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How Twitter is transforming Mexico’s electoral landscape

December 18, 2011

Mexico’s leading presidential candidate must be ruing the day that Twitter grew from soapbox for an online minority into an influential conduit of public opinion.

On four occasions in just over a week, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has been the most discussed topic on the social networking site, but for all the wrong reasons. While this is undermining the politician’s carefully crafted image – with online critics drawing attention to his gaffes and condemning him as illiterate, ignorant, classist and now sexist – it is also indicative of a more significant trend.

Micro-blogging might once have been dismissed as a fad for nerds, but Twitter users are now seizing the initiative from traditional media outlets with their real-time political commentary. With social networkers increasingly influencing the news agenda, this democratization of online media lessens the traditional advantage of once-dominant political forces and will have a greater impact on next year’s presidential election than ever before.

The latest of Peña Nieto’s slip-ups to draw online attention came in an interview published by Spanish newspaper El Pais on Monday, in which he erred in stating that Mexico’s minimum wage is 900 pesos per month. The actual figure is almost double that, at 1,740 pesos.

This mistake immediately inspired the new trending topic #salariominimoparaEPN (“minimum wage for Peña Nieto”) on Twitter, while “Peña Nieto salario mínimo” was Google Mexico’s most searched term on Monday.

With the PRI candidate looking increasingly out of touch with poorer members of the electorate, Twitter users then jumped up on a seemingly sexist comment he made in the same interview. Asked the price of a kilo of tortillas, Peña Nieto said he could not answer because he is “not the woman of the house.”

Accused of displaying a machista attitude, Peña Nieto (@EPN) once again found himself forced to issue an online apology. His comment was “misinterpreted” and he was “referring exclusively to my home, not making a derogatory or offensive statement towards women,” he tweeted Monday night.

Denying any ill-feeling toward the online community, he added, “I reiterate my absolute respect for freedom of expression in social networks and other media. It adds to our democracy.”

Peña Nieto may be backed by mainstream media giants such as Televisa, but he cannot control more democratic media such as Twitter, as demonstrated by alleged attempts to manipulate the social network that have recently backfired.

Following the furore over Peña Nieto’s well-documented gaffe at Guadalajara’s International Book Fair (he was unable to name three books that had influenced him; a problem compounded by a tweet from his daughter Paulina, deriding his critics as “jealous proletarian assholes”), the trending topic #LibreriaPenaNieto suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from Twitter, leading to an outcry over suspected online censorship.

Then, last Thursday evening, it emerged that many of Peña Nieto’s 170,000 followers (the number has since risen to almost 200,000) were not real people but fake bots with generic avatars, no followers and no followings –presumably created to make the candidate look more popular.

The discovery caused such a stir that even when Mexico’s national soccer final was being played – a near religious event for a soccer-obsessed country – Peña Nieto still managed to claim Twitter’s top trending topic under the hashtag #EPNTieneMasSeguidoresFalsosQue (“Peña Nieto has more fake followers than …”).

Due to the popularity and simplicity of sites like Twitter, incidents such as this that would have received little or no mainstream press coverage five years ago are now being picked up by Mexico’s general public, who no longer need rely on corporate media outlets to access such information. Why wait for the television news to broadcast a candidate’s latest blunder when you can view it immediately on YouTube?

Moreover, when enough people engage in a topic it then becomes more likely to be picked up by larger news outlets that might otherwise have ignored it. The fact that so many people are discussing an issue in turn becomes part of the story itself.

Some elements of Mexico’s media establishment have led a backlash against the criticism Peña Nieto has endured. Following his book gaffe, Adela Micha, a panelist on Televisa’s political chat show Tercer Grado, declared “reading is irrelevant when it comes to governing.” Carlos Marin, editorial director of national newspaper Milenio, agreed, dismissing criticism on sites such as Twitter and Facebook as “nonsense” from “people who have no idea of ​​the book that Peña Nieto spoke of.”

The pair’s comments provoked more angry remarks from Twitter users disillusioned by the state of the Mexican press.

Much of the appeal of social media is that it enables a younger demographic to become more engaged in the political process. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement, young people all over the world have been utilizing new media to aid their campaigns for greater democracy in 2011.

It is no surprise that this trend is being extended to Mexico. Digital Life statistics show the average age of Mexico’s online population is 26.7 years. In 2009 almost 50 percent of the population was aged 25 or under, meaning today’s young internet users represent a potentially powerful demographic.

The web provides an outlet for this generation, who might otherwise feel disenfranchised having grown up in a system notorious for alleged corruption and electoral fraud.

Yet despite the recent, marked impact of new media, it has yet to reach poorer, rural areas where people are still reliant on television networks for news. According to Digital Life, just 27.2 percent of Mexicans have internet access, most of whom are concentrated in middle-class urban areas.

In contrast, the 2010 national census revealed 93 percent of Mexican households have a television. So while the internet offers unlimited potential to middle-class Mexican youths, for the time being the nationwide majority must continue to make do with the information the media establishment chooses to relay to them.

This will be the first election in which Mexico’s online population really make their voice heard, but as internet access continues to spread across the country, bringing more democratic media consumption, it will eventually result in a wider transformation of Mexican politics

The days of a minority of wealthy media proprietors holding inordinate influence over the electorate may finally be numbered.

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