AI storytelling on Messenger for youth citizenship

Youth and privacy in the Americas: UNICEF Brazil


How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety.


Quick facts

Who: Nelson Leoni from UNICEF Headquarters and Pedro Ivo Alcantara from UNICEF Brazil

What: Campaigning

Mission/vision: To promote the fulfillment of children’s rights

Where: Brazil

Since: 1950

Years of operation (as of February 2018): 68

Works in the fields of: Digital citizenship, youth online safety

Post summary: UNICEF Brazil, as part of their work on youth citizenship and technology, is exploring new avenues for storytelling for problem-solving and empowerment with youth. One of these is the Caretas Project on non-consensual image sharing.

Highlight quote from the interview: “To ask users to involve themselves in the issue; not only receive information but to participate in the process and figure out how they could move forward in a different way. Sometimes adolescents receive problems. They don’t know how they can solve them. So we have to give them the opportunity to solve problems.”

More resources: UNICEF Brazil website; Projeto Caretas on Facebook; Internet sem vacilo campaign from 2015


Big institutions are not known for agile communications or innovative campaigns. When I started this research project, I thought I would interview small organizations in the region as a way to find some of the most creative efforts. But, when I saw the Caretas project, I knew I had to interview UNICEF Brazil. This is why I am grateful to Pedro Ivo Alcantara, Program Communication Manager at UNICEF Brazil, and Nelson Leoni, Digital Communications Specialist at UNICEF Headquarters and formerly head of Digital Communication at UNICEF Brazil, for making time to share about their creative work in adolescent and digital citizenship.

Adolescent citizenship is a programmatic area for UNICEF Brazil, which supports groups of adolescents in the northeast region of the country to host peer discussions about issues in their lives. Online, they host groups on diversity, or for adolescents that live with HIV. Through one of their projects, they support adolescents promoting the status of children in their municipalities, and an online initiative to engage adolescents in voting in Brazil, where voting is optional starting at age 16.

This programmatic area also plays out in their campaigns, which have, in the last years, focused on topics of digital citizenship. In 2015, they launched a campaign called Internet sem vacilo, ‘Internet without slips’, to discuss safe web surfing. It was a public advocacy campaign with a series of videos, images and a quiz on attitudes towards topics like image-sharing. Nelson explains, “One of the goals of this program area, adolescent citizenship, is online citizenship. Right to access, yes, but also to be safe. To give adolescents information to use the online environment more safely, having the benefits and avoiding the risks”.

“At age 17, Jéssica lived one of the worst nightmares of an adolescent”. Still from one of the Internet sem vacilo videos.

“How to protect your privacy online, and that of your friends too” image with tips.

“Your sister (or brother) has a really strange face on a photo you took. What do you do with the photo? Image from an Internet sem vacilo quiz.

UNICEF Brazil included messages on responsibility towards others, such as “don’t share intimate photos or information of other people”, and on harm reduction, such as “Avoid showing your face or attributes that would make you identifiable, such as tattoos or scars,” and also included messaging that appeals to individual responsibility: “Don’t send intimate images and videos. Not even to close friends.”

To continue this line of digital citizenship campaigning, UNICEF Brazil came up with an intricate storytelling project. They have been hugely successful in reaching youth through the Caretas Project, a theatrical experience on Facebook where youth engage with a chatbot and a series of audiovisual materials that immerse them in a scenario that deals with non-consensual image sharing, and “experience it safely.” “They know the risks of the internet, of sending private photographs, but how can we really impact the behavior of these adolescents? We decided to create a strategy so they can live a real life experience and think about it and its impact at the end of the experience. And give them tools to protect themselves, their friends, and respect the privacy of third parties”, says Nelson, who was one of the communications officers behind this project.

Caretas is a fictional theatrical piece inside Facebook Messenger that relies on the use of a chatbot; this seizes a window of opportunity that opened in April 2016 when Facebook launched the Messenger Platform for developers, giving them the possibility to create their chatbots on Messenger. The experience starts when users visit the Caretas Project page on Facebook, which has been made to look like a young woman’s profile: Fabi Grossi, a twenty-one-year-old from Brazil. A conversation starts on Facebook Messenger and, after a few minutes, Fabi will say, “Man, it’s kind of strange. I don’t know where to begin. It’s messed up. But if I don’t talk about this, I will blow up. Let me tell you: my ex sent a video of us to a site. A video of us, get it?” After setting this scene, Fabi starts to ask for advice. What should she do? Should she tell her parents?

According to Nelson, the interactions in this experience are designed to “to ask users to involve themselves in the issue; not only receive information but to participate in the process and figure out how they could move forward differently. Sometimes adolescents receive problems. They don’t know how they can solve them. So we have to give them the opportunity to solve problems.”

For an institution as big as UNICEF Brazil, what is the theory of change behind an exercise like Caretas – especially in a country where conservative groups target efforts like this? “To give adolescents information so they can make the best decision for themselves. They should learn that it’s not right to share contents of third parties, other adolescents, without consent. Second, if they decide to share personal content or information, they should be aware of the risks and possible consequences. And they should know that they will receive support if they do have to face the consequences”.

The story-building process behind Caretas started almost two years ago when a company proposed a concept and script to UNICEF. They started working on the character development: what actress, where she would live. A group of adolescents vetted the text the bot would use, meaning that the institution aimed for youth involvement. “It was a six-hand production: UNICEF, Sherpas and Chat-Tonic (the companies in Argentina), the adolescents. The development lasted six months, and after this, we started the pilot.”

The entire experience lasts 48 hours, and it was hugely popular. In the first week, ten thousand users participated; forty days after the launch, eighty thousand users had taken part, and only 9% of users dropped out of the experience. As of September 2018, they had reached 922,000 users UNICEF Brazil staff think it went viral because it is an environment never seen before, so adolescents share this experience and invite their friends to participate. At the time of the interview, only 2.7% of their visits came from paid advertisement, which means that the experience was shared organically. They had such success that the experience will be scaled to other countries where UNICEF has offices.

The Caretas Project page on Facebook has been made to simulate the personal profile of Fabi Grossi, the fictional character that engages users in a conversation about non-consensual image sharing.

It certainly helped that they drew the attention from several influencers, but, aside from the innovative aspects of this form of storytelling, there is something to be said of a campaign that uses a local face and slang to make an otherwise seemingly abstract, technology-related problem, relatable. Especially when it deals with such a relevant issue for adolescents. In the survey UNICEF shares at the end of the experience, they asked users if they discuss this issue at school, and only around 15% had. “The survey shows us that we have another opportunity, and how we can talk with them and give more information.”

One of the decisions UNICEF Brazil made was to carry out this experience in an environment where youth in Brazil are: Facebook and Facebook Messenger. With the new development capabilities and the userbase in the country, it was a tactical exercise to reach as many as possible. But, in a year where Facebook’s role in privacy violations, I asked Pedro and Nelson how they of the implications of this form of sensitive conversation happening on personal messaging on Facebook… with a non-human entity, of all things. Pedro’s perspective: “We did a lot of research and talked to experts, and we revised the Caretas policy many times. For us it is important to give a good experience ensuring their privacy. And it is also important to say that they know what kind of experience they are going through. They have to know it’s artificial intelligence, and that they can leave the experience at any time. We want to keep the experience safe and meaningful.”

Nelson views the new conversational capability, if done right, as a good avenue to address real issues.“We are offering the opportunity to have a two-way dialogue with a friend about specific, real issues. We received quotes from users in the Caretas page, where they share their feelings about the experience and how important was to participate in this process. We also received info from Safernet that they had a peak in their helpline to report not just revenge porn, but also suicide because we offered the possibility to report something. From my perspective, as we guarantee anonymity and offer a robot as a friend, we give them an opportunity to share feelings they never shared with others.”

In the coming years, we will continue to see scholarly and advocacy debates about the role of artificial intelligence in human interactions, especially those involving kids. The work of scholars like Sherry Turkle becomes more and more relevant as the capability to use robots in caregiving becomes even more mainstream. However, it is undeniable that this innovative form of storytelling sets UNICEF Brazil’s campaign on non-consensual image sharing apart from many others. Through youth involvement in campaign creation and the use of local narratives in creative formats, UNICEF Brazil reached large amounts of youth by creating engaging experiences that fill in conversational gaps on the issues most relevant to youth.

You can read more about UNICEF Brazil on their website; don’t miss Projeto Caretas, their theatrical Messenger chatbot experience on non-consensual image sharing, or their Internet sem vacilo campaign from 2015.