Some say that 140 characters on Twitter are worth more than a thousand pictures on Facebook. Perhaps. Twitter has become an important vehicle for people to share news, ideas, thoughts, and feelings with others – it satisfies our demand for information. Personally, I think it is a great way to stay up-to-date with the headlines, and to get in touch with people you don’t know in person, such as politicians.
Obsessed with the upcoming presidential election in Colombia as I am, the first thing I did after opening my Twitter account was “follow” all the presidential hopefuls I could think of (to the uninitiated, “to follow” someone on Twitter means that you receive all their messages (called “tweets”) on your homepage). I found Juan Manuel Santos, Noemi Sanin, Andres Felipe Arias, Sergio Fajardo, Rafael Pardo, Gustavo Petro, German Vargas Lleras, Antanas Mockus, and Lucho Garzon. It is understandable if you are overwhelmed by the number of names or if you don’t know who some of these people are – as a matter of fact, many Colombians don’t know these politicians either. For instance, according to a poll last month, an incredible 25% of voters say they have no idea who Juan Manuel Santos is.
After I started following these nine presidential hopefuls, I realized something: if you try to predict the results of the election by looking at the number of Twitter followers for each candidate, you will fail miserably. There is no significant correlation (seriously, I even made a scatter graph to show it) between poll numbers and Twitter followers for these nine people. Former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo, who is third in the polls, has the most followers by far (5,972). In contrast, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos only has 1,059 followers, but is leading in the polls. Also, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus gets a mere 2% in the presidential polls, but he has a strong 2,733 followers on Twitter.
Before you say I might have suffered brain damage for even thinking that Twitter followership could be correlated with voter intention, listen to this: Sebastian Piñera, the winner of Sunday’s presidential election in Chile, has 40,772 followers, versus the 4,249 of his defeated opponent Eduardo Frei. Another example: Barack Obama’s 3.1 million followers dwarf John McCain’s 1.7 million. After all, it is not totally illogical that election winners would have more Twitter followers, as a greater number of them means that more people want to know what you are doing, thinking, and saying.
But let’s move beyond follower numbers and see what the presidential hopefuls are saying on Twitter. I discovered that the candidates’ tweets say a lot about the kind of campaign they are running and the message they are bringing to the voters. Let’s take a look.
Juan Manuel Santos has no tweets at all. His profile is totally empty, with only the pictures of some of his one thousand followers on the right-hand side. In other words, he has nothing to say, no message to the voters. That is explained by the fact that he still doesn’t know whether or not he is going to run for the presidency. Mr. Santos’ candidacy depends on Alvaro Uribe’s inability to run for a third term, which has not been established yet. As a consequence, Mr. Santos cannot go out there and start talking about the kind of president he wants to be, or what his proposals are, if he has any at all. Acting otherwise could bring him huge problems with his party (la U) and with the government, and some voters would perceive it as disloyal to the president. His popularity could go down. So for now, it is best for Mr. Santos to stay quiet, just as his Twitter profile shows.
Something similar occurs with former Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias. Although Mr. Arias has written hundreds of tweets, they contain very few proposals. Most of what he writes are things like: “@mariacamilita thanks for saying hi, big hug for you” or “@Mundoluque @ximenota17 Congratulations, best of wishes. You are welcome anytime”. Even the proposals in his campaign website are surprisingly superficial and unspecific, with exaggerated and vague mission statements such as: “build the infrastructure that Colombia needs for the following 80 years.” As Mr. Arias has made it clear that he will not be a candidate if Mr. Uribe runs for a third term, why would he spend time drafting complex campaign proposals? Although his Twitter profile shows that he has been touring the country, it also shows that his campaign has little substance.
On their side, Noemi Sanin, Sergio Fajardo and German Vargas are running a different type of campaign, and their Twitter profiles prove it. These three candidates are determined to stay in the race regardless of Mr. Uribe’s reelection attempt, so they need to get voters’ attention now. Their Twitter profiles are nicely designed and exclusively filled with campaign messages specifying the candidates’ schedules, or answering questions about politics or their proposals.
Ms. Sanin says things like: “We will fight with determination and courage against the terrorists, poverty and corruption! We will defend decency, ethics and equality,” while one good example of Mr. Vargas’ tweets is: “I have been saying it since September 2008. The insecurity in the cities is out of control.” On his side, Mr. Fajardo’s profile shows messages that underline the candidate’s status as a political outsider: “We know that we are fighting against bags full of money. While some give away money, we give away flyers and hope” or (this one is a slight exaggeration) “we are, by far, the country’s greatest political phenomenon and we have built all this ourselves!” The difference from Mr Santos’ and Mr Arias’ tweets is remarkable, because unlike them, Sanin, Vargas and Fajardo are running their political campaigns with the aim of winning the election.
Now, what about the opposition candidates? Liberal Party hopeful Rafael Pardo’s tweets make constant references to inequality (he is a social democrat), security issues (he was minister of defense back in the day) and some sports comments here and there (he loves soccer). His profile has a good feel to it, and his strong number of followers shows that he is gaining momentum in the race. However, I don’t think that his attitude (“I can have a better government than Uribe’s,” says one of his tweets) matches his very low chances of becoming president. Now, for Gustavo Petro, his Twitter has very few things to tell us, as it is almost empty. This is surprising for someone who could make it to the run-off election. If Mr. Petro wants to fire up his voters, I am sure some more tweets could help him.
It seems as though the candidates have realized that Twitter is a great tool which they can use to maximize their chances in the election. Never before have voters had such a fast, direct link to their politicians, so I am hoping that ordinary Colombians will also use Twitter to question and test the candidates. And so, with voters and candidates before the keyboard, the campaign will continue unrolling. 140 characters at a time.