How to Go Viral in Brazil

Just don't expect to make many friends.

Brazilians are voracious consumers of online content and power users of social media, so when an article or video really takes off in Brazil, it can become a cultural phenomenon or a national conversation. That happened last week when an American self-help writer penned a bilingual open letter to Brazil, a hotly controversial mike drop of sorts as he returns home after four years in Rio.

An open letter to Brazil that caused a huge stir on the Brazilian interwebz.
“Why is Brazil so screwed up?” he writes. “You are the problem. Yes, you reading this, you are the problem. I’m sure you don’t mean to be, but you are actively participating in the problem and perpetuating it. Every day.”

And then he proceeds to explain this theory about why all Brazilians are to blame for their problems in brutally honest (if not particularly well written) detail. “You are fucked,” he writes.

Brazilians, needless to say, went bananas.

A well-known entrepreneur, Bel Pesce, responded in a 16-minute video which also went viral. Others were inspired to pen their own open letters to Manson, like a tech writer who wrote: “Your letter says more about you and your beliefs than it does about our country.” A friend of mine joked on Facebook that he was going to write an open letter to the United States; another, Pedro Burgos, wrote a political analysis about the reaction to the letter.

Manson already had a large following, which helped boost the article’s circulation to tends of thousands of shares. He also published the letter at a particularly rough time for Brazil, under international scrutiny for the Zika outbreak, a suffering economy, and a big corruption scandal ahead of the Olympics.

But he’s not the first and he won’t be the last gringo to go viral by hating on Brazil. Having written my fair share of critical pieces on Brazil, particularly while I was living there, I’ve also found this to be true.

When a foreigner writes an excoriating critique of Brazil — or even just a negative view — there’s a good chance of the piece taking off.

The Danish journalist in question. That's a whole other story for another time.

Let’s look at a few actual headlines from the past few years. All but the first are from major news outlets, including the country's largest.

And so on. In a similar vein, Brazil’s most important media outlets often report when an important foreign publication (The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist) writes a big story about Brazil. Headline, front-page news.


This hypersensitivity to criticism by foreigners is part of what’s called the complexo de vira-latas, or mutt complex. Conceived by Nelson Rodrigues, the country’s most famous playwright and a keen observer of Brazilian culture, the idea originated after the country’s humiliating 1950 World Cup loss.

Rodrigues defined the mutt complex as “the inferiority in which Brazilians voluntarily place themselves in front of the rest of the world…The problem is faith in oneself.”

This was true of soccer, but also of a much larger spectrum, from an economy going through boom and busts, hyperinflation, poverty, and yet another excruciating World Cup defeat on home turf in 2014. It might seem strange for a country as big and powerful as Brazil, but this phenomenon has endured.

Another piece of the mutt complex is endless self-criticism. It comes up in everyday conversations in a serious manner, but it’s also addressed through dark humor as something of a coping mechanism. Particularly on social media, this means a lot of jokes about the country’s problems. “Brazil’s internet culture is very, maybe particularly, fond of turning national trauma into a source of endless humor and ironic celebration,” writes LA Times correspondent Vincent Bevins.

In other words, some Brazilians talk and joke endlessly about the country's problems, but aren't so thrilled when foreigners take the same critical eye they do.

So if you’re a foreign writer looking to get your name out in Brazil, the quickest way is to go negative. Just don’t expect to make many friends.

This was originally published on the author's blog, riogringa.com.

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