Two Resilient Cities Laboratory members have teamed up to document how social media platforms are being used as sites of social resilience in Brazil’s City of God, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious favelas, or slums.
Thomas Vicino, chair of the Department of Political Science, and Dietmar Offenhuber, assistant professor of art and design and public policy, received a Provost’s Tier 1 Interdisciplinary Seed Grant in 2016, a $50,000 internal grant designed to stimulate and support interdisciplinary research at Northeastern and to increase the competitiveness of external proposals.
Having one of the highest rates for social media usage of any democracy in the world, Brazil has always been a connected society. In 2013, for example, millions of people were mobilized via social media during the “Brazilian Spring,” a series of demonstrations to protest against increases in bus, train, metro ticket prices, police brutality and corruption.
“We have witnessed social media be used as a platform for social and political change in Brazil,” said Vicino who calls himself a Brazilianist. “It’s a powerful tool, and it’s shaping the city in new and innovative ways.”
Back in 2014 and 2015, Vicino, Offenhuber and PhD student Anjuli Ferreira-Fahlberg conducted ethnographic research in the City of God, discovering that social media platforms have become important spaces of social resilience with 69 percent of households having at least one cellphone and 43 percent having a computer.
“[Ferreira-Fahlberg] worked on collective action in response to violence and contested spaces in the City of God, and this was an important reason to focus this case study,” Offenhuber said.
Virtual spaces can play an important role in efforts around community-building, political activism and collective efficacy. Yet, Vicino and Offenhuber say most studies of these platforms draw primarily from the content of virtual spaces without examining the real-world contexts in which they were created or are used, overlooking many socio-political forces that shape behaviors of social media users.
“While much is known about what people post online, little is known about the meaning behind this content or how these information systems interact with the physical and social structures their users inhabit,” Vicino and Offenhuber wrote in their grant proposal. “This project will begin to construct a methodology we call design ethnography that considers communication technologies and their design arrangements as factors shaping social practices, rather than treating these as just another source of data.”
Their project, therefore, targets important questions about how non-armed residents of zones of violent conflict utilize virtual sites to promote social resilience within their community when traditional avenues for mobilization are inaccessible.
They will combine content analysis of data on Facebook and Whatsapp—two virtual platforms in which City of God residents are most active—with interviews with users and non-users of these platforms, as well as participant-observation in physical spaces where City of God residents mobilize to improve local conditions. The goal, they said, is to conduct a design ethnography that can be applied to future studies of virtual sites of political and social action.
“Our aim is to make an important contribution to studies of urban governance, resilience, and information systems in spaces of insecurity,” said Vicino.
And Offenhuber added:
“I hope to gain new insights in the role of information and communication technologies in informal urban environments, and the role of practices around collecting and disseminating digital information on the governance of these environments.”
With the help of Ferreira-Fahlberg and two graduate students in the Information Design and Visualization program at Northeastern, Vicino and Offenhuber will collect ethnographic data between July 2016 and June 2017. They said they also plan to apply for other grants to document new forms and sites of urban governance and resilience through additional research in Brazilian cities, including Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.