Rio favela tweets create overnight celebrity

Brazilian police plant a flag in the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday A 17-year-old Twitter user gave Brazilians a rare insider's view of events in his favela

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For the past few days, Brazilians watched transfixed as scenes more reminiscent of Iraq or Afghanistan than of their own "marvellous city", Rio de Janeiro, unfolded live on TV screens.

Smoke rising from burning buses, armoured vehicles moving into the sprawling favelas, heavily armed drug traffickers fleeing across wooded hillsides to escape the advancing police operation - all these images were beamed directly from helicopters into living rooms across Brazil.

In the studios, a succession of security experts, sociologists, lawyers and anthropologists have helped presenters fill the time and interpret what was going on in the "morros" (hills), as the steeply sloping favelas are known.

The voices of the people living inside the favelas themselves were largely absent from the mainstream coverage.

Viewers could only wonder what it was like for residents of the Complexo do Alemao, or German's Complex, hidden from the view of the flak-jacketed reporters crouching at the entrance.

View from inside

But those who turned to Twitter did not have to wonder.

A remarkable, improvised real-time news service was being beamed out of the favela, and gathered followers exponentially in a classic "viral" explosion of interest.

Complexo do Alemao

Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro November 27, 2010
  • Complex of 13 smaller neighbourhoods
  • Surrounds a road that leads to the international airport
  • Population of 65,000 (2002 estimates) who live in 18,000 homes, 15% without sewerage
  • Ranks 149 out of 158 Rio neighbourhoods in terms of social indicators
  • Known for regular clashes between armed gangs and police
  • Has been the target of previous operations against drug traffickers, such as in June 2007 when 19 people died

The user @vozdacomunidade, or Voice of the Community, started sending tweets out at lunchtime on Saturday describing minute-by-minute the bursts of gunfire, explosions and helicopters flying overhead. By Sunday evening more than 20,000 followers had signed up.

What makes this community micro-blog all the more extraordinary is that none of its "reporters" is over the age of 17.

At its heart is an aspiring journalism student called Rene Silva, co-ordinating the operation from a PC in his grandmother's house in the Morro de Adeus within the Complexo do Alemao, helped by a small network of teenage "correspondents" based at strategic points around the favela, each tweeting independently.

At 17, Rene is no novice when it comes to community journalism. He founded a monthly newspaper, also called Voz da Comunidade, when he was just 11.

Acting as reporter, photographer, printer and advertising sales manager, Rene has used the paper to highlight the issues facing residents of the favela, and it soon became a focal point for the community. Local businesses supported the newspaper with advertising, and it attracted sponsorship from one of the Brazilian mobile phone operators.

Voz da Comunidade currently has a print run of around 5,000.

As it became clear his community was in the media spotlight, Rene started tweeting. It did not take long for the Brazilian "Twittersphere" to take notice.

"Intense gunfire now in Complexo", "Machine guns and blasts all around", "People hanging out white cloths calling for peace" - these were the kind of eyewitness reports unavailable to the main broadcasters reliant on distant camera shots and briefings from the police.

While the tweets reflected the fear and tension, there was some humour: "The pizza shop is closed! Saturday night isn't Saturday night without pizza!"

Overnight celebrity

Rene also rigged up a live video stream from the roof of the house using a mobile phone, showing the helicopters buzzing overhead and giving a sense of the terror of the besieged community.

Police and journalists crowd around an operation by security forces in Complexo do Alemao Traditional media were restricted in how much they could cover

The intensity and immediacy of the reporting soon attracted the attention of some of Brazil's best-known journalists who "retweeted" from their own sites and helped Rene pile on the followers.

By Sunday, after a night of little sleep interrupted by the constant crackling of gunfire, Rene was becoming a national celebrity and was interviewed live on mass-audience TV shows.

The tone of responses to Rene's tweets showed that the massive interest was based on much more than curiosity about the events he was reporting.

The Brazilian public, often divided on social issues, seemed uniformly moved in admiration of these young reporters showing such initiative and professionalism.

They defied the stereotype view held by many middle-class Brazilians about favela-dwellers, and Rene found himself bombarded with complimentary tweets praising his courage, pleading with him to be careful and even saying he was starting a revolution in journalism.

Whatever the truth of that, Brazil is certainly at the forefront of the social networking revolution. That was evident from a scan of the "trending" topics registered by Twitter in recent days.

Social Brazilians

For most of the period, at least half of the top 10 "hashtags" trending worldwide related to the police operations in Rio - tags like #paznorio (peace in Rio) and #bope (initials of the elite police unit involved in the operation) showed that the Brazilian conversation was being held at an intensity and volume high enough to dominate global Twitter traffic.

Children play in a swimming pool after the premises owned by an alleged drug dealer were raided by police Rich live alongside poor inside the favelas too

A survey in October by the comScore digital research company found that Brazil was leading the world in terms of Twitter's Internet user penetration at 23%, compared with, for example, 12% in the US.

Google's Orkut is still the most popular social networking site in Brazil, with 36 million users, but Facebook and Twitter, each with some nine million users, are climbing quickly behind it.

Social media generally in Brazil account for some 20% of the time people spend online, making it one of the most popular online activities. Various explanations have been put forward - one being that the relatively restricted ownership and variety of traditional media leave Brazilians open to the new networks of information-sharing.

Whatever the explanation, social networking has thrust Rene Silva into the limelight in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. For many he has become a symbol of hope for what might emerge out of the smoke of the battles with the drug gangs.

At one point in the intense Twitter conversation of the past hours Rene explained he was hoping to train as a journalist at university. The reply came back, "You already are one, my dear."

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