The Green Wave that touched bottom

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.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74YbBxXEYUs[/youtube]

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* 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.

The election campaign made it to the big screen in the documentary “Antanas Way”, for those who want to learn more.

The answer, the emperor’s new clothes or exaggeration?

The internet and more specifically online social media have been, in recent years, increasingly held up as the world’s great leveller, allowing people to gain access to information, communicate, participate and discuss in ways and on a scale that had hitherto never been thought possible. We often hear commentators speak of geographical and socio-economic lines being crossed, new and diverse relationships and communities being formed, and even political and civic empowerment being felt by those who otherwise live their lives as marginalised members of their society, all through social media. As Ananda Mitra and Tamara Witschge put it ‘The Internet is seen as a new discursive space that allows groups normally silenced in traditional media to ‘voice themselves and thus become visible and make their presence felt’ (Reclaiming the Media, Pg. 130).

All of this is undeniably impressive and no one would dare argue against the great leaps in connectivity and access to information that these tools have made. Indeed over the years, whilst these credentials and the incredible (perhaps literally) potential of social media for reaching out and connecting people have been trumpeted by the mainstream media and commentators, so politicians, governments, development agencies, businesses, even the British Queen, have leapt on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, in order to gain access to the limitless, open, engaged and powerful community that has been promised.

But does that community really exist, at least as the open, pluralistic, democratic space that is painted? Does social media really facilitate the forms and levels of dialogue and participation that are so often attributed to it, or is it just a case of the emperors new clothes?  Continue reading

Voting, the shock of the old

On Monday this week over 87% of those who had registered to vote in Kenya stood in queues at polling stations for up to 12 hours in the baking heat to assert their democratic right.  I walked around the corner from my house and my jaw dropped at the sight of the queues which stretched in both directions as far as I could see. It was an emotional moment.  I am not Kenyan but I have lived here long enough to see how just the thought of democracy catalyses participation.  I have also lived in Britain long enough to see how it is treated with apathy and derision.

A glance at the people in the queue was interesting not least for the demographic spread but also for the number of people glaring intently at their phones, often with tiny in-ear headphones.  Mobile penetration in Kenya has risen exponentially in the last 5 years – 74% of Kenyans, 3 in 4 people, have a mobile phone.  This in a country where the vast majority of people live on less than $2 a day. Data penetration is growing all the time – mobile data subscriptions account for 98% of all internet users.  The mobile phone is clearly a mighty tool in the pocket of your average Kenyan.

At the last election in 2007/2008 it was used as a platform to turn people against each other.  I remember receiving ‘hate’ messages which had clearly been sent in bulk.  Now the hate messages have been replaced by everyone urging “chagua peace” – “choose peace”.  A message which is not lost on most of the ordinary Kenyans going about their business.  As the count goes on and whispers of irregularities and technical ‘failures’ and possible ‘hacking’ surface, the option to choose peace appears to be wearing thin.

Technology was to be the saviour of this election – biometric registration kits, electronic transmission direct to the electoral commission headquarters, instant provisional results beamed across all tv and radio networks.  Instead returning officers were brought by all means of transportation from all 290 consitutencies with a confirmation of a manual count as the technology was left gathering dust in the polling centres. Kenyans were sold a pup.  By taking out the potential for malfeasance by reducing the human contact with the ballot, we forgot the important role human interaction plays in this process or what Michael Krona referred to in his lecture as the “significance of human participation”.  Seduced as we are by the obvious advantage of technology to help rule out human error, we forgot the essentially participatory nature at the heart of democracy. Continue reading