Brazilian project MemeNews joins journalism and humor for social transformation

About a month ago, the MemeNews project started sending a daily bulletin with news headlines and summaries focusing on the Brazilian Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches. But more than being a newsletter, MemeNews wants to engage its readers in the stories they report using one of the best inventions of the internet: memes.

A meme showing indigenous children pointing to the reader asking, “Against immigration? So give it back to us!” illustrates a summary about a congressional debate on the intense influx of Venezuelans to the Brazilian state of Roraima. A summary about the Ministry of Labor’s recent update of a list of companies that treat employees in situations similar to that of slavery accompanies a GIF of Kanye West shaking his head in disappointment.

In addition to the summaries and memes, newsletter entries have a link to a more in-depth report from human rights or news organizations, plus links to encourage engagement, such as a legislator’s email address or links to a petition, a public consultation or complaint channel. For example, the immigration story included email addresses for a legislator and judge. The second note had a link for readers to report slave labor to the Ministry of Labor.

The idea is to engage readers in human rights and environmental coverage, Roberto Kaz, one of the editors, told the Knight Center. Therefore, the team has decided to produce a newsletter that will advance the news and highlight the agenda of the three government branches, instead of passing on what has already happened. "Instead of giving a link to an article on a vote in the Federal Supreme Court (STF, for its acronym in Portuguse), we will give a link to the STF agenda before the vote. The idea is to inform that this will happen and create a channel of engagement," the journalist said.

"The idea is for it to be a mixture of news, Congresso em Foco (Congress in Focus) [a Brazilian website of political coverage], Meio [a Brazilian newsletter], Avaaz and humor. It's a great mixture of references," he said.

The project, supported by Open Society Foundations, is carried out by a team of five people from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasilia. It all began in June 2017 at Rise Up: Comedy for Change, which ran parallel to the annual comedy festival from the American satirical site The Onion in Chicago. Kaz and Afonso Cappellaro, who were at the festival and had experience with journalistic satire as writers of the Piauí Herald, joined Juana Kweitel of the human rights organization Conectas to create a proposal for OSF on humor and social transformation.

According to Kaz, every morning from Monday to Friday, reporter Adriana Veloso selects possible stories for the newsletter and sends them to the rest of the team. They and Juana Kweitel choose the three that will be part of the MemeNews of the day. The reporter writes the texts, which are edited by Kaz, and the team - which also includes Leonardo Medeiros, da Conectas - proposes paths of engagement on each topic addressed. "The meme is the last brick in the process," Afonso Cappellaro, who heads the memes that go into the newsletter, told the Knight Center.

"I've always enjoyed humor, and with the internet this has been catapulted to a higher level, because the internet is wonderful, it does not sleep, and the buzz never ends," said Cappellaro, who besides writing for the Piauí Herald is a script writer on Greg News, of HBO Brazil. "I've always been a big consumer of memes, the repercussion of things in this area is very fast and brings the best of collective creativity."

With the news of the day at hand, Cappellaro looks for well-known memes or eventually creates the memes himself. The preference, however, is to use pieces that are a product of the internet’s collective creation. "The big draw of memes is just making connections. They are almost analogies in static image format or GIF. So I'm going after that by trying to couple them with the headlines," he said.

"What we do is call attention to serious issues through a more accessible path, through laughter," said Kaz, for whom humor "can make people read news they would not read on a day-to-day basis." "Our hope is that this news will be more interesting with a meme."

Humor also "helps open people's thinking," Cappellaro said. "Just as laughter opens your lungs, it takes you from a locked, closed position, and connects you with people, humor has that function also within ideas. From the moment a person laughs at something, she opens a little corner there and is looking at it differently."

And that holds true for the core themes of MemeNews, Cappellaro said of the newsletter. "It is necessary to take the political discussion out of this sad and angry, disrespectful place that is not constructive. There is room to be serious, and the idea is just to make humor while being serious."

The intention is for this laughter to come to fruition –for readers to decide to act through the channels of engagement suggested by MemeNews. While the social media climate is full of grumbling and little action, Cappellaro said, the newsletter shows "that you can make the gear turn in a different way" by "pointing out that there are people working and doing things to change the situation."

"Breaking the ice with humor, with irreverence, with thinking looking at a different side, the person says, 'cool, I'm going to support,' or 'what the hell, I'm going to write to this senator.' Humor facilitates access to emotion," the editor said.

The newsletter closed the second week of April with 1,200 subscribers, Kaz said. MemeNews also has a page on Facebook, where it shares some notes and memes sent by email.

With $30,000 in funding from OSF, the project is scheduled to last six months, Kaz said. He hopes that after the national elections in Brazil in October, they will be able to get funding to expand and maintain the project for a longer period of time.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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