Social Media and the Surveillance State

As Brazilians use social media to plan protests and spread the word about what is going on in various parts of the country, the Agência Brasileira de Inteligência (Brazilian Intelligence Agency; ABIN) itself is beginning to monitor such outlets :

Com a eclosão da crise, o potencial das manifestações passou a ser medido e analisado diariamente pelo Mosaico, sistema online de acompanhamento de cerca de 700 temas definidos pelo ministro-chefe do GSI, general José Elito. Nos relatórios, os oficiais da agência tentam antecipar o roteiro e o tamanho dos protestos, infiltrações de grupos políticos e até supostos financiamento dos eventos.

With the outbreak of the crisis, the possibility of protests came to be monitored and analyzed daily by Mosaic, an online system that follows around 700 themes defined by the minister-chief of the GSI [Gabinete de Segurança Institucional; Institutional Security Cabinet], General José Elito. In the reports, agency officials try to anticipate the script and size of the protests, the infiltration of political groups and even the alleged financing of the events.

A few quick thoughts:

  • Though it isn’t surprising, the opening paragraph makes clear that ABIN apparently believes that such surveillance is defensible because the government offices traditionally responsible for state-society relations have failed, as evidenced by the mere existence of demonstrations. Thus, ABIN effectively is arguing, through its defense of tracing social movements online, that a truly effective government would prevent any form of protest or demonstration from taking place by preempting the people. As a result, broadening the power of security agencies is defensible in order to prevent the people from publicly demonstrating and expressing their opinions directly in the streets. Suffice to say, this is a problematic definition of a democratic society.
  • ABIN’s surveillance of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms provides a powerful reminder of the double-edged nature of such platforms. Certainly, they are highly useful in making photos of on-the-ground repression visible to the whole world at a near-instantaneous pace. However, to plan and announce rallies, such media must be public, which thus makes it very easily-accessible to monitoring from government security apparatuses like ABIN. While monitoring social media cannot necessarily automatically clamp down on free expression and assembly, it can make it easier for police forces to mobilize and repress such movements.
  • The report does hint at the divisions within the executive branch itself in Brazil, reminding us yet again that the presidency is far from a monolithic entity. Apparently, ABIN asserted its power after a split between the chief of staff [a top-ranking cabinet position] and the GSI itself – in other words, a split between civilian cabinet members and military security apparatuses, with the military asserting its authority in the wake of what it perceived to be civilian failures. This sadly is a case that has remained common since the end of the military dictatorship, due in no small part to military officials being given a great amount of power even with the return to democracy, out of fear in the 1980s and early-1990s that the military could launch another coup again some day. Such fears have waned over time, but it is clear that the military continues to exercise a strong amount of control in certain areas of presidential politics and governance in Brazil.
  • Finally, I mentioned earlier today that the bus fare reductions are likely too little too late, and the presidency seems to agree. The article on ABIN quotes a spokesperson for the presidency, saying that the reductions “will not interrupt the process” of demonstrations and that the fares were but one of many issues that need to be addressed. So the federal executive is itself aware that the problems behind the protests go much deeper than 20 cents in São Paulo.
  • That said, it’s hard to see how greater security monitoring of such issues online is going to improve dialogue between the state and society, but that is now the context that Brazilian demonstrators find themselves in. Time will tell what impact (if any) this has, on the protests themselves, on the security apparatuses and the government more broadly, or on the dynamics of civilian-state relations at the national level.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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