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Populismo 2.0: The New Age of Politics MAG
In early 2010, amidst cyber-protests calling for more press freedom, Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, denounced Twitter as a “tool of terror.” His fear was shared by his autocratic counterparts around the globe, all wary of the dangers of this type of mass communication that they could not control. And rightly so. A year later, social media allowed millions of discontented Arabs to connect through Facebook and Twitter, creating a revolution that brought down multiple dictators.
Yet, this seemingly natural allegiance between dissenters and social media against authoritarian governments has taken a sour turn for some countries, especially in Latin America.
Perhaps this could have been foreshadowed when in May 2010, Chávez, in a back-to-back contradiction, praised Twitter as a “weapon worthy of the Revolution.” Indeed, such a drastic reversal should have set off alarms for those who believed Twitter signified the end of autocracies. And, if not that, then surely Chávez's hiring of a 200-person staff to manage his Twitter account should have raised red flags. Apparently Chávez saw Twitter not as a threat but an opportunity.
Now, two years and thousands of Hugo-tweets later, the revelation is clear: Twitter is also an incredibly effective tool of demagoguery. While some media experts, like Anthony Rotolo, are skeptical of its longevity, claiming that Twitter's luster will wear off with time, there is no denying that Chávez's control of the Twitter landscape is potent for now. When he gained his three millionth follower last year, the lucky 19-year-old girl was rewarded with a house. What is significant, however, is not the giveaway, which is just standard procedure in the Bolivarian Republic. Rather, it is the extension of sleazy populist politicking into the cyber sphere.
At a fundamental level, Chávez dominates national cyber-discourse. His three and a half million followers often re-tweet the president's messages or tweet his hashtags, virtually setting most of the Venezuelan trending topics. In any given day, it is not unusual to see Chávez's social programs among the most popular topics.
For those eager dissenters who seek to coalesce in cyber-space, it is discouraging to see that the government has this extensive support. In such an environment, it is hard for cyber-protests to gain momentum. For the undecided and unaligned, the Twitter bandwagon might be just enough to tip them over to the side of the Revolution.
Still, Twitter does much more than give Chávez a leg-up in the popularity contest. People often address their personal problems directly to him through this medium. Thus, he
gets a direct-line connection to the Venezuelan pueblo. Yamila Maire, for example, tells Chávez that she has five children and no home. The president, or perhaps somebody from his team, responds: “Don't worry, Yamila, I've made your problem a personal cause.” These sorts of interactions abound and make Chávez's Twitter campaign a sharp two-pronged spear of populism.
In one way, the president can be grandiose and munificent in front of millions. This, of course, is nothing new. The president's daily four-hour TV appearances, broadcasted on all stations, already give him extensive positive exposure. Yet, Twitter is at a level of intimacy. In effect, Chávez gets the best of both worlds: the publicity of TV and radio, and the personal effect of his “meet the president and get a handout” campaigns.
Blocked from mainstream media and crushed by Chávez's popularity on the Internet, there is little room for dissent from the opposition. With such a broad range of influence and message control, it isn't hard to see why Chávez-mania remains strong. And indeed, the effectiveness of the Venezuelan leader's strategy hasn't gone unnoticed.
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, president of Argentina and populist Peronista, is following in Chávez's tech-savvy footsteps. Joining the Twitter race a bit late, Kirchner lacked the robust following needed to exert serious cyber-clout. So, as investigative journalist Jorge Lanata discovered, she created 400 fake accounts – and quite shamelessly too. They were all made on the same day and with stolen profile pictures of real people.
Naturally, all of these Twitter-bots followed Kirchner's account and systematically served her praise like obsessed tween-girls in her own personal fan club. Also, they conveniently used the same hashtags, making Kirchner's greatness apparent to the whole Twittersphere.
Indeed, it should be no surprise that #VivaCristina stopped appearing among trending topics when “Journalism for All,” Lanata's report, was published. Needless to say, Kirchner's attempt at cyber-politicking was a fiasco. But the danger still remains and is especially latent in Ecuador and Bolivia, where current presidents are keen to silence the opposition and create public support, fake or not.
In the end, Twitter is just another tool, open to autocrats and activists alike. While it may have once been privy to youthful anti-establishment movements, that reality is long-gone: dictators are caught up in the social media game, and it's a level playing field again. Of course, when conditions are even, it just means that those with the most money and power will win. So much for the “tool of terror.”