SAO PAULO: Political corruption, economic crisis, rampant crime — the headlines in Brazil are grim, so locals have taken to online memes that often go viral to relieve the stress.
A flurry of memes — funny images or video coupled with text that are spread online — making light of the country’s bleak situation have taken the internet by storm in a country that has the world’s second largest number of Facebook users.
One popular meme has tourists taking pictures next to a leaning Tower of Pisa with the face of the deeply unpopular president Michel Temer on it.
Another has Tite, the coach of the national football team, being proclaimed president.
Sandro Sanfelice says that the meme creators are like the orchestra aboard the Titanic: they’ll keep playing even as the country sinks under a flood of scandal and corruption.
Sanfelice, a 28-year-old who works for a phone company in the southern city of Curitiba, has 1.3 million followers on his specialty Facebook page Capinaremos.
He claims that some of his memes have reached five million users.
To keep up with the fast pace of news in Brazil, Sanfelice last year created “Capina Meme Factory,” a closed Facebook page that gathers meme producers.
Any member can propose a meme, and if it meets the group’s ethical standards and seems funny, one of the group’s 10 volunteer moderators will publish it.
Once in cyberspace, the meme, like a passing comet, will likely have a bright but limited lifespan.
Top news stories “end up becoming memes almost instantly, from something banal to the electoral court decision” that recently cleared Temer of election wrongdoing, said Sanfelice.
One of the group’s biggest nights was on May 17, when the media group O Globo published a recording of Temer supposedly discussing a hush money payment to a jailed politician.
Soon pictures satirizing Temer in every way possible — as well as pictures of his political nemeses, former leftist presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, laughing uproariously — spread online like wildfire.
Not everyone was amused, apparently.
A few days later, the meme creators received an email from the presidency “telling us that the official pictures of Temer could not be used for any purpose other than journalism,” Sanfelice said.
That wrist-slapping gave them pause, but the humorists decided nevertheless to continue publishing memes featuring Temer.
The president’s office later sent an email stating that the message was a reminder that they needed prior authorization to use official images for commercial purposes.
For Viktor Chagas, a professor at the Universidad Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, the message was clear.
“Politicians are not accustomed to losing control over their image. With the internet it’s increasingly easy for this to happen, and that worries them,” said Chagas, a specialist on the news media.
Chagas, along with a group of students and professors, created in 2015 a “Museum of Memes,” a project dedicated to the study and archiving of this new form of expression.
“We cannot look at this phenomenon only from the point of view of fake news or post-truth, as if all this content deserves to be discarded,” Chagas said.
“People are gaining access to a debate that they previously did not have, and that is also transforming social reality,” he said.
Brazilian humor focuses on tearing down the powerful, with a heavy dash of self-parody, Chagas said.
Truth trumps fiction
For humor that is more reality-based, Facebook users can turn to “O Brasil que deu certo” (The Brazil that actually works).
This page, run by a team led by Ciro Hamen, focuses on the quirky, hard to believe and outlandish.
Examples include people taking selfies while they hide waiting for a shooting to end, or a video clip of a woman who cries out “Temer, I love you!” outside the presidential palace.
The page has more than 1.2 million followers.
“Often we receive content that we say, ‘This is not possible, it must be invented.’ But no, it’s true,” Hamen told AFP.
“Here, truth can be much crazier than fiction.”