The internet has given new meaning to the notion that Latin Americans love to connect. The region has the fastest growing internet population in the world and 97% of its users are on social media platforms. By comparison, in the U.S. only 67% of internet users are on social media platforms.  South America’s largest country is no exception to the growth trend.  Brazil has 65 million Facebook users, making it the largest market for the platform outside of the U.S., and the same is true for Twitter with 41 million users.  

But what makes Brazil’s social media unique is the way it is successfully transforming civil society’s ability to mobilize around a cause. The world witnessed this in June of 2013 when millions of citizens took to the streets to protest excessive government spending in preparation for the 2014 World Cup, and to demand better public services, such as education and health care. Social media experts also see the platforms as an important battleground for political hopefuls, particularly with the upcoming presidential elections in October.

Last week a controversial study was released by a major Brazilian research institute, Instituto Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada, of almost 4,000 people across Brazil on attitudes towards women. Its goal was to understand how public opinion has advanced in recent years. In a shocking revelation, one of the most profound findings of this study was the deeply inset “machismo” that still exists within the country, despite the gender of the official in Brazil’s highest office.  The majority of those interviewed (65.1%) agreed that “women who wear clothes that show off their body deserve to be attacked”. Most shocking of all, 66% of the poll’s respondents were female.

Activists turned to social media as their forum to express outrage and organize an awareness campaign to challenge this way of thinking. Led by 28-year old journalist Nina Queiroz, the campaign asked  the women of Brazil to speak up and post photos of themselves using the hashtag #EuNãoMereçoSerEstuprada (“I do not deserve to be raped”). Within 24 hours, 10,000 tweets were posted and the Facebook page had garnered more than 32,000 supporters. The participants in the campaign used a grassroots approach to engage the highest ranking officials in the country. Shortly after the campaign started, even President Dilma Rousseff endorsed the mission of the campaign via Twitter.

The conversation about sexism in Brazil has taken a whole new life thanks to this study and the people who have rallied against its findings. Though critical quality of life conditions such as life expectancy and poverty have improved for women in Brazil and throughout the region, there is still more work to be done. The social media activists who took a stand this week against blaming the victims of violence is a great start and hopefully this important conversation will continue online and off.