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 art of tightrope walking

In the past couple of years happenings such as the Iran and US elections and the Arab Spring have made social media and democracy two things that rarely appear apart. The has been a lot of debates of Twitter and Facebook revolutions and which impact these new media applications have to so called traditional media such as TV or newspapers. What makes social media different from traditional journalism is that social media is based on participation and freedom of expression, it provides platforms where people with similar interests can discuss, regardless where they live. Kluitenberg (2003) writes that what defines how democratic a society is, is to which extent people freely can share, voice their opinion and discuss what is going on in society and how freely people can get together to get something done to social issues that are not the way they’re supposed to be. One could say in social media we are all journalists. Godwin and Maher are quoted in Lievrouw (2011, p. 130-132) and they have quite the opposite opinions about participatory journalism. Maher sees that what people write to different social media channels cannot produce quality, credible, reliable and consistent news and Godwin’s reply to concerns about the lack of editing and liability is that it is arrogant to think that only big institutions can provide good journalism that is vital to the democracy.

Still all of us, as users and as followers of social media, have responsibility when it comes believing everything we read. This also raises the question of self-censorship. People don’t always seem to understand that what they write to Facebook or Twitter is for everyone to see, no matter if the account is protected. There is always someone who can share or retweet your opinions.

This is not only a problem among “ordinary” citizens, politicians who are on Facebook or Twitter or have their own blog have responsibility for what they write. After the last parliament elections two years ago in Finland a populist and nationalist political party True Finns became the third largest party in the country. In the last couple of years we have experienced quite many scandals when there have been racist and otherwise degrading updates in social media made by members of the party. Many of these have later been labeled as jokes by writers but in a country where you can freely express your opinion this has raised debate on how to behave on internet. Party secretary has been explaining that these writings have nothing to do with how True Finns as a party feel about certain things and other parties have expressed strong disapproval of what have been written. This makes one wonder who differently we can interpret blog posts or Facebook updates. It has to do with media literacy what we make those: either really bad jokes which should never have been published or the absolute truth.

We can follow many politicians on Twitter and Facebook and read their blog posts and getting your message through as clear as possible in order to get the majority of public to understand it right is like walking on a tightrope. Politicians should set a good example how to behave in social media, encourage people to take part in discussions, not to turn them against each other. Actions like that can be seen as good governance and real democracy.