Brazil, behind the scene: lynching and Facebook

A look into the effects of Facebook on mob violence.
Paulisson Miura/CC BY 2.0/flickr

Brazil is experiencing an increase of homicides.  Parallel to this there is an increase in lynching. Facebook and the web are at the forefront of these tragedies. Behind each case is a cause in common: impunity. Yet, is the practice of mob violence  succeeding to bring justice to a countryfacing a devastating increase of homicides?

An ongoing  practice  

Lynching describes a collective act of violence against an individuals lacking legitimate proof. Numerous countries are witnessing mob violence as such, particularly India, Sudan, Nigeria and Haiti, according to the UNPOL.

In Brazil, individuals implore for justice. Homicide rates went up by 3% in 2017 with a total of 63880. Simultaneously, lynchings have been persistent. Examining this relationship sheds light on this practice of collective violence in this age of social media. 

Currently Brazil is reaching a social boiling point. In his book Linchamentos – A Justiça Popular no Brasil, sociologist José de Souza Martins (University of São Paulo) argues the cases of lynching are more frequent in Brazil after political instability. Examples are World War II, the rise of the military regime in the 1980s, and the wave of protests and riots in 2013

However, Brazil has continuously felt a struggle when it comes to social justice. What exactly is the fuel that has enhanced the horrific character of the brutalities? 

Facebook: replacing the face   

In the last five years, Brazil witnessed on average one case per day, many of which deadly. According to Prof. Martins, the number of cases increased since the 1940s, and more than one million Brazilians are perpetrators in a lynching scene. This amounts to almost 1% of the country’s current adult population.

The use of social media before, during and after each incidence,  reveals a problem that needs facing sooner rather than later. To a Brazilian website, Martins explained the use of social media to encourage and advertise lynchings, normalizes this practice. Thus, generates incentives for its continuation.

Tying the victims to poles, has become a regular procedure in the lynchings in Brazil. It was first done against a suspected criminal in Rio de Janeiro in 2014 and then shared through social media.

In 2014 in Guaruja’, coastal Sao Paolo, a horrific case caused grand commotion. Fabiane Maria de Jesus, a 33 year old woman who, after mistakenly accused of being a child kidnapper, was beaten by a mob of more than one hundred people.

A suspicion prompted by a Facebook post “Guaruja’ Alerta” by a local news outlet, spread the rumor in where children were being abducted for black magic rituals. Fabiane died the next day in the hospital, leaving her husband, two children, and no criminal record.

The video of the brutal scene spread on the web, showing Fabiane dragged by her hair and slammed multiple times to the ground. The local police was called by neighbours and subsequently Fabiane was sent to the hospital.

This case confronts a serious safety alert. To use social media as a tool to initiate collective crime has become too easy. The web being a no man’s land of sorts, yet one inhabited by many citizens, becomes the perfect environment to quickly spread information while faceless individuals fire up in violence. The illusion of justice is subsequently reinforced when the incident is revealed to millions with pride through videos. 

A sticky situation. Hundreds and more involved in this chain of somewhat anonymous events. The individual disconnect through the web is powerful. The perpetrator from the start does not reveal its face, rather hides behind Facebook. The perpetrator at the scene blends in with the hundreds more and its face looses value. What gains value is the video. And the victim’s face.  

The victim, a symbol

With justice, it seems the participants of lynchings seek revenge. And the victim becomes a symbol. This collective energy overwhelms the individuality of any given case, and the victim becomes a tool. A tool for what exactly?

In an interview, Ariadne Natal (University of São Paulo), who researches about violence and public security, explained that cases of lynching are more common in the poorest urban areas of Brazil, where people tend to know their neighbours. Natal explained the participants of mob violence tend to think  they are doing justice given the unreliability of local officials to protect its citizens.

These feelings are not for no reason, since perpetrators of crimes considered heinous in Brazil (such as murder, kidnapping and rape) very often go unpunished. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, only 6% of the homicides in the country are fully investigated in court.

However in 2016, Brazil established laws to deal with crimes committed on the web. False accusations and encouraged violence on the web are now recognized and dealt with by officials. Despite this action towards safety, cases continue to arise in Brazil.

Lynching may seem effective

The fragility of human rights in Brazil acknowledged by this look into mob violence reveals a symbolism acquired by each victim.

A sacrificed life. A protest that implores the government to bring attention to human rights laws. To bring order and safety to the streets. The victim becomes a tool to reveal the unity citizens can reach regardless of their government. Whether this gain in attention is effective towards future policy change is too complex to establish.

Currently the violence is at its peak. As laws are being introduced to deal with the web action, the government engages in superficial action to seem involved in restoring safety while lending attention to  human rights. However, the reality as lynching continues, is that the government in Brazil places bandages rather than facing the complexity of human rights and social order.


Human Rights
Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
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