Can Twitter Bring Mexico's Young Voters to the Polls?

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Candidates in Mexico's presidential race are trying to reach out to young people, who make up a growing portion of the electorate.

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Supporters of Enrique Peña Nieto take pictures of the candidate at a campaign event on April 10 in Oaxaca. Reuters.

In late March in Mexico City, a few hundred members of Youth Action, the junior wing of the country's right-of-center PAN party, packed into the campaign house, a posh residence that is located a few blocks away from the city's main bull-fighting ring. The Youth Action members jostled for space in front of the stage, waiting to celebrate the official launch of Josefina Vazquez Mota's presidential campaign. Josefina, who trails behind her rival from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico as an autocracy for 71 years, is relying on the youth wing of her party to rally young voters. Analysts say that as Mexico's ballooning young population comes of voting age, the country's politics will be increasingly defined by the political will of the youth. Unlike the graying societies in China, Italy and many other countries in Europe, more than half of Mexico's population is under the age of 29. Many young people are going to vote for the first time in Mexico's July 2012 election.  So it's not surprising that all of the major parties are now actively courting young voters.

Young voters in Mexico are an educated, urban, and technologically savvy group. They are also more likely than their parents to be independent, not affiliated with any political party. So, all the main candidates in Mexico's election are turning to social media, mostly Facebook and Twitter, in an attempt to reach out directly to the youngest segment of voters. The major parties are also seeking to recruit young members and win their loyalty through youth focused political action groups. Nobody is certain what effect the youth vote will have on the election.

Throughout the campaign, young PAN activists have launched publicity campaigns using social media. In recent weeks, they hung skirts on famous statues in cities across the country, sharing photos of the spectacle on Facebook and Twitter. Jonathan Garcia, a 27 year old PAN activist who currently works as the PAN's National Youth Coordinator, explained "We're here to help Josefina win." 

Of course, the other main candidates in the race are also using social media as part of slick, image-based campaign strategies. Shannon O'Neil, a Mexico expert from the Council on Foreign Relations, explained, "Mexico right now is in the middle of a demographic bonus ... there are many more youth and young adults than retirees." Only 6 percent of Mexico's population is older than 65. More than a quarter of the country's population is between the ages of 15 and 29. "A significant part of the potential voting block has come of age in the last six years ... it is a demographic that is there for the candidates to capture," O'Neil said.

"We think that social networks are a way to create closeness with young people," Jonathan Garcia, the PAN's youth coordinator, said. Vazquez Mota has 603,000 followers on Twitter. Peña Nieto has 599,000. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the third candidate in the race has 423,000 followers. In the polls, however, Peña Nieto has more support than the other two candidates put together.

Tweet by tweet, Josefina's staff-members and supporters are using Twitter to help her create a new image and help the party wipe its hands of any connection to Felipe Calderón, the unpopular president who helped Mexico's economy bounce back from the 2008 global recession but who is widely blamed for the wave of cartel violence that is currently wracking many parts of the country. Inside the PAN's office there's a massive banner that says "JOSEFINA DIFERENTE" and a half-empty water-cooler size dispenser of Germstar brand hygienic hand sanitizer.   



Augustin Torres, a 34-year-old congressman from Michoacán, one of the southern Mexican states that has been badly affected by cartel activity, explained that the 2012 election "is really a completely different campaign."

"Six years ago Facebook, Twitter and [smart] cellular phones didn't exist [in Mexico]. Today we have people with cell phones taking part in the conversation," he added. Even in rural areas young people are using internet cafes to access the web. Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who currently works as a professor at New York University, recently estimated that "at most [there are] about three or four million active Twitter accounts in Mexico." But, he added, "the use of social media in Mexico is segmented, [and for] urban educated youth the numbers go way up." And because those voters are so essential to any candidate's success, and because of Twitter's ability to influence bigger media narratives, the impact of Twitter is bigger than the number of accounts would suggest.

"For the campaigns, the hope is that that something that comes out as social media will get picked up as news and broadcast more widely," Shannon O'Neil said.

"Twitter has an effect," Pablo Sanchez, a 25-year-old PAN Youth Action member explained. "The media picks up [our] message from Twitter."

Candidates have used social networks to help broadcast their messages and boost their profiles, but they've also seen the strategy backfire, as viral videos of awkward stumbles during important speeches by both Josefina and Enrique Peña Nieto spread rapidly across the web.

For instance, after making a joke about the fact that she did not attend ITAM, Mexico's most elite university, Twitter users flooded the network with tweets containing the hashtag "#josefinadiscrimina" (Josefina discriminates). The comment, which was similar to a joke made by a Harvard graduate in a roomful of Yale students, was not exactly the sort of explosive material that would be picked up quickly by hard-hitting news outlets. On Twitter, however, it generated a buzz.

Alehira Orozco, a 28-year-old graduate of ITAM who coordinates social-network activity for the Josefina campaign explained that a lot of the trending topics related to the election are artificially created by political activists.

"That joke was very ITAMista," Alehira explained. "It was meant for us [ITAM graduates]," she added.

In a separate incident, an illegally recorded phone conversation between Agustin and Josefina, in which the candidate referred to a government official as "Pinche Sota" ("F***ing Sota") was launched initially by Internet media outlets and then blasted across the social-media universe by Twitter users employing the #PincheSota hashtag.

Likewise, a video went viral of the PRI's candidate, Peña Nieto, struggling to name three books he had read, stammering "The Bible!" and then qualifying, "Well, parts of the Bible!"

"The social networks create trends, and the trends become news stories," Agustin Torres, the PAN Congressman, explained, sitting under the massive flat-screen TV he uses to monitor activity on the network. After Twitter trends are picked up by mainstream media, web browsers then tweet news articles and the cycle repeats. Although the activity on Twitter can be confusing, all of the parties view it as an important aspect of their communication strategies.  The PRI has even dedicated an entire office to social media activity, and dubbed it "Tweetlandia."

Unlike other, older forms of campaigning Twitter is not regulated by Mexico's Federal Election Institute, an institution that closely tracks candidates' activity and sets strict rules for negative propaganda. The question is, "how much of [the Twitter activity] is paid campaign activists vs. people with strong political beliefs," O'Neil explained.

Carlos Arciniega, a high school student who stood up to ask Vazquez Mota a question after a recent conference at a college campus on the outskirts of Mexico City, said that he gets most of his information from Twitter. "I follow columnists," he said.

"In the news and on social networks, I haven't seen a lot of examples of the achievements of the candidates, [the news] is usually about scandals, dramas, more than concrete actions," he added.

Ethan Zuckerman, who studies social-media use at the Media Lab at MIT, said, "Mexico seems to be going through a time when scandals help... it means that there is always something to talk about."

As Vazquez Mota's SUV drove away after her speech at the conference, a group of Mexican journalists who had attended the speech, taking photos and recording audio, rushed down to the field to take photos of Josefina's chosen method of transportation for her return trip to the city: a helicopter.

A young campaign staffer sitting with me in a bullet-proof SUV, a vehicle provided by the Federal government, looked down at his cell phone. "They're tweeting about the HELICOPTER!" he said.

A few weeks later, in an interview, Jorge Castañeda, a Mexico expert, said, "I'm a little bit disappointed in the low level of political discourse on Twitter in Mexico."

Twitter "is a tough medium to use because you only get 140 characters. It's a medium that favors short, sharp speech," Ethan Zuckerman, the MIT Media Lab expert explained.

But, the perception of low-quality political discussion on Twitter is not necessarily a weakness of the platform.

Twitter can amplify the message, "but it's not responsible for the underlying dynamics" of the conversation, Zuckerman said.

* * *

All of the candidates are working to create a brand for themselves with voters. Josefina claims to be "diferente." Like John McCain in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, she struggles with the fact that she is the latest candidate from an unpopular party that ruled the country for two consecutive terms. Enrique Peña Nieto is the new face of Mexico's oldest political machine.  Although he has cultivated a carefully polished movie-star image, he must still dodge criticism that he's working to bring an autocratic party back to power. "Peña Nieto has done very well on image and less on concrete policies ... his goal in the next two months is to keep a very broad [swath] of the PRI in lockstep behind his candidacy," Shannon O'Neil, the Council on Foreign Relations' Mexico expert, said. The Peña Nieto campaign team sends emails out daily emails with photos of the candidate visiting different regions of the country, but they have not been using Twitter to promote specific policy ideas.

Two months before the election, Peña Nieto has not yet participated in a televised debate with the other candidates. Jokes about the absence of debates between the candidates have become trending topics on Twitter in Mexico. Peña Nieto's most recent YouTube video, titled "What My Eyes See and My Heart Feels" features the candidate's wife, telenovela actress Angelica Rivera, narrating a montage of clips from his campaign events, leading to charges that he is spending his time making reality TV but not participating in public debates.

The PRI's strategy "is much easier done with an image and with very broad but vague message than concrete policies," O'Neil added.

Lopez Obredor is the old guard of Mexico's political left, a politician who ran (and lost) in the 2006 presidential election. Many voters resent his history of stoking class antagonism. In this election, Lopez Obredor, the former mayor of Mexico City is trying to win a broader base of support. "Mexico City is a model for the rest of the country!" he recently tweeted.

All of the candidates have a lot of political baggage, but they are hoping to re-introduce themselves to a new generation of voters. Over upcoming elections, the party that forms the strongest alliance with young voters and encourages them to go vote, will win a nearly insuperable competitive edge. It's unclear, however, what impact the youth vote will have in the current election. In a recent interview, Jorge Castañeda, author of Mañana Forever, and a leading commentator on Mexico, said that it is likely that "there will be a certain amount of apathy on the part of young people. I'm not convinced that there will be a [big] turnout."

After Josefina's campaign launch party, Ernesto Guevara, a 22-year-old economics student at UNAM, Mexico's premier public university said, "There are always things about parties you like and don't like," but overall he supports the PAN. 

To win the election, Josefina and the PAN will have to rely on the Youth Action members and other activists to rally their friends and family members to vote. Ernesto's dad is already a PAN supporter. His mother, however, is a stalwart PRI supporter.

He doesn't think he'll be able to change her mind.

"I respect her decision," he said. "That's what a democracy is."

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Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a Mexico City based writer who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile and written articles for Forbes, The World Policy Journal, The Nation, The Global Post, and Lapham's Quarterly.

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