Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


Rio 2016's Promise to be Different: The Role of Social Media in Struggles Over Urban Imaginaries and Social Justice

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Clayton Rosati (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Steve Boone (Other)

Third Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Srinivas R. Melkote (Committee Member)


Throughout recent history, mass-cultural events such as the Olympics have been used by host cities to create material and ideological cityscapes. The officials planning the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics were hopeful that they would use the Games to give back to their community rather than follow the pattern of dysfunction that has often accompanied with hosting such events. International media was skeptical though, especially as forced evictions, water pollution, violence, pacification, debt, Olympic Village deadlines, and Zika all began to haunt the Olympic preparation process. Thus, it became clear that Rio de Janeiro was very quickly on similar trajectories as previous hosts.

In a parallel sense, mainstream media also followed a similar trajectory to coverage of previous host cities. Though they were skeptical in the beginning, they began to reverse their frame. When the mainstream press turned their attention to dominant narratives, struggles for alternate visions of the cityscape continued in Rio de Janeiro. As social media have become an alternative to the mainstream press people have lost trust in, much of the alternate realities facing local residents could be seen on social media where online advocates tore back the “see-no-evil” facade of the dominant vision to the city.

By telling the story of Olympic development in Rio de Janeiro using a critical approach to qualitatively analyze social media posts and contextualizing that story within the international political economy, shifting international development paradigms, mainstream news coverage, and national and local urban politics, this research specifically analyzed the following research question: How did social media activists/advocates and online news sources articulate unseen realities and struggles against dominant visions of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic cityscape and legacies?

The data retrieved was rich in both quantity and quality. Numerous themes emerged, suggesting there were a plethora of competing visions for the city. The three main themes that emerged through textual analysis were 1) a struggle for the environment, 2) a struggle from corruption, and 3) a struggle for health and well-being. Each of these three overarching themes had multiple sub-themes that formed the overall urban imaginary of the city. Those themes were analyzed and connected to development communication as a theoretical framework, specifically regarding cityscapes and social justice. The dissertation concludes with suggestions for both online advocates/activists and a new model for the Olympic Movement to be more in line aiding local residents with the freedom from Olympic development and corruption.