Live Easter in Alemão, Rio de Janeiro
By Adriano Belisário and Eric French
Mobil-Eyes Us is a project of the WITNESS and the WITNESS Media Lab to explore potential new approaches to livestream storytelling for action. We look at technologies, tactics and storytelling strategies to use live video to connect viewers to frontline experiences of human rights issues they care about, so they become ‘distant witnesses’ who will take meaningful actions to support frontline activists.  We have developed a series of storytelling experiments, in collaboration with favela-based human rights activists in Rio de Janeiro, which has lead to an app.
This app, Mobil-Eyes Us (which is in its alpha stages), enables an activist group to curate a series of eyewitness Facebook livestreams and push these to the relevant people in their network to watch and take individual or collective action. They would be able to rapidly share a stream so more people are present and witness an incident,  help translate, provide guidance or give context.These blog posts are part of our exploration of effective new approaches to livestreaming storytelling, the technologies that can support this and how both can be linked to effective ‘distant witness’ action around livestreamings as part of the Mobil-Eyes Us project at WITNESS.
MEU pilot with Coletivo Papo Reto and Grupo Mulheres em Ação no Alemão

In the last Mobil-Eyes Us pilot, our frontline partners, Coletivo Papo Reto, livestreamed through Facebook at an Easter event organized by Grupo Mulheres em Ação no Alemão (Women in Action In Alemão) for children and their parents. The event took place April 27 in Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

During the broadcast, Papo Reto interviewed leaders from the women’s group, like Camila Santos, about the current situation in Alemão and how it affects children and families. The pilot was an opportunity to amplify relevant issues for the community and to connect to a larger international and local audience. Supporters from Defend Democracy in Brazil (based in NYC) and Datalabe (based in Rio), among other local and international activists and supporterss, attended to help with context and translation.

Why did we use the app instead of doing the pilot directly within Facebook?

Papo Reto have a presence and work through Facebook. We have worked with them and tested the MEU methodology through this space during the Rio Olympics and other settings. We then decided to create a dedicated platform that would help us streamline the methodology and processes we had developed in our previous work. This app is then a vehicle to continue to test out and improve these processes of connecting people through livestreams in real time. The advantages of having its own app is that distant witnesses would be vetted beforehand to determine their level of commitment to a cause and what expertise they could provide. This filters out trolls present on activists’ Facebook pages and facilitates determining who is better suited to help out with a particular need. The stream itself still comes from Facebook, and people there can access it, but only targeted distant witnesses would be able to take more focused actions that support frontline witnesses like Coletivo Papo Reto on the MEU app. The app, for security and logistical concerns, has not been so far made broadly available.

The Mobil-Eyes Us project followed previous cases involving the use of media and live streaming in the housing movements in Favela da Skol, one of the favelas from Complexo do Alemão. We presented some of those streamings from previous years in this article about storytelling and narrative arc.

During this last streaming, Camila also broke some news to the audience. She said that despite the promise of the last government about the resources for Alemão’s urbanization, the new federal government declared in internal meetings with local leaderships that they had no more money for it. According to Camila, the current minister of regional development oriented her to talk about it directly with Paulo Guedes, considered a “superminister” since his role concentrates almost all economic attributions of the government lead by president Jair Bolsonaro.  

Who was involved in the pilot?

Coletivo Papo Reto and Grupo Mulheres em Ação no Alemão were the frontline witnesses in the pilot: those who know the realities of their communities first-hand and are telling those stories, in this case, through real time broadcasts. Distant witnesses are activists and others who want to support this work and be present in solidarity, though remotely because of the many logistical reasons they are not able to be there in person. In our model of work, distant witnesses can either get quickly called to be present and observe if an incident requires a large number of people to share what is happening so it gets the required public attention, and they can be more actively engaged and contribute with information needs that can complement and enrich the stories of these communities, and get more people to care, and then get even more needed public attention. Some of the needs that we have determined distant witnesses can contribute based on past pilots are translation (to expand to more international audiences), context (how the stories are connected to other similar ones, to previous incidents that have happened in the community?) and legal or other type of guidance (for those who are observing locally from the same community, what essential things would they want to know immediately).

For this pilot, we then recruited people with a mix of different backgrounds that could translate or give context and whose expertise would be relevant to Papo Reto’s work as distant witnesses in the pilot: an immigrant justice livestreamer, Brazilians expat activists from Defend Democracy in Brazil, researchers who have worked around structural inequality and one who lived in Alemão and researched policing of communities in Rio, a data analyst, a journalist and some WITNESS staff.

They all got prior instructions so they were prepared at the moment the event started and so they knew what was expected from them. Some had downloaded the app and some decided to engage in the platform via their laptops because they didn’t have an Android phone.

Community events and a hard routine

This pilot aimed to enable distant witnesses to provide solidarity on the one hand, but also to enable Women In Action to show how their own community in solidarity works. The choice to cover it was proposed by Papo Reto. They wanted to show the relation between how violence impacts children and school, and how they continue to do this work amid violence, as well as the role of women’s support groups and mental health support. As part of the livestream they did two interviews, neither of which was “heavy” or denouncing abuses, but they talked regarding public security issues in a cultural event – a reflection that every action in favelas is inherently about human rights and resistance. The Collective also knows from experience that within their own community, when they document and livestream, community member like it when they mix issues and engage people rather than just denounce abuses.

All around Alemão and other favelas in Rio, women organize these kinds of community-spirited events for children, especially on the holidays.

As some of our distant witnesses noted: “Women are the backbone of the community in Complexo do Alemao, as in many places around the world. They are often the ones who run volunteer efforts like these”.

These kind of events bring community together and strengthen solidarity. This is particularly important in Alemão, where government has a long record of neglecting real needs and daily life is often violently interrupted by police activity.

Complexo do Alemão is a group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro with 69.413 residents in 2010, according the last Brazilian census. In 2011, Alemão received a Pacifying Police Unit but it didn’t solve the regular conflicts there. During the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro last year, the Rio’s initiative Fogo Cruzado registered 463 gun shootings around 177 schools in the city. In 2017, it was 169.

Women in Action In Alemão

The group of women was created to act from inside the favela, since the government and traditional NGOs were not being effective to tackle local demands. They have helped families during conflicts or disasters and emergency and also organize grassroots events to gather together the community during the main holidays.

During the 2019 Easter, they wanted to bring together kids, parents and people from outside in order to show how they could work better together and what they were capable to do by themselves, with their own initiative.

Events like this strengthen the community’s ability to work together and highlight the demands for territory in the voice of the residents themselves. During the streaming, the Women in Action Group of Alemao explained the story of the emergence of their community organization initiative, given the inadequacy of the traditional entities / structures.

They spoke about how they have no political affiliation, and do not accept money from anyone, because this would make their activities suspect. That’s a really important subtext, where people are often suspicious of the motivations for actions like this – too often politicians organize events like this to buy votes from the very numerous favela population. Keep in mind that everyone is required to vote in Brazil.

“We don’t associate with political parties, and we don’t take cash donations. We only take in-kind donations – like, people can buy milk and donate to us, but we won’t take money”, explained Camila dos Santos.

Sharing support

Check out below some messages of solidarity from distant witness to the frontline activists of Coletivo Papo Reto and the Grupo Mulheres em Ação no Alemão, during the last from Mobil-Eyes Us streaming:

It's incredible and inspiring to see this event organized by women bringing the community together! Sending all the support and solidarity from NYC <3
Thank you Women in Action for the initiative! very inspiring!
Belo trabalho! Great work!! Abraços do Comitê Defend Democracy in Brazil de Nova York!
Boa sorte com o programa gente! foi um prazer participar aqui de Nova York! continuem o belo trabalho!!! (Good look with the work people! It was a pleasure to attend here from New York! Keep doing this beautiful work!)
Thank you Women in Action for the initiative! Very proud of you all! much love from Defend democracy in Brazil, a collective from New York!
Really grateful to be able to witness this amazing day. thanks for sharing!
What next?

To keep up with more events and stories coming from these communities, you can take a look on the Facebook page from Coletivo Papo Reto and others collectives from Complexo do Alemão, like Voz das Comunidades.

Based on this experience and feedback from the participants (which you can read below), we will continue improving the process of connecting activists with solidarity opportunities in real time through livestreams. Follow our work on livestream and co-present storytelling for action.

How did the pilot go? What worked? What can be improved?

The event started within the expected time period, and those distant witnesses with a phone got an alert when it started on Facebook. We had to manually send the link to the stream within the platform to those using their laptops because the notification functionality only works on phones.

They then saw the festivities: people dancing, singing and eating. We already had explained a bit what the event was going to be about, and so distant witnesses were able to provide background information to what was happening, ask questions and send messages of support, sometimes reminded to do so by alert messages we would send. As Papo Reto interviewed some of the leaders from the Women in Action In Alemão group, depending on the topic that was being discussed, we would also ask questions to our distant witnesses so they could enrich the conversation with other types of information. We would ask if they had experienced events like these and why are they important. When the interviewees talked about housing or policing issues, we would ask distant witnesses if these resonates with experience closer to home.

Here are anonymous quotes based on the feedback we got from the distant witnesses that participated:

The livestream of the event did make participants feel more connected:
I think the livestream was really essential. It wouldn't have been at all the same, even if I could only hear what was going on. I think there's a stronger psychological connection when you can see people, their faces, emotions, particularly for a community event where the full livestream really gives you a sense of how this community is being brought together by this group of women, and then having the opportunity to hear the women talking about the community. It was very impactful and the livestream was a critical part of that.
Being able to WITNESS the livestream and interacting with other people through the tool made me feel very connected. I had to run to meet up with a friend but it was actually hard to leave because I felt really involved in what was happening!
I definitely felt connected to what was happening during the event. I think the combination of the live stream and moments when Lana was going around interviewing people made the experience feel really catered to the online viewers.
But various participants were hesitant on how best to contribute and how those were valuable or not:
At first I was very nervous, thinking I wasn't well-qualified with knowledge of that context, but after things got going and I started searching websites, I realized I was able to contribute meaningfully with background and details.

A contextualizer would have liked to have been able to contribute more:

But if I had more of a connection to the place/event, then yes, I think this model is very interesting... I was more focused on making decisions about whether or not I was making good choices about providing content: In other words, I was less focused on 'listening' and more focused on trying to 'perform' well.
The main thing I felt was missing was an understanding of who was reading what I wrote. I felt a bit like I was writing into nothingness, that it didn't matter what I wrote because I had no feedback that anyone was reading it. Even just knowing how many users/audience members were logged in would have helped. But if I had known who else in particular was there, I could have tailored my comments. As it was, I didn't know what kind of thing to write. Were these Brazilians? Americans? Did they understand Portuguese or did I need to translate as well as analyze? These were some of the most basic questions that came up.
Some of this was determined by language issues (which is dependant on translator’s ability to contribute):

The context would depend on what was being translated at the moment: hard to determine what type of information was relevant to contribute in a particular time. Also, some participants felt like they were “getting lost on translation”.

It felt a bit hectic to listen and translate and analyze all at once. I wasn't sure where to begin. It would have been helpful to know if others were responsible for the translation, and if so, who they were. And the alerts just gave me one more thing to do, so it made it a bit more hectic.
I felt like I eventually understood where I needed to contribute, as messages came up prompting for specific types of contributions. But it did feel hard at first because of the language barrier. I felt like it did not know what they were talking about enough to even ask the right questions. As translations came through however, it felt a lot more natural. Having as much of the content be translated as possible would definitely be a priority in my eyes, though of course that depends on the target audience. I wonder if there are automatic captioning/translating options (like youtube has I believe?).

If the contextualizer only spoke English, would only be able to access internationally-focused research or news, so that also limited the type of context that could be given.

Yes - not speaking Portuguese I was relying on the translation to get the full context (which sometimes wasn't able to catch everything that was being said in the interview).

For a translator:

The interviews seems important to be translated and for this we need better sound. also, It seems simpler than actually is!!
And though we provided a bit of resources and basic information on what the event was going to be about and what the groups involved were, both translators and contextualizers needed a bit more background info on them. Some felt that this knowledge would help them contribute better:

For a translator:

For this specific I think I needed more info on their work, what they have done, who are these groups working together with them…about the housing work they are doing” but “there was not much to add because the event was very alive and self explanatory somehow.
The main thing is on having strong background on where to find info on the topic (and specific event/things related to it) as a baseline for providing context. Otherwise it risks being way off or only providing context to what gets translated into English.

A contextualizer would have wanted more time to figure out research and the platform:

Unless you're an expert in the situation, the first 20 minutes is just spent navigating the relevant sites with info.
Maybe one way to feel more connected would be to have a quick bio and picture of the interviewer or spokesperson if there are going to be any during the stream? It would help identify the people we're seeing on the screen. I can also imagine links to social media or websites of any involved organization being useful for getting more background knowledge/continued engagement after the stream is over.
And yet there was a different type of connection with the community through the experience of learning by doing:
The search process though gave me exposure to a host of community issues around Rio that I wouldn't have otherwise had at the front of my mind.
But as one of the main objectives of the initiative is to create solidarity bonds, there is more that can be done in this regard to make sure it is inclusive (with local perspectives contributing as well as international ones) and having a way for the different participants to have conversations and connect in other ways with each other:
I do have concerns about the curation of context (ie if context providers/researchers eventually just use the opportunity to promote what they are most connected to or aligned with). I think this is a really good/interesting role for researchers/journalists in combination with community context providers.
It could be interesting to have even another section where international or regional affiliates could try and connect, share more about what they're doing and open up options for solidarity. I'm not sure about 'participating' as it seems like there's potential to overwhelm a local action through the desire for hundreds or thousands of people somewhere else to participate in real-time. It does seem like an amazing way forge new grassroots partnerships within and across borders, spurred by the event, but without requiring participation during it.
Another way to participate would be to send reaction/emojis like during facebook livestreams, but I feel like that possibility would flatten the interaction. Communication through text incentivizes the contributor to participate more consciously, perhaps? However, it might be a good way to bypass the language barrier.
Wrapping up:

People want to participate and be helpful, but sometimes they don’t know how what they know is relevant or important. It is easier for people to know how to contribute if there is a specific ask from them, so the alerts help in this regard. You also need someone to take the initiative first so others feel comfortable following and adding their own contributions. We had participants with some first-hand knowledge of the community, but it would have been better to have a local perspective in the mix as well to interact with the other distant witnesses and guide these conversations. When prompted to ask questions or send messages of support, the distant witnesses didn’t hesitate to do so, but doing research and finding relevant information was more time consuming and harder to do well. Having someone from the community coordinate the tasks to be done (and the information needed) might have make it easier for distant witnesses to find what was needed and at the same time connect directly with frontline witnesses beyond what they were observing. This has been the plan with the platform originally, and ideally Coletivo Papo Reto or the Women’s in Action In Alemão group would have been the ones messaging with the distant witnesses directly.

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