Social media and favelas: The build up of peripheral subjectivities

Social media and favelas: The build up of peripheral subjectivities

Helton Levy

From all the hardship that stem from living in a Brazilian favela, a key challenge remains one of appearing to the “outside world”, one of becoming “gente”, or an ordinary citizen. In fact, favela dwellers have always existed in Brazil’s public sphere, but often appearing as the “favelado”, an old stereotype relating to them as black, young, and “trouble-maker”. Yet, it is not necessary to live in a favela to be a favelado. Any sign of blackness, or poverty could just trigger racism, and class prejudice, which, somehow, has stabilised multiple everyday of country’s urban space.

As Internet access in favelas soars, younger generations of favela dwellers have shown a much active online presence. Some of their publications and interactions involve targeting such prejudices. I have analysed some of this contention when aimed at overcoming the deep-seated favelado stigma and its phenotypic dimensions. I saw that at the early stages of the Internet, some believed much optimistically that with no need to disclose physical locations during online chats, for instance, this could lead to a more horizontal, borderless dialogue with mainstream society.

However, browsing on social media profiles more recently, one sees that performing the favelado has turned more complex than opposition or embodiment, as it has no longer meant a burden for this youth. Stories such as that of Marcelo Belfort, who grew up on the streets of a Rio de Janeiro favela to later become a historian, started to grow in popularity, as it says: “Being a favelado was something very good because I could experiment freedom and creativity, which later constituted fundamental values for my life”.

It is not to suggest that, alone, technology is able to disrupt the former “deprived” sense of all things favela. Instead, it facilitates a critical rebirth of such misconceptions. For instance, Youtube channel Gatomídia (Gato is a slang in Brazilian Portuguese for illegal TV or Internet cable connection) has used the “networked” narrative as a starting point, to soon unveil their real intentions: “The favelado 2.0 is the girl or guy from favela who, neither having training resources, nor having attended courses, can still engage with technology. He or she shoots pictures to his or her entertainment, and knowledge. Yet, we want to guarantee rights, the rights of those living in the community, which are torn apart by other forces”.

Setting the technological drive apart, the idea of the “favelado 2.0” rewrites the rules through which the community is framed to the “outer world”. A question I raised with many youngsters was if social media could live up to their expectations of “rebranding” themselves more fairly. Far from seeing perfection at using social media, some responded that the benefit of adapting to these platforms, in spite of limitations, exists in the degree to which prejudicial “old” media portraits still prevail.

A widely circulated Facebook post reads: “Sensationalism: The periphery is neither a stage, nor is the youth the actors of a theatre. What does it make a foreign journalist come to Brazil and write a story for Reuters, a worldly known website, then spread sensationalist images of Salvador’s peripheral communities? We are not saying there is no drug dealing, death and everything else we know it exists. But we also know why it exists, because of the absence of public policies and government assistance within the communities.”

As we see, on social media this outrage against the “favelado” and correlated stereotypes spreads far beyond individual matters. A favela reporting website sums up what is a no longer acceptable coverage. For example, the use of “slum” is seen as derogatory for some, remaining the standard seen at the international media level: “The strength of a word: The slum stigma. This is not a surprising trend. Every journalist or editor nowadays find numerous cases of colleagues using that definition. Even Google Translator states uncritically that favela is slum and slum is favela” (as seen on Rio on Watch, 14/08/2014).

Indeed, many Facebook pages have attempted new semantic avenues. The word “quilombo”, another example of this creativity, has left its original conception as enclave for fugitive slaves used in colonial Brazil to become synonymous for precariousness and segregation in contemporary favelas.

The same present-past relation exists in Favelados pelo Mundo (Favelados around the world), another Facebook-based publication. Their cover image features a “favelado” hitching a hide hanging on the back of an old bus, but the group is actually aimed at doing travel journalism for favela eyes. It is when they can employ their own expressions and draw similar reactions which an average “favelado” would have. Posts include visits to metropolises such as Paris, New York. That certainly comes as response to an old saying in Brazil that states: “The poor cannot travel”. Here, they do not only travel, but imagine themselves as travellers and, on top of that, as ordinary middle-class citizens.

This exercise of tackling stereotypes, on the other hand, is not to deny the grim side of reality. The page of Papo Reto collective makes no effort in hiding death, crime, and repression. Posts on group meetings and lunches are intertwined with pictures of corpses lying on the favela pavement, most of which victims of never ending police violence. There is certain ambivalence, but that does not compromise the sharp look to social issues, as they put it: “A child being a child. In favela, there are no corners. Our corners are the lanes and alleys. 10 years old, what was your crime? It’s another one of us falling on the ground. Help!”.

Episodes of censorship may also be a constraint and part of their concern when using social media. Particularly, in regards to the graphic images that sometimes are necessary to show how life in favela can inevitably seem. Yet, producers cannot afford being pessimistic, as many favela “newspapers” are only available on Facebook and Whats App.

In spite of increasingly commercialisation of likes and publicity, these platforms still help to conjugate both “hard” and “soft” everyday, which are records that would be otherwise lost. In terms of the image-building, it is through these channels that favela youth can escape the “prison” of cultural, racist images, as some of them argued, which have found on the ‘old-media’ a cosy place. That “liberation” via informal contention happens, nonetheless, without a further renunciation of identity and belonging.

Authors in the past mentioned the “centrality of the emotion” in “popular” media, but the self-design of favela youth in this case demonstrates a consistent planning, and careful handling of words. That leads more to Paulo Freire’s pedagogy in action. Here, more than the “return of the oppressed”, as we find in favela social media a zone of experimentation, in which unprecedented subjectivities can flourish out of pressure. The favela youth, at least in this self-broadcast, do not need to comply with newsworthiness criteria of the violence-hungry media.

With social networks having raised so many expectations of participatory, activist change at one level, or concerns on digital labour, at another, social media have for favela publics a role in feeding a slow consciousness formation, which was previously available only to white, middle-class Brazilians. These smalls pieces of commentary can, in reality, link to a stronger, politicised discourse, building up powerful reflexive imaginaries, and allowing the recognition of multiple personae amid social tragedy. These are major gains of the past few years as, I believe, it will be while favelas continue to exist as exception areas.


Helton Levy is a journalist and PhD researcher at City, University of London. His work analyses the relation of alternative media and inequality in contemporary Brazil.