The 2010 presidential elections in Colombia have been called Latin America’s first real social media campaign, and is a history of unexpected results from beginning to end.
Immensely popular (but also in some sectors hated) President Álvaro Uribe was to hand over power after two consecutive four-year periods of presidency. The candidate Juan Manuel Santos, former defense minister in Uribe’s government, was seen as his successor. It all seemed clear; Santos would continue Uribe’s legacy.
But then Antanas Mockus entered the scene. Bogotá’s former mayor, a political wild-card, known for his controversial, some would even say eccentric, methods. In 1994, when he was the principal of Colombia’s public university, he dropped his pants on stage and mooned students. As twice mayor of Bogotá he implemented “citizen culture” through pedagogic examples, such as dressing up as a super hero, and throwing a glass of water on his opponent in a debate to state an example of non-violence. He is widely recognized for his accomplishments in transforming the violent and decaying city of Bogotá to the thriving city it became, but also ridiculed among the traditional political elite for his non-conformist ways.
Who else but someone like Mockus to transform the way presidential campaigning had always been made in Colombia?
Mockus became the presidential candidate of the newly formed Green Party, which despite its name had little to do with environmental politics, a center alternative in the right-wing dominated Colombian politics.
The Green Party’s presidential campaign, called La Ola Verde (the green wave), led by Mockus, was different from earlier campaigns both in the way it was carried out and in the content of its messages – about transparency, non-violence and the sacredness of public funds.
In the first opinion polls in March, Mockus did not even reach two digits. In April, he had already surpassed 20%, and in May, Mockus and Santos were tied. This sudden rise in popularity threatened the political establishment, who thought they had the victory in their pockets, as always before.
The Green Wave campaign relied heavily on the internet, especially on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. The Mockus fan page on Facebook had four times as many followers as the runner-up, left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro, and was the thirteenth most followed politician on the entire Facebook. Green Wave flashmobs were carried out all over the country and the videos of them spread virally online. As opposed to the traditional campaigns, then, the Green Wave had more in common with new social movements than regular party politics. Lievrouw (2011) lists the characteristics of new social movements (see p. 48-49), of which the use of media and ICTs is one:
“[…] not just as tools or channels for relaying information to participants or the wider public, but as the actual field of action where movement concerns are articulates and struggles played out.” Lievrouw, L. (2011): p. 53-54
Mockus appealed to young, educated, urban middle-class, longing for a change in Colombia’s corrupt politics. He was even called “Colombia’s Obama”, just days before the election – with allusion both to the US president’s campaign methods and his ‘Change’-slogan. However, in the first round of the presidential elections on May 30th, the results were conclusive in favor of Santos with 46.7% of the votes against runner-up Mockus with 21.5% and in the second round on June 20th between only these two candidates, Santos won a land-slide victory with 69.1% against Mockus’ 27.5%.
What happened to the Green Wave hype in Social Media?
There are several possible explanations. One, the enormous social media support was not representative for the actual voters, only for a limited privileged group of social media users*. Two, Mockus lacked the traditional political machinery that mobilize votes in poor and rural areas by handing out food, cash or inscriptions in social programs in return for votes, key in traditional Colombian politics. Three, when faced with the threat of the Green Wave, Santos campaign team launched a counter-attack, betting heavily on social media presence and including a dirt campaign of rumor-spreading against Mockus.
Expert in Colombian electoral politics and PhD María Vidart explains how social media popularity does not necessarily translate into votes:
“They are voters that act upon emotion and their votes are highly unreliable. […] Social media users participate freely and therefore nothing binds them to their candidate. Electoral bases are expected to participate out of need. Therefore, elections in Colombia are won through the kind of loyalty ties that form and the networks of favor exchange and negotiation of interest built over years between politicians and their constituencies.” Vidart, M. (2012)
This time, social media popularity was not enough reach the presidency. However, it was enough to scare the political establishment into boarding the social media campaign-train.
* According to the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies, 80% of the population in the cities use internet, and 60% use social networks (out of these 31% has a Twitter account and 98% Facebook). However, the prevalence is very uneven between income groups and ages, where the richest and the youngest are the most frequent users.