In this blog post, CDE Associate Member Dr Cristiane Bernardes reports on preliminary findings of a project that explores the way parliamentarians in Brazil use social media. It shows that social media has become the main channel of communication for Brazilian federal deputies.
How are parliamentarians using social media? What kind of strategies are they adopting for real time engagement with citizens? And how central are these platforms for their communication strategies? These are some of the issues I focus on in this post, where I share information collected through a survey of political advisors of Members of the Brazilian Congress (Barros et al, 2020). This research is part of a project led by a group of researchers from the Training Centre (CEFOR) of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, which I’m part of. The project is interested in mapping and explaining how politicians reframe their relationships with political authorities and with society in the contemporary context of digital communication, mainly through social media.
The research reported here is based on an online survey of advisors of Brazilian Federal Deputies, through which we asked about their strategies in using social media; which social media do they use in a daily basis, for what type of activity, and the political purposes behind their social media strategies. Our research shows that social media has become the main political communication channel for most of the Brazilian federal parliamentarians, used as a replacement for traditional media such as television or radio.
We have studied the different digital tools mobilized by legislatures and parliamentarians to perform their roles and activities, for more than a decade now. Social media have become incredibly important for the Brazilian population in recent times, as shown by the data from the Global Statshot Report (2020). While 51% of the world’s population uses social media, in Brazil this rate reaches 66% of the population, that is 138.6 million people. It is in this context that representatives seem to have started mobilizing professional resources to develop a mixed strategy for political communication through social media.
This research is still ongoing, but the first results show that parliamentarians are selecting different platforms as a way of targeting specific audiences for different purposes. The study includes all of the following: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram and LinkedIn. The online survey, applied between November 2019 and March 2020, was responded to by parliamentary advisors who are responsible for the management of Deputies’ social media content. The sample consists of 155 respondents, corresponding to 30% of the 513 parliamentary offices from the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies. The sample corresponds to parliamentarians from 25 parties, covering all geographic regions of the country, as a way to establish party and regional diversity.
Sixty-five percent of the respondents said their offices produced content, language and multimedia material adapted to each specific social media platform, in a strategy of complementarity and crossing content between posts. The priorities are Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, but WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn and Telegram also receive attention. In this way, parliamentarians are doing the same thing companies and citizens do in social media platforms: trying to communicate with specific publics in different ways and through different channels.
Overall, the main goal of using social media for 4/5 of the offices is to inform the public about actions performed by their representatives. Reporting on the political issues of states and municipalities is also cited as an important task for 1/3 of respondents (Brazil is a federation divided in federal states, which are themselves then sub-divided into municipalities). The research shows that social media are being used as channels for dissemination of information and of opinions, in the same way traditional media have been used for decades. However, the journalistic mediation is softened, because politicians do not need journalists anymore to share their views with citizens through their profiles.
This means, essentially, that politicians are creating their own channels for dissemination of information and opinions, trying to communicate directly with citizens without having to go through journalistic gatekeepers. On one hand, this process guarantees free and direct access to all the opinions and political discourse of each representative. On the other hand, though, it also hinders citizens having access to the diversity of opinions that compose parliament. In other words, the filter-bubble is strengthened while the space where one might be exposed to varied perspectives, claims and political views is weakened.
It is worth noting that Brazil presents some peculiarities regarding the use of social media. Unlike other nations, WhatsApp is one of the platforms preferred by the population, not only because of its free inclusion in basic mobile phone plans, but also because it is seen as an easy source – although not always credible – to obtain political information. According to data from Agência Brasil, WhatsApp is used by 89% of internet users in Brazil, being also the main form of digital access to news for 79% of them, while television was only used by 50% of respondents (Agência Brasil, 2019).
Parliamentarians seem very aware of this popular preference, since WhatsApp is the main tool for interaction with social groups, supporters, journalists, state and municipal political actors and social movements. Because of its opaque character, in that any exchanges are only visible to those who belong to the specific group, rather than being publicly available, WhatsApp is used for mobilization purposes, expressions of support or criticism in keeping local alliances, accountability and maintenance of strong ties with constituencies.
It is worth noting that these relationships can be seen by citizens as more personal than those maintained in other social media. Of course, I am not saying these interactions have the same meaning for all political actors, but the potential for a close contact with the representative is still there. Which also brings attention to the problems of Fake News and the spread of gossip and rumours, as the information does not circulate in a public way and cannot be publicly challenged.
Social media provides a more extensive reach of audiences, than traditional media, due to its popularity and easiness of use, whilst at the same time incentivizing a closer interaction with specific groups. In this way, representatives can achieve great diversification of topics disseminated, produced and commented while targeting specialized audiences. The potential for interaction and contact with citizens and support groups is therefore expanded in the political communication that Brazilian Deputies are developing through multi-networks, where citizens can feel closer to representatives. It seems that platforms for private messaging are used to maintain strong ties with specific groups – authorities, supporters, activists, pressure groups, etc. – while the more open social media – like Twitter or Instagram – aim to reach the public opinion and ordinary citizens inside and outside constituencies.
This research is still being developed, with data to be analyzed through the next few months. We hope to understand better how representatives use all platforms combined to build a public political identity through social media and, at the same time, communicate more deeply with specific groups in ways that are hidden from public scrutiny. The implications of this process are still being analyzed, but we already know it is changing the internal organization of parliamentary offices, as well as the strategies of communication and engagement adopted by parliamentarians.
Dr Cristiane Bernardes is a lecturer at the Training Centre (CEFOR) of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, research associate at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology (SOAS University of London) and an Associate Member of the Centre for Democratic Engagement (University of Leeds);
Barros, A. T.; Bernardes, C. B.; Faria, C. F. S.; Busanello, E. (2020) Mandatos digitais e sua gestão: as estratégias de uso das mídias sociais pelos deputados federais. In: III Congresso do Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia em Democracia Digital, Salvador. Anais do III Congresso do INCT-DD.