Social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are becoming primary channels of political engagement in Latin America. Throughout the region’s democracies, large majorities of adults now report receiving or sharing political information on social networks. Ten years ago, only a tenth did so. The dramatic growth in social media’s political relevance cannot be overemphasized. Its penetration now extends well beyond informal social ties, reaching deep into the public sphere to connect voters and politicians digitally. How are these trends affecting the region’s elections?
At its best, social media level the political playing field, allowing a wider range of candidates to have a voice, fundraise, and mobilize political support. At its worst, social media enable the spread of false information and fuel uncivil discourse, breeding voter cynicism and distrust. While public and private efforts to contain its ill effects are ongoing, there is little doubt that social media is changing the rules of electoral engagement.
The Democratic Promise of Social Media
Social media platforms are digital tools managed by US-based “tech giants” that enable users to create and share content online. Anyone, from regular citizens to public figures, can open an account and start sharing messages, photos, and videos with groups of people. During the past decade social media use in Latin America has exploded. With improvements in internet access and affordability of smartphones, social media use has become a daily habit for many. According to Latinobarometro data, about 20% of adults in the region had a Facebook account in 2010. By 2015 that rose to 42% and then to 65% by 2020. In the meantime WhatsApp, an encrypted platform acquired by Facebook in 2014, became even more popular reaching 73% use in 2020. Originally a messaging service, in Latin America it also serves as a social media platform. As these shifts where happening, politicians in the region began moving their communications online. For example, in Brazil only about 17% of national politicians had a Facebook page in 2011, according to Facebook data. By the 2018 election, it became a standard tool for virtually all nationally elected politicians.
The emergence of social media as an electoral tool can be traced back to the 2008 US presidential election. The Obama campaign skillfully adopted the new medium to mobilize young supporters and raise small contributions. Since then, politicians in developing countries have also begun to harness the power of this new mode of public engagement. In Latin America today, most national-level politicians feed their accounts daily. The new technology has proved particularly valuable for lesser known and independent politicians, as social media provide a low-cost advertising device. For example, in Mexico several independent candidates with strong social media strategies were elected state governors in the last five years. The barriers to entry in politics have been significantly lowered. Candidates can reach voters directly, without having to rely on traditional mass media. Like-minded voters, in turn, can quickly organize to support a candidate.
Opening the Door to Electoral Manipulation
The new communication tools are powerful in another way. They permit customizing political messages to different segments of the electorate. This is known as micro-targeting, a marketing strategy that uses detailed data on individual interests to influence purchasing behavior. Perhaps harmless when deployed by bonified candidates sharing verified information, these capabilities can be hijacked by groups with undisclosed identity to deliberately spread disinformation intended to manipulate public opinion. According to a 2019 Freedom House report, out of 30 countries that held elections or referendums in the previous year, 26 experienced digital election interference.
Social media practices like bots, spam, trolls, and cyborgs become particularly common around elections. They produce fake news, viral posts, provocative language, and incivility, which have become synonymous with social media use in elections. What opens the door to these behaviors may be two features of these platforms: few restrictions over content and the opportunity to post anonymously. Without restraints on content and identification, the tendency toward negativity in political messages, already present in more regulated media like TV ads, is amplified. As a result, social media posts, even when true, are often stoking in their recipients emotions of anger, fear, doubt, and distrust.
Research shows that people are more susceptible to misinformation when trust in the political system is low and political polarization is high. These conditions describe many Latin American democracies. Low trust and high polarization likely reflect persistent problems with economic, social, and governance outcomes. But the fact that social media negativity is exacerbated in these contexts suggests that the region is particularly vulnerable to the risks posed by unregulated social media. The public may be starting to recognize the downsides. A Pew study of 11 developing countries, three of them in Latin America, found that large majorities believed social media made them more informed but also more susceptible to manipulation. In Latinobarometro surveys the fraction of those who believe social media does not serve democracy has gone from 30% in 2015 to 40% in 2020. In an article analyzing recent data, the directors of Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) conclude: “Social media offer a mixed fortune for Latin American democracies, but the bad seems to be outweighing the good.”
Curbing Social Media Electoral Interference
Before the last general elections in Mexico, a group of more than 80 media outlets set up a joint initiative called Verificado 2018 to debunk viral stories and memes containing potentially harmful misinformation. This was the largest ever collaborative initiative of its kind in Latin America, with financial partners from academia, civil society, and foundations. The state of São Paulo in Brazil introduced media literacy as an elective class for middle school students. Social media companies have faced pressure to change their algorithms to prevent some of the most egregious misuses of their platforms. While traditional media are heavily regulated, particularly in developing countries, Latin American governments have been very slow to regulate social media platforms. Rather than expecting self-regulation from social media companies, political leaders must create sensible rules to protect the public interest and election integrity.
Originally designed to connect family and friends, social media is becoming a major stage where election campaigns are being played out. By enabling users to create content and disseminate it quickly, cheaply, and precisely to large groups, social media is transforming the dynamics of political engagement. There are both benefits and risk to these new rules of engagement. Exploiting the benefits while minimizing the risks is a difficult task. Governments, civil society, and the social media companies themselves all have a role to play in this challenge.