Brazil is a country known for its disappearing ideological debates, its de-politicized populace, and a ‘culture of consensus’ that renders political debate among strangers or even friends much rarer than in other parts of the world. So when I read Brazilian news online, I always take a minute to scan user-generated comments, a fascinating prism into the nation’s collective consciousness and often a great source of context and additional data.
As in other countries the comment streams of Brazil’s major newspapers have become the underground battlefield for ideologues. But I’m pretty sure that commentators are not just occasional observers or pathological pundits – they are also hired hacks. You be the judge:
Case Study: Folha de São Paulo
This past week I was surveying comments after reading an article in the Folha de São Paulo on one of Brazil’s most sensitive issues: inflation – “Increase in the basic consumer basket [consumer-price-index] surpasses 10% in three capitals during 2011”. More so than faltering economic growth or unemployment, inflation is Brazil’s boogeyman, a source of unyielding spookage for those who experienced the despair of hyper-inflation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But before describing my startling revelation, just a few numbers to reflect on newspaper consumption in Brazil:
Paper versus Online News
Folha is Brazil’s most widely distributed newspaper, with an average circulation of approximately 300,000 issues a day – about equal to Canada’s most printed paper, the Toronto Star. These numbers are pretty small if you consider that Canada has about 5 times fewer people than Brazil. In short, not many people read the big national newspapers in Brazil. But you might not either if you were a wage earner like 80 percent of the population and a national newspaper costs a hefty US$1.25. This is precisely why online news has exploded in Brazil. The Blog Tribuna da Internet (The Internet Tribune) reports that the Folha de São Paulo broke all records for Brazilian online newspapers in June 2011, clocking-in 19.4 million individual visits – about 650,000 visitors per day. Folha does have a pay wall, but most articles are free.
Conclusion: the internet is where most national newspaper-readers get their news, where opinions are formed, and where commentators wage words for the minds and hearts of fellow Brazilians.
As most everyone who comments on comments has commented, online commenting is not for the faint of heart. It is where the extremes come out.
Explosive Comments on Rising Inflation
Back to my Folha de São Paulo article: total inflation averaged above 10 percent in 17 Brazilian cities during 2011, according to the DIESSE, a government think-tank. In economic terms, this should give the PT reason to worry, especially with municipal elections coming up. In the Folha, a right-leaning newspaper, there were plenty of critical comments about the PT’s management of the economy. It was former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), after all, who broke the back of inflation and smoothed the track for his otherly PT predecessors, Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. But for every handful of critics gibing at Brazil’s current mismanagement, there was a PT defender. Like “Adali Adali”:
During the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the PSDB the desperation of the Brazilian people reached close to 100%. We were the 14th largest economy, we had an unpayable external debt, we created 87,000 jobs a year and the minimum wage did not exceed $100 dollars per month. With the extraordinary government of Lula from Dilma’s PT, today we’re the 6th largest economy in the world, we’ve created 2,200,000 jobs per year, and the minimum salary is $350 dollars, we’ve paid the external debt and we’re creditors of the IMF.
My suspicion is that some of these commenters are hired hands, and what is great about the Folha de Sao Paulo’s commenting system, unlike most newspapers, is that beside each contributor’s name Folha puts the number of comments they have made since registering for the website. Adali Adali has a total of 1119 comments, dating back to February 4th, 2011. That’s an average of 3.3 comments a day, including weekends. Adali Adali’s comments represent a non-stop tirade against the PSDB, the party most associated with the Folha. Folha–Adali Adali–comments against PSDB, this contributor posted the same comment (with minor variations) more than a dozen times. The core message went like this:
The PIG, the Party of the Coup D’État Press [Partido da Imprensa Golpista], associated with the demon-crats-of-the-PSDB, are lost, desperate, and in one more useless attempt to inveigle the worker and elector, embark on a leaking ship of lies, until they gain some trifling advantage with a foul news item like this…
Thumbs up for poetic license, but an emphatic thumbs down for substanceless, repetive, filler calumny.
What are we to make of people like Adali Adali? Hired hacks? Or pathological partisans?
Can Comment Systems Keep Up?
What is clear is that in Brazil and abroad, comment forums are being colonized by noise-makers, whether they be party hacks or common quacks. The comment-software industry is already becoming a highly contested and innovative marketplace. One of the industry leaders, Disqus, is now on more than a million websites, with Facebook social plug-ins offering a relatively new alternative. In the best of cases, one can sort comments by user, ranking (e.g. “like”), or newest/oldest comments, flag abuse or search by keyword.
More options and metrics are needed, however. One idea is to post the average frequency of comment-making. But contributors can cheat, opening up new accounts and pseudonyms. Perhaps one IP address should be limited to one contributor. One extreme solution is to include textual analysis in commenting systems, suggesting whether a contributor writing style/vocabulary is somewhat/considerably/extremely similar to that of another.
The Old Debate: Anonymity vs Accountability
I don’t know about my readers, but I’d rather not hear from people who comment ten times a day, especially if their comments are re-hashed thoughless reactionism. This debate will come down to the old “internet anonymity versus accountability” conundrum— irresolvable in a normative sense, but one can imagine that technical solutions are just around the bend.
Greater political deliberation is needed in Brazil, as it is around the world. But it’s not going to come from extreme positions or hired contributors, but from thoughtful, engaged public debate.