What can you do with a cheap cell phone with no Internet connection? Call your friends, maybe send a text message, but not much else, right?
And what if you don’t even have that cheap cell phone, and rely only on landlines or public phones? In Brazil, that’s enough to make you a citizen journalist. It’s not magic; it’s just a low-cost solution that is changing the lives of many disadvantaged people in rural parts of South America’s largest country.
Although Brazil is the world’s seventh largest economy and the second largest market for social media, millions of people still have no access to computers. Social and racial inequalities exclude many communities from being able to consume and produce news. Therefore, problems like racism, domestic violence, environmental issues and human rights violations – especially as they affect marginalized people – are often unreported by the mainstream media.
“Young people in the community used their phones to start a conversation on social media and force the municipality to fix the problem.”
But a ‘silent revolution’ is developing. In communities across Brazil that have never had access to mass media or the internet, VOJO, a hosted mobile blogging platform, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Civic Media and led by Dr. Sasha Costanza-Chock, is allowing anyone to create a blog without the need for computers, tablets or smart phones. This disruptive technology gives a voice to many people who previously could not speak up about their problems because of a lack of connectivity or tech literacy.
When using VOJO, people simply dial a number and leave a report, which then goes online in real time. Photos and videos can also be posted via text message. This open-source platform is helping many poor people act as citizen journalists, boosting their visibility even when the mainstream media overlooks them.
A perfect example of VOJO in action comes from the young people of Ilha de Maré, a traditional quilombo community in the state of Bahia, in the country’s northeast. The quilombolas are descendants of runaway slaves and the community has been marginalized for generations.
In Ilha de Maré, the young people now report about their reality. When a foreign ship owned by a major corporation spilled oil in the bay where they live in December 2013, the community was not able to fish for months. The young people felt that the traditional media was not covering the issue, nor was the Government paying attention. But with VOJO, they were able to send photos and audio reports to social media, which created enough buzz so soon thereafter that many websites and the mainstream media were compelled to cover it.
The same thing happened when the municipality of Salvador stopped providing boats for children to go to school. In the past, the only option would have been a slow process of raising awareness and petitioning the mayor, but now the young people in the community used their phones to start a conversation on social media and force the municipality to fix the problem. This is the power of low-tech solutions and why media access is a powerful and empowering thing.
The technology is still being tested and so far approximately 100 people, mostly youth, have been trained in workshops in Bahia and São Paulo. In 2015, with support from the Ford Foundation, the technology will reach at least 10,000 people in five states, making it available on a larger scale. The target groups include people living in slums, traditional Afro-Brazilian communities, land reform movements, indigenous people and other marginalized groups.
The process involves getting to know the problems of the community, informing people of their right to communicate and sharing with them the VOJO technology. It’s also important to build partnerships with local and national community radio stations and blogs, so that they harness the feeds coming from the communities and broadcast them to a broader audience.
Access to the media is a right and we should make sure every child, adolescent and young person has the opportunity to use any technology available to learn and share their viewpoint. Otherwise, we will continue to have a world where some speak and many listen rather than a world where everybody can be heard – no matter their location, religion, race, ethnicity, gender or age.