After Brazil's massive protests in June, something became clear: the government was more out of touch than previously imagined.
It's not just the sense and the geographical reality of Brasília's distance from much of Brazil's major cities. It was the federal government's style, its castle on a hill type of governance. It was also the fact that the demonstrations caused trust in institutions to nosedive; trust in the presidency fell 33 percent, and trust in the federal government decreased 23 percent. And since the protests were organized and fueled by social media, members of the administration realized: it was time to get President Dilma Rousseff back online.
Rousseff had abandoned her Twitter account in December 2010, and had no online presence at all after her election, unlike other presidents in the Americas. The protests and her upcoming reelection bid meant that had to change--even if it went against her reserved style.
But then came the NSA scandal, and the focus shifted to privacy, not public engagement. Rousseff took a stand on the issues, calling for changes to internet governance while ensuring freedom of speech. So after the protests died down and she'd spoken out against spying, Rousseff rode the wave of her recovering popularity to the interwebs.
First, in July, Rousseff met with a team of social media experts and her campaign guru, João Santana, to devise a plan. Then she launched the Participatório, which is meant to be a Brazilian version of Facebook to engage young people on policy issues. Then she tapped Valdir Simão, a former tourism official, to run a new "digital" cabinet focused on social media and digital engagement.
Next, she worked on changing her image as a technocrat who's not terribly fond of public speaking or schmoozing or charming people over. In August, the government leaked to the media that Rousseff had taken a joyride on a motorcycle, alluding her security team. She boosted her number of domestic trips to two or three a week, to attend ribbon-cuttings and get more facetime with constitudents.
And finally, on September 27, came the big reveal: a new, hip Dilma, back on Twitter. And not only that: she was sitting next to her alter ego, the country's wildly popular Dilma Bolada, known for her (or rather, his) spoof accounts of the president on Twitter and Facebook. The two, both dressed in shades of red (the color of the Workers Party), exchanged a flurry of tweets in the exaggerated Dilma Bolada style that sometimes made it difficult to distinguish the two.
.@diImabr Bom dia linda maravilhosa,sempre acompanhei vc.Mas não me dê bom dia.Mas me dê bons resultados.— Dilma Rousseff (@dilmabr) September 27, 2013
The normally reserved and formal president took a much more casual tone, and went on to promote the government's redesigned website, to defend her doctor-import program, to speak out against the spying scandal, to criticize the Economist's new pessimistic Brazil report, and to launch her new Instagram account, featuring images of her with celebrities, world leaders, and constituents.
That one of the world's most powerful leaders would call in a nerdy young Carioca social media whiz to help her boost her image speaks to the ever-growing power of social media.
During the initial tweeting, Rousseff also announced that a Facebook page is coming soon. And she even had some fun.
.@diImabr Eu voltei, voltei para ficar. Porque aqui, aqui é meu lugar.— Dilma Rousseff (@dilmabr) September 27, 2013
Sim & me diverti pra valer. Será que vc tem carteira pra dirigir moto? Se tiver, da próxima vez, podemos atuar no 8º Velozes e Furiosas.— Dilma Rousseff (@dilmabr) September 27, 2013
Alexandre Barros, a political risk consultant, told Mercopress: "It's something to better her image and show she's accessible, that she talks to people, that she's nice, because her reputation as far as being open isn't very good." But now, she has to keep up the momentum, even if it's just staff members updating her account. Since Friday, she's tweeted about a new report on inequality, soccer player Ronaldinho Gaúcho, and her meeting with the Paraguayan president. But one publicity stunt won't be enough to keep constituents engaged, especially young people.
In a recent interview, Fábio Malini, who studies social media in Brazil, commented on potential for the federal government to engage people on Facebook and Twitter, noting what he thinks is necessary for success. "[W]hen the government starts an open dialogue online, it has to adapt to the reality of the web. It’s a reality in which there’s no possibility to construct a singular truth," he said. "The government must create space, especially multimedia spaces, to form a direct dialogue. Whether it’s the president, her ministers, or the government’s technocrats, they should be in direct contact in real time, live in some cases, with people who have different political positions and demands."
Image: Dilma (president) with Dilma Bolada (alter ego). Palacio do Planalto via Instagram.