Mexico is faced with an opportunity to join the ranks of countries such as Libya and Tunisia by using the power of social media to harness citizens’ political support.
In an incident perhaps unprecedented in the history of electoral battles, the daughter of a politician has become the protagonist in influencing voting habits. More surprising still, was that the influence exerted was a negative one.
On 5 December 2011, 16 year-old Paulina Peña Pretelini, daughter of current Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, made what analysts have called “disrespectful and irresponsible comments that offended the Mexican people”.
The comments were a response to criticism aimed at her father that came after a rather embarrassing incident at the Guadalajara Book Festival in which he could not answer a question about the three most important books in his life.
The candidate’s slip-up was instantly picked up on by users of social networks and in a matter of hours five of the top trending topics on Twitter were about the incident.
The situation was only made worse when Paulina Peña issued a public response to the scandal in which she used the word ‘Proletario’ (Proletariat) as synonymous with the poverty and ignorance of those who had criticised her father. As a result, the candidate saw his popularity rating drop by five points in the polls, in only one day.
In a bid to reduce the fall-out from the comments Enrique Peña’s daughter immediately deleted all her social media accounts but the topic remained in the news for a number of weeks; perhaps a sign of the influence that digital media now wields over more traditional news sources.
The instantaneity and freedom of expression that the internet offers has reinforced growing interest in social networks among young people in Mexico. Statistics from last year indicate that Facebook was the favourite with 39%, followed by YouTube (28%) and Twitter with 20%.
However, recent electoral campaigns clearly were not ready for such a phenomenon. Using figures compiled by company Simply Measured (whose findings tracks behaviours on the web and whose weekly results are taken from internet users’ activity) we see that before 7 May 2012 there was an average of 519, 278 mentions of Enrique Pena.
This is contrasted with the mentions received by other candidates, like Josefina Vázquez (Partido Acción Nacional) who was mentioned 329, 988 times, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (Partido de la Revolución Democrática/Partido del Trabajo/Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional) with 157,123 mentions and Nueva Alianza’s Gabriel Quadri (65,690).
There are already over 300 anti-Enrique Peña groups on Facebook, along with the appearance of ‘young online movements’ such as ‘Let’s find a million people who won’t vote for Enrique Peña Nieto’, which according to statistics from early May has an estimated four million followers, though it should be pointed out that for the moment the action has not gone any further than the pages of Facebook.
From internet users to internet activists
The constant stream of information available on social networks never lets up, as minute by minute new photos and videos are uploaded and forums hum with users expressing their opinions of dissatisfaction, sympathy and even their fears.
Thousands of bytes of content is shared and re-tweeted, and perhaps for the first time, Mexican citizens feel that by using the web they are making a real difference in the democratic process.
However, the euphoria felt by using social networks in such a way does not match the outlook imagined by Antón Gutiérrez Rubí and other analysts of ‘Politics 2.0’ [the idea that social networking will revolutionise our ability to participate in the political process].
In accordance with their predictions, the spaces created on social networks should be “an opportunity for a closer relationship between the politician and the citizen”, but what is happening in Mexico is instead the formation of a one-sided relationship, where politicians feel compelled to update their status on a daily basis; expressing their feelings, clarifying quotes and outlining future policies.
Barack Obama, who has harnessed the power of social networks in his campaigns since the 2008 election, has proposed an in-depth analysis of the habits of internet users.
However, in Mexico the use of such media outlets during the current electoral campaigns could not be described as having been cohesive or direct. Political commentator Mario Campos states that “The candidates see social networks as additional means of communication” [the primary means being the mass media sources of old: television and newspapers] and that “they are not taking internet users into account”, dangerous given that many of them will be potential voters come the elections on 1 July.
To emphasise the point further, 79% of Mexicans now spend more time in front of a computer than a television, despite the majority of campaign funds going into televised advertising campaigns.
Like the vision of politicians in Mexico, many potential voters identify with the concept of ‘cyberactivism’; believing that Facebook and Twitter strengthen and inform their opinions and are not simply a means of staying touch with friends.
Evidence of this is seen in the marches of support organised by sympathisers of candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador for 20 May of this year, and in the organising committees set up through social networks in around 18 countries around the world.
Blind trust in the web
However, the trust placed in the security of social networks is highly risky, especially when such sites are used as playgrounds to employ diversionary and dirty tactics. Without an on-going critical and impartial analysis of what is being published on social networks, internet users will find themselves unable to distinguish the real from the made-up when trying to manipulate public opinion.
Recent evidence shows that the number of fake profiles set up on Facebook and Twitter with the sole aim of promoting or defaming Mexican presidential candidates is going up, which has brought into question the number of actual followers each candidate has and what difference their contributions made to the amount of times a candidate was trending on Twitter.
On 8 May 2012 a mobile phone video ‘proved’ that some sympathisers of the PRI candidate had been contracted by the campaign to send the greatest number of tweets promoting the politician. This is not the first time that a red herring has been used to confuse voters; in recent weeks supporters of PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez have been accused of garnering support for her by using ‘fraudulent’ profiles in Twitter. In both cases the parties involved did not issue a statement clarifying their actions.
Amidst all this however, examples of credibility on these sites do exist; the dream of cyberactivism made real, where after articulate communication an agile and organised mobilisation is put into action, and future politicians really are decided. The efforts of the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt and their respective triumphs over dictatorships make such a dream seem possible.
On the other hand, October 2012 saw a targeted and coherent social network-based communication strategy make a definitive different when it came to electing the new president of Brazil. Dilma Rousseff, the eventual winner of the election and his social media campaign manager Marcelo D’Elia, say they owe their triumph to what they call ‘citizen marketing’.
(Translated by Rachel Eadie – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)