17-Year-Old Twitter User Sets up Impromptu News Network Within Rio Favela

Areal footage of armored vehicles chasing down notorious drug traffickers in one of Rio de Janeiro’s several favelas made its way across the airwaves this weekend, as police operations cracked down on the illegal drug trade there. However, because of a police perimeter and other factors, mainstream media couldn’t enter the favela to report from the ground, and Brazilians were left wondering what exactly was happening to the estimated 65,000 people living in the Complexo do Alemao favela.

But that all changed when a 17-year-old Twitter user began tweeting about the gunfire, smoke and the community reaction through his impromptu news network within the favela.

As first reported by the BBC, the 17-year-old Rene Silva – an aspiring journalism student – began sending out tweets once the police invaded his favela. He used the Twitter account @vozdacomunidade, which is linked to a community newspaper that he founded when he was only 11 years old.

This account ballooned to nearly 25,000 followers over the weekend.

The BBC reports that Silva tweeted things like “Intense gunfire now in Complexo”, and “People hanging out white cloths calling for peace” while the raid was happening, although this morning he reported that “Community is quiet! It seems that everything is back to normal and better now!”

Along with a network of other teenage reporters stationed strategically around the favela, Silva was able to monitor the situation and get real-time, breaking news out to Brazilians when mainstream media was cut off.

This story illustrates the power that Twitter has as a journalistic tool. Bypassing traditional reporting routes – which were either limited by time delays, police barricades or restricted access – Silva was able to use Twitter to keep his community, his country, and even the world updated on a large-scale clash between police forces and drug traffickers.

Twitter has been used in the past to inform the world about real-time events that couldn’t be accurately covered by mainstream media in a timely fashion. It has also been used as an emergency response tool, alerting organizations like the Red Cross about people in need of help. Ostensibly, the news network that Silva established in his favela could have been used for this purpose as well, if the need had arisen.

These two uses of Twitter – to report real-time breaking news and to raise the alert during an emergency – are perhaps the micro-blogging service’s most powerful features. And because they are interchangeable, Twitter is a citizen journalist tool that can also double as an alert notification tool in an emergency.

As many of the world events that require citizen journalism are often dangerous or cut off from the mainstream media, Twitter has the potential to be a lifeline of information and practical assistance for those experiencing the event, something that could only exist with the instant communication that the micro-blogging service provides.

Image courtesy of the BBC