With a smartphone in hand, Felipe Fagundes darted down a narrow graffiti-splattered pathway to a bus stop in a run-down suburb of Rio de Janeiro. The 28-year-old writer had checked the bus timetable on Google Maps and left plenty of time, a habit forged by experience in a metropolis where millions of citizens spend several hours every workday commuting on cramped, overheated buses.
One by one, the other riders caught their buses. Fagundes did not. An hour later, he asked an old man next to him if the 693 stopped here. “Yes,” the man replied, “but only when it feels like it.” Fagundes cancelled his appointment and was heading home when his bus shot past him. After complaining to his roommate, he was told about a workaround: route-specific bus groups on WhatsApp.
Frustrated with the limitations of journey-planning apps, thousands of bus passengers in Brazil have self-organized on WhatsApp to get real-time updates on bus locations, delays, and overcrowding. The self-regulating groups allow riders to provide remarkably accurate information to their peers — and to screen against misinformation. This reflects a long-standing trend of Brazilians stringing together creative bottom-up fixes in the face of an inefficient state and market. Here, the tendency is known as a jeitinho, literally “to find a way.”
“Brazilians don’t trust that the government and institutions will solve their problems, so they don’t expect things will get better with a proper bureaucratic complaint,” says the Brazilian professor David Nemer, who researches the anthropology of informatics at the University of Virginia. Instead, Nemer says, citizens look for creative alternatives.
In the digital age, that means poorer Brazilians forging peer-to-peer solutions to challenges like getting to work on time and even avoiding violence. Brazilians are among the most avid users of social media globally. More than 120 million people out of the 210 million population use both WhatsApp and Facebook, and, on average, spend nine hours connected each day — one of the highest rates in the world. While internet speeds are slow and costs can be prohibitive for many citizens, mobile carriers Tim, Claro, and Oi offer free access to key social media platforms, further entrenching their central role in daily life. A typical prepaid plan, for instance, might include 1 gigabyte of data use per week and unlimited use of WhatsApp. Perhaps as a result, hundreds of WhatsApp and Facebook groups exist in Rio alone to help users solve daily hassles like enduring poor sanitation or tracking shootouts in favelas.
After using the WhatsApp group for the 693 bus, Fagundes tweeted about it. His post attracted 30,000 likes and started a national conversation about bus groups in cities across Brazil. In practice, these WhatsApp groups are more versatile than Google Maps, Moovit, or even CittaMobi, a Brazilian startup that tracks bus lines and offers ticket top-ups via its app. While those companies do offer timetables, “the information is delayed or not available for specific lines in the suburbs,” says João Arthur Raimundo, a 24-year-old from Rio, who prefers to use WhatsApp.
And while the apps can predict overcrowding based only on previous reports, WhatsApp group members update each other in real time. Travelers forge friendships and camaraderie via groups, which often include drivers, and sometimes celebrate each other’s birthdays on long commutes. There are also other perks: users share content to dampen the pain of a long ride, work out alternative routes if there are unexpected obstructions, and request that drivers wait for late passengers. They have even pressured bus companies to provide special late services at Christmas.
Such makeshift digital solutions have also crept into other parts of offline life. In City of God, a large favela in Rio that inspired the film of the same name, the 8,000-strong WhatsApp network CDD Acontece has replaced community noticeboards that typically advertise jobs, products, or services. Much like the bus groups, CDD Acontece is carefully moderated by founder Carla Siccos, who takes care to weed out misinformation. All requests to join go through her, and the service’s main means of communication is a WhatsApp transmission list, not a group. In a country where an estimated 100 million people live without proper sewage services, favela residents use the group to share problems with sanitation, sewage, garbage collection, and recycling. “We cannot take matters into our own hands and unclog sewers or take garbage away,” says Siccos, but she says the group at least helps residents pressure local government into improving services.
Especially in favelas, the real-time nature of these community groups can mean the difference between life and death. Before smartphones, favela dwellers would use on-the-ground signals to warn of danger, such as clashes between police and gangsters.
“Gunshots?” the WhatsApp message read at 5:02 p.m. on March 2. Moments later, a cascade of messages began updating users on the battle that was breaking out in Vila Kennedy, one of Rio’s most violent favelas. Built with American funding and named for the U.S. president, the community of 41,000 on the periphery of Rio has for years been the site of an ongoing war between two rival drug gangs. “I hear it close to me, I think it’s at the square,” someone wrote at 5:15 p.m., referencing the 2-meter zinc replica of the Statue of Liberty that sits at the heart of the favela. Another member soon confirmed. By the end of the shootout, two bus passengers had been injured by bullet fragments. That week, the 256 members of the Voice of Vila Kennedy WhatsApp group shared audio of the altercation, video of police cars arriving, locations of hot spots, and much communal anguish.
“The most reassuring thing is when residents tell me they were going to go through some part of the favela and decided not to due to alerts,” says Wagner Cheles Rodrigues, a 40-year-old health worker who created Voice of Vila Kennedy. Rodrigues’ group sits aside two more polished apps — Onde Tem Tiroteio (500,000+ Google Play downloads) and Fogo Cruzado (100,000+ Google Play downloads) — that map gun violence across Rio. But as with the transit apps, these options don’t provide up-to-date, hyperlocal data and instead concentrate on providing verified reports of shootouts.
WhatsApp and Facebook play an outsized role in Brazilian life: so much so that many locals simply think of them as the internet. That has had serious consequences on civic life. As the COVID-19 crisis has spread, links to scam sites mimicking application forms for emergency basic income payments have circulated on WhatsApp. Now, the company is positioning itself in the country as “more than a messaging app,” with an advertising campaign focused on its central role in users’ daily lives.
On March 6 of this year, another shooting erupted during a police operation in Vila Kennedy. Wagner’s group alerted people to seek shelter in a safe place. But one of his longtime friends, Gilmar dos Santos Gonçalves, apparently didn’t get the message. Dos Santos died when a stray bullet hit his head while he was trying to maneuver his wheelchair — just the kind of situation Voice of Vila Kennedy had been created to prevent. “Gilmar knew me since I was a child,” says Rodrigues. “If only he’d been alerted beforehand, he might’ve avoided that area.”