Midia Ninja counterattack – On indigenous activism and land rights
Two members of the Brazilian activist media project Midia Ninja are visiting the Netherlands to talk about their experiences and to establish contacts for future communication battles. In the upper room of Paradiso, Rafael and Felipe gave an overview of their history on Monday 3 June, accompanied by startling images. Later this week they give more workshops in The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam; Friday 7 June evening at Framer Framed.
The history of Midia Ninja (Ninja is an acronym for Narrativas INdependentes, Jornalismo e Ação, independent stories, journalism and action, but hardly anyone knows that) coincides exactly with the rise of the internet. As modern youngsters they were in the middle of it, in the late 90s when the possibilities for communication also increased in Brazil. That is extra important in a very large country. But the negative effects were soon noticeable. The early Ninjas were mainly concerned with alternative culture, and saw that the internet destroyed the small music business. The rise of napster made it possible to download music for free, with the result that nobody could sell his/her music anymore.
From a meeting of people who were involved in alternative music and culture, initiatives came to organize alternative festivals. A network of such festivals and groups was formed, and the members were also explicitly involved with ‘the production of content’ using the ‘cheap new tools’ that the internet also offered. What was special was that it mainly concerned places that were located outside the major metropolises, ‘out of center’ throughout Brazil. One of those groups in Cuiabá (capital of the state of Mato Grosso) decided to deal with the precarious circumstances collectively, by moving into a collective building where people could live and work and party. That was a great success, which is not very common in the rather conservative city. The material circumstances remained precarious, the electricity bill was sometimes dealt by installing illegal taps, and with the help of a benefit CD from local rap groups. But it was a success, and the model of a collective housing-and-work center was also established in other places. “These were also different times,” Rafael and Felipe said; left-wing union leader Lula came to power, and popular left-wing singer Gilberto Gil became minister of culture.
Outside of the axis
The concept grew like a cabbage and after five years there were 200 festivals in 60 different cities under the name ‘fora do eixo’ (outside the axis, meaning the São Paulo-Rio axis, the largest cities that dominate everything).
Critics from the central cities claimed that the model only worked ‘in the province’, so they took up challenge by opening a centre in Sao Paulo in 2011, which again became very popular. Then came a period of global protests, with the uprising in Tunisia, the square occupations and so on, which also reached Brazil, and also in São Paulo there were more demonstrations including against the war on drugs and the criminalisation of smoking weed (allowing the police to shoot up to 60,000 people a year). That relatively small demonstration was beaten apart by the police. That was the moment that they, from the cultural centre in Sao Paulo, joined forces with the more political movement. Partly because of their input and participation, a demonstration against police violence was approached differently and framed differently (as a ‘march for freedom’).
Communicating with ‘ordinary people’ (and not only with political activists) is a guiding principle of the Ninjas. Because of the different way of communicating, there were many more people than usual, and the demonstration was also reported differently. It also brought attention to the cultural centre, and many journalists became ‘members’ of it. A kind of buzz arose as if something very special was going on there. They put it into perspective themselves, but the attention was of course welcome.
After that more and more political movements came to them, they were suddenly taken seriously. Large organisations such as the landless farmers MST and the homeless movement Sem Teto were amongst them. “It turned out that our knowledge about the use of social media and the organisation of festivals with scarce resources was worth a lot.”
In 2013, there was a veritable explosion of protest around the increase in bus ticket prices. The economy is then in crisis, because the BRICS countries worldwide are paying the bill for the Lehman crisis. Only then was Midia Ninja officially founded under its current name. It’s an interesting moment because at that moment the media themselves were in a crisis, like the music industry before, and also instigated by internet. Many journalists were fired, there was a real need for new ways to make reports.
There were demonstrations with sometimes a million participants. These people saw how the mainstream media made a mess of it and portrayed them as idiots or ignored them altogether. They then saw social media coverage from within the demonstrations, often from Midia Ninja or from that network. Ninja, for example, had a live stream that almost 200,000 people watched at the same time at a record time. One of the most famous journalists tweeted that the demonstrations would continue for as long as the battery of Midia Ninja’s phone would last. “All that with a rickety phone and a prepaid card”. We see a video in which the riot police try to arrest one of the Ninja-journalists filming with his phone “because he’s not a journalist”, surrounded by thousands of demonstrators who chant that the Ninja belongs to them, after which they have to release him again.
The attention for Midia Ninja grew explosively bedause of this kind of work, also helped by a performance of two of the members in a debate programme on regular TV, Roda Viva. (see video) The programme was meant to ridiculize them as ‘fake journalists’, but they hold their ground very well and make publicity for activism and activist media. According to the two members of MJ it is important to constantly realize that you have to stand on two feet: “in the matrix, and in the street”. In other words, savvy media without participating in the protests themselves is of little value.
Since then there have been countless campaigns, often for radical purposes and with grassroots movements, but also for left-wing political candidates in campaigns where the extreme right was in danger of winning. The same goes for the last one, during the election with Bolsonaro as candidate. They had a massive campaign to try to address people face to face, in the street and with stands to ‘turn the voice around’ (vira o voto). “In the end we lost, Bolsonaro won, but the difference was that a lot of people were not depressed but were militant because we did everything we could to prevent it”. Crucial to Boslonaro’s victory was that they succeeden in putting the popular Lula in jail for alleged bribery in a very controversial trial. That paved the way for Bolsonaro. And before that there was The Coup, which resulted in the dismissal of Dilma Roussef (again on wafer-thin accusations of malpractice, see here earlier report on globalinfo). “With all these three events, in the end we lost…”
According to the theory of Midia Ninja, a new audience has in fact emerged, a new movement as well. It is no longer the ‘proletariat’, but the ‘commentariat’; the people who are debating on social media.
The collective now has about 50 people working in it, but around them thousands of people who actively contribute. The funding is “always precarious and above all done by reducing costs as much as possible, and working together unpaid”, but with the familiar mixture of paid assignments, donations, crowdfunding and some subsidy (“in which we are extremely picky: we do not accept any conditions, and no interference with the content”). The reach of Midia Ninja’s campaigns is hard to estimate, but if you count all the followers of the different media platforms they use, there are about 5 million. At large events with a lot of re-links and such, they sometimes reach as many as 50 million people.
Due to the success of Midia Ninja in increasing the reach of campaigns and protests, the right is increasingly taking aim at them. All kinds of fake stories appear that they were (as always) sent by Soros, and would be a secret media project of the workers’ party PT.
After the heavy defeats in national campaigns, they have now mainly gone back to their basics: to travel through the country again to visit smaller cities and help set up projects there. They also focus on what they call “small victories”, such as a successful local festival or a successful local election campaign.
They are less worried about the repression now, than when Bolsonaro had just won and openly threatened to destroy everything on the left. The new government has made a huge mess of the country and they have their hands full to keep the ship afloat. They are rapidly losing popularity. “If he succeeds in getting the economy back on track, we will start worrying again.” The best defence against repression is te be known: “We would rather be well known than be hiding”.
Also interesting was their observation of how the massive protests in 2013 at some point were ‘turned’ towards a general anti-government sentiment. The left-wing Dilma Rousseff ruled and the raising of the bus tickets had withdrawn because of the protests. The movements that had originally organised the protests had also withdrawn publicly. But the protests continued most of the time, but with a different content and directed against ‘corrupt politicians’ in general. This is a completely different frame in which the right, if they have candidates who present themselves as anti-politicians, can profit. While in reality they themselves have an enormous past full of corruption, of which you will see nothing in the media and campaigns.
The phenomenon of ‘bots’ in social media campaigns was also discussed. These are fake followers that Bolsonaro also made clear use of and that can make politicians and their campaigns trending (just like Salvini and Grillo in Italy). Also in this case Steve Bannon and his financiers were involved. But, as the two Ninjas in Paradiso warn, it’s never just the bots that make the difference. These are often means to break through a certain point and there are also real followers who actually voluntarily pass on the propaganda. The latter do exist, therefore, and it is important to see how they are reached and why poor people start supporting creeps who are clearly going against their interests (of those poor people, I mean).
Midia Ninja has also done many campaigns with organisations of indigenous peoples. Under Bolsonaro, they are now severely affected, because he wants to abolish their scarce acquired rights so that corporations can plunder their territory. But there is also a lot of resistance. That theme is central to their workshop at Framer Framed on Friday 7 June (19.00-20.30, IJpromenade 2 Amsterdam Noord.
Amsterdam, 5 juni 2019
Activisme / New media / Politics and technology /