One of Brazil’s Biggest YouTubers Took on the Country’s President. Now He’s in Fear for His Life.

Politicians are realizing the power YouTubers hold over viewers — right as those same creators are finding their voice

Image: Felipe Neto/Chris Stokel-Walker

September Felipe Neto’s mother was forced to flee Brazil after her son, one of the country’s most famous YouTubers, received countless threats from unnamed masses. It’s a sad but normal occurrence for many digital creators, but the threats Neto’s mother received were different: they were stoked by supporters of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and the evangelical fundamentalist mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcello Crivella.

The YouTuber, one of the biggest in the world with 34 million subscribers, didn’t avoid the mob’s ire, either. He’s been forced to cancel events including a pro-education meeting in Rio de Janeiro, after receiving threats that made him fear for his life and of his relatives.

“In a way, we were expecting that could happen,” Neto says in a rare interview with FFWD. “This is the reflection of a society without education, without study, that ends up falling to a side of hatred, oppression and violence to try to impose what it considers right.”

Neto’s crime? Talking about politics on his YouTube channel — which is normally devoted to humour and entertainment. But as well as talking politics, he also decided to take real action against censorship and bigotry by doing more than just yelling in front of a camera.

Neto used his massive platform to speak out against homophobia and the censorship attempt imposed by Rio de Janeiro mayor Crivella, who tried to prevent the marketing of an X-Men comic book with a LGBT-friendly theme during the city’s Bienal do Livro, an annual book festival.

Crivella was so appalled by the notion that the LGBT-friendly comic book, which featured two characters sharing a gay kiss, was on sale that he ordered every copy of Avengers: The Children’s Crusade in the city be taken off sale, saying in a video posted on Twitter that it contained “sexual content for minors” and his censorship was a way to “protect the minors of our city”.

Among those who revolted was Felipe Neto, who owns Brazil’s third-most subscribed channel and the seventh-most viewed platform on Brazilian YouTube. “I decided to act because censorship and oppression must be fought with all our might,” he says. “To remain silent while a government tries to implement a theocracy and impose values is to be conniving.”

Neto didn’t just post a video about the controversy: he used his YouTube income to buy 14,000 books, the entire stock of LGBT-themed books at the Book Biennale, and distribute them free of charge to those present as a way to challenge censorship.

He was never an activist, and in a recent interview to Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo he said that his YouTube channel “is a channel for entertainment and [having] fun. I am, before anything else, a content creator. Within this content, I reach all ages and all kinds of audiences, without distinction. I’m not the left-wing presenter, I’m not a political YouTuber.”

But he has dedicated himself to talk more and more about politics in his channel and specially on his Twitter profile after the election of the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018, and says he will use his YouTube channel whenever he feels necessary.

Neto tells FFWD that “not only YouTube, but all kinds of platforms or social media” are important for political activism. “No wonder the extreme right has teamed up with Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica to manipulate information, propagate fake-news and map voters’ behavior online,” he says.

“Today, nothing is stronger than the digital, and our 2018 elections [in Brazil] proved that,” mentioning the important role of the internet, social media and particularly WhatsApp had in electing Jair Bolsonaro.

According to a study by Google, these content producers are already more famous and influential than journalists in Brazil, reaching audiences that traditional media do not reach and shaping opinion not only on consumption, but also on politics.

It’s not just in Brazil that this is the case: in Germany in May, a YouTuber called Rezo, who has a voice that reaches a million subscribers, spoke out against German chancellor Angela Merkel’s partnership with the country’s Social Democratic Party. The near-hour-long video attacking Merkel has surpassed 16 million views.

Five million people watched it in less than a week after it was uploaded, and political commentators in Germany were shocked that YouTubers could harness political power. Rezo expressed many young people’s dissatisfaction with traditional politics and, in an interview with the German website Bento, said that his objective was to “make sure that more people discuss the issues raised”. (Rezo did not respond to requests to speak for this story.)

And with Donald Trump live streaming his campaign events on Twitch, U.K. far-right politician Nigel Farage beginning to ramp up his YouTube presence and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro also using Facebook and YouTube to livestream weekly, the ability to sway political opinion using digital video is becoming more commonplace.

Recognizing the power of vloggers, Bolsonaro deployed a network of YouTubers during the 2018 election to spread his message (as well as bloggers and other far-right activists on other social networks). Five of the 10 most successful YouTube channels during the election were from the far-right and aligned with Bolsonaro, according to The Intercept Brasil. Bolsonaro and Rio de Janeiro mayor Crivella are, as might be expected, allies.

According to research carried out by Pablo Ortellado, professor at the University of São Paulo, Brazilian political discourse has split into three large communities — one on the left, two on the right — one directly linked to supporters of Bolsonaro. The two rightist bubbles outweigh the left-leaning bubble in views and subscribers, directing online political debate in Brazil.

In Brazil, left-wing and far-right YouTubers engage in an open “guerrilla” war, with keyboard warriors exchanging accusations that often cross into the offline world.

And that’s what makes Neto’s actions — and Bolsonaro’s reaction — so important.

“I can’t speak for others, but I know that I must keep fighting, studying and listening every day more and more. I will keep trying to do my part,” says Neto. “The only thing I think is that I need to continue fighting for education and information, so that one day this hatred starts to diminish.”

*Special thanks to João Batista Jr. and Nathalia Damasceno


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