Social media, especially in Latin America, is a way in which more voices can be heard. Last week in Brazil, police officer Antonio Marcos da Silva Figueiredo was shot dead in the northern Brazil town of Belem. Residents of surrounding towns were warned of the incidents and told to stay indoors for the rest of the night. Two questions come to mind: did the warning come from the police or a gang, and why did the people listen?
Brazil has problems with corruption, violence, lack of transparency, and its police force, which has killed 11,197 people in the last 5 years, or an average of 6 deaths per day. The Brazilian population is very aware of the issues, and take to social media to express their opinions. Social media has become important to the Brazilian people who use the application WhatsApp. The app was a major actor by distributing warning messages to stay home during the night that officer Silva Figueiredo was killed.
There are still debates on who sent the message of “Don’t go to Guam, Canudos or Terra Firme tonight. It concerns your security. One of our policemen was killed and we will be cleaning the area. There’s no stopping any of us, not even the highest colonel. The boys are on the loose. Please stay at home. Don’t go hanging out on street corners.” The message was sent through text and audio, and friends sent it to other friends, and so on.
That evening ten people were shot dead. Residents of Belem witnessed the killers ride motorbikes during a six-hour killing spree. The suspects have been identified as policemen belonging to a militarized unit and have described it as a possible retaliation over the death of officer Silva Figueiredo. People in the affected areas shared photos on social media of dead bodies left in the streets.
The speculations that the murders were carried out by off-duty policemen are not based on fiction, since this is not the first time this year police officers lead a revenge attack, killing 12 over the death of a policeman shot in Campinas.
The tactic of letting the public know to stay safe in their homes is usually used by criminal gangs in the area to shift public opinion towards their cause. Police all over Brazil have been investigating criminal gangs using WhatsApp to impose curfews during expected confrontations with other gangs or the police, or even to negotiate the price of drugs. But, maybe this time the police were using social media.
Even Facebook is a getting a piece of this pie. “The hunt has begun... The ROTAM (military police) have blood in their eyes,” appeared on an unofficial police-related Facebook page the same night that Silva Figueiredo was killed.
More messages are now circulating WhatsApp suggesting the cycle of violence between criminals and policemen will continue, especially in poorer neighborhoods. In the meantime, Public Safety Secretariat officials have rejected the allegations against the military police. They believe that social-media reports should be disregarded, and they promised to release more official updates.
Overall, the public feel that security force are using excessive force. “If police treat the streets with the idea of war, you are going to deal with the people in the streets as enemies.” The Brazilian public will most likely not pull away from social media to get information, especially if their safety is in jeopardy. Brazil is highly opposed to Internet surveillance, but they are embracing social media and its ability to structure their newsfeed with vital information that can possible save their lives.