indignados in Spain, Occupy in London and New York (2011), to Bulgaria, Brazil, and Turkey (2013), social networking sites have significantly contributed to increasing participation in and swifter organization of demonstrations (Theocharis et al., 2013). This is supported by research which shows that people who engage in protest activities are frequent users of social media (Valenzuela et al., 2012, Pearce and Kendzior, 2012, Breuer and Groshek, 2013).

Feeling increasingly powerless, alienated from their political leaders, and distant from their nation’s political decision-making, increasing numbers of citizens, interconnected by technology, are taking to the streets in both developed and developing countries. In Brazil, a 20 centavo rise in bus fares in Sao Paulo sparked protest which rapidly spread around the nation. Since early June, in 430 cities across South America’s largest country, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to vent their anger on a number of issues, including the escalating cost of Brazil hosting the World Cup in 2014.[1]   On the other side of the world in Turkey, crowds of people were mobilized in protest against a gentrification project in Gezi Park, Istanbul, which would have involved the removal of recreational areas in the park. A wave of protest followed which soon spread across the nation.[2]

This raises questions about the reshaping of civic involvement and democratic participation in a digital world. Are we witnessing a development toward greater participatory democracy centered around and enabled by social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and smartphone technology – videos, text and images?

For many, social media platforms offer a way of extending the democratic franchise and encouraging participation in the organization and operation of the state. Against a backdrop of street protests demanding the removal of President Mohamed Morsi[3], Egyptian digital activist Sherief Gaber (@cairocitylimits on Twitter) pointed out in a BBC interview: “Democracy is not just about the ballot box (…) It’s about participation and social justice.”[4]

However, the risks and opportunities involved in political online activism vary considerably according to the political context and political culture under which it is undertaken (Breuer 2011). The diverging experiences with recent social media driven protests in Brazil and Turkey provide an illustrative example to this point.

In Brazil internet usage has grown at a rapid pace over the past years. According to a survey from the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2008, 34.8%of Brazilians over the age of 10 had access to the internet – an impressive increase from the 20.9% in 2005 (IGBE 2009). In addition, the number of Facebook users in Brazil reached a massive 65 million in 2012, making the nation the second largest market outside of the USA, while the South American state is also second to the United States in terms of unique Google visitors (Chao, 2013).

Indeed, participation in social media is something that Brazilians with their hyper-communicative culture (Trieselmann, 2003) are passionate about. According to the IGBE, 71% of Brazilians consider the internet a political tool. This perception was confirmed by the conciliatory reaction of Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff who pledged investment of $23 billion in public service delivery and promised to fight harder against corruption to appease the protestors.

But not every state leader is ready to accept social media as an additional channel of political participation and as part of a democratizing process.

“Social Media” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed on June 2, 2013, “are the worst menace to society”.[5] Irritated, that while the mainstream Turkish press had all but ignored the uprising, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, text and video messages – meanwhile – were keeping 76.4 million Turks fully informed and mobilized.


Protestors at anti-government rally on Taksim Square, Istanbul (Lam Yik Fei/Getty)

Echoing Erdogan’s annoyance with social media, Turkey’s transport and communications minister Binali Yildirim called for Twitter to have a corporate presence in the country. This way the government could exert greater control on what might and might not be allowed, and what can be removed from social media channels. On June 5, Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu reported that police had detained 25 citizens for “spreading untrue information” on social media and provoking protests.

These events, as well as the recent scandal over NSA metadata and the PRISM surveillance programs, reveal insight on the nature of one of the most important political battlefields of the future. It is shaped by the conflicting interests of Internet corporations who are liable to their shareholders, governments who wish to extend state control over the Internet in order to safeguard national security, and disenchanted citizens who demand a bigger say in political and economic decisions but wish to protect their right to privacy – including digital privacy.

In the meantime, training professional and citizen journalists to manage their digital security will be paramount if democracy is to be promoted digitally. This task is already being performed by a number of civil organizations and networks such as Tactical Technology Collective[6], Electronic Frontier Foundation[7] and the Tor Project.[8]

Raising awareness about the role of commercial social media platforms is a central element of digital security training. Activists need to understand that Facebook, Twitter and other social media are neither their “friends” nor tools designed for the promotion of democracy but commercial platforms operated by profit driven corporations. In this context, the alleged participation of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants in the PRISM program does not come as much of a surprise. Against this backdrop, the safest bet for digital activists is to assume that the first allegiance of these companies will be to their shareholders, not protestors on the streets of Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Moldova, Greece,  or Bulgaria.

//Dr. Anita Breuer,; Twitter: @nitarana
//Sergio Burns ,


[1] See: Recuero, Raquel: Social Media, Citizen Media, Online Tools Are Shaping Brazil’s Protests and Politics.

DMLcentral. 28 June 2013.

[2] See: Billur, Aslan: #Geziparki: Social Media’s Role in Turkey’s Protest Movement. CGCS Media Wire, 7 June 2013.

[3] President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military on July 3, 2013.

[4] BBC TV, 2 July 2013

[5] Cited in: The Economist: The digital demo. 29 June 2013.




BREUER, A. 2011 Democracy Promotion in the Age of Social Media : Risks and Challenges. DIE briefing paper, 2011.

BREUER, A. & GOSHEK, J. 2013. Online Media and Offline Empowerment in Democratic Transition: Linking Forms of Internet Use With Political Attitudes and Bahaviours in Post-Rebellion Tunisia. Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association (ICA).

Chao, L. 2013. Brazil : The Social Media Capital of the Universe. The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2013.

IBGE 2009. Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicilio : Acesso a internet e posse de telephone movel cellular para uso pessoal 2008. Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics, National Household Survey on Access to the Internet and Cell Phones for Personal Use.

PEARCE, K.E. & KENDZIOR, S.J.O.C. 2012. Networked authoritarianism and
social media in Azerbaijan. Journal of Communication, 62, 2, 283 – 298.

THEOCHARIS, Y., LOWE, W., VAN DETH, J. & ALBACETE, G. 2013. Using Twitter to Mobilise Protest Action: Transnational Online Mobilisation Patterns and Action Repertoires in the Occupy Wall Street, Indignados and Aganaktismenoi Movements. 41st ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops. Mainz, Germany.

TRIESELMANN, W. 2003. Teenagers’ Hyper-communication in poor areas of Rio de Janeiro. Polemica, published by LABORE & Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), Rio de Janeiro , Brazil.

VALENZUELA, S., ARRIAGADA, A. & SCHERMAN, A. 2012. The social media basis of youth protest. Journal of Communication, 62, 2, 299-314.


Anita Breuer is a Senior Researcher at the Department for Governance, Statehood, and Security of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), where her research focuses on the role of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)  in democracy promotion and development cooperation. She holds a Master in Area Studies Latin America and received her doctoral degree in Political Science from the University of Cologne in 2008. Her further research interests include processes of democratization, direct democracy, citizen participation and protest mobilization, as well as good governance in post-transition democracies. Her work on these issues has been published in several peer reviewed Political Science, Area Studies, and Communications journals including: Journal of Information Technology and Politics, Democratization, Representation, Latin American Politics and Society, and Bulletin of Latin American Research.

Sergio Burns is an author, journalist and blogger who has written for Channel Four TV, Pearl Catlin Productions, Mail On Sunday, Sunday Business Post, Sunday Herald, Contemporary magazine, World Finance, In These Times (USA) and the Austin Chronicle (USA)

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