Exporting American Political Technology to Colombia

On August 7, Juan Manuel Santos will be sworn in as the next president of Colombia. Mr. Santos managed to win by a large margin and with record turnout in an election that was relatively (and certainly by Colombian standards) free and clear. One reason for Santos's victory was his use of an American technology company, ElectionMall.com, which helped him mount one of Latin America's first social media campaigns.

ElectionMall CEO Ravi Singh spent 50 days in Colombia. A typical day would find him working on the basics -- teaching field staff how to use iPhones -- or the complex: integrating Santos's 98,000 Facebook fans into a get-out-the-vote database. Election Mall is a non-partisan technology company powered by Microsoft.

In May, Santos was tied with his opponent, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus.

Then Singhs's team, working with the Web 2.0 Victory Team, along with local agencies and talent including Sistole, SigmaMovil and Servinformacion, kicked into gear, live-streaming his campaign speeches (Colombia has a 45 percent net penetration level), collecting 4 million emails, producing a "SuperSantos" video game (fight drug dealers!), organizing debate-watching parties, and helping voters find their polling places. According to the campaign:

According to the campaign:

A Colombian citizen logs on to SantosPresidente.com. He searches for his city, county or town among a roster of 1,076 individual Web pages comprising the first Virtual Headquarters deployed in a Presidential Election in Latin America. He then inputs his voter ID number and his exact voting location, along with a suggested route, appears on a digital map on his screen. The address is then automatically sent to his cell phone via SMS. With his voter data at hand, he decides to improve his score on "SuperSantos" and starts playing a video-game where the candidate fights poverty, corruption, drug-dealers and unemployment.

Santos won 69 percent of the vote. Social media helped, but so did Santos's ideology. It is hard to poll outside cities, and that's where Santos found many, many votes.

"I believe very firmly in e-democracy," Singh told me from Dublin, where he is soliciting clients. "Technology can help increase participation in an election, but it can't make you win."

Singh "was very impressed by the humbleness of Juan Manuel Santos. He would come into the tech space and ask me how do I upload my picture I've just taken to Facebook? When a candidate comes to you like that and asks simple questions, for me, it's like, hallelujah." Santos has three teenage children who encouraged him to be more active online, Singh says.

When Santos was defense minister in 2008, he admitted to knowing about a campaign of what might euphemistically be termed "extrajudicial killings." In order to show progress in fighting FARC and drug traffickers, the military would often kidnap poor men, street vendors, and homeless people from cities, take them to the edges of rebel territory, strip them, force them to put on guerrilla uniforms, and then murder them. And then the military would brag about killing guerrillas.

The practice was tolerated and supported by the outgoing Uribe government, and it was not enough to hinder U.S. efforts to solidify a working relationship with the country. Whatever else a Westerner comes to learn about Santos, this would seem to disqualify him from office. But it is hard to find a Colombian politician who has not done or been complicit in very, very bad things. Santos has said that the military was not under his complete control but that he did his best to reduce the murders.

Santos has promised transparency, freer and more independent courts, and a full accounting of the killings. He has managed to bring most of the country's political factions into a unified government. The U.S. is happy that Santos won the election. Diplomatic officials see him as a reliable partner. He'll be tough on the guerrillas and on drugs and counter the nefarious influence of Hugo Chavez, yet he managed to obtain a message of congratulations from both Venezuela and Ecuador upon being elected -- perhaps a sign that he will be a stabilizing force within the region. (Ecuadorians don't like Santos; he invaded part of their country while pursuing FARC guerrillas.) In America, Santos is known as the man who supervised the plan to trick hostages into releasing presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three other U.S. citizens in July of 2008.  

I asked Singh whether he was worried that, when Santos became president, he might use technology for ill, just as Iranian leaders co-opted Twitter to help repress protesters during the Green Revolution.

"Will Santos rise to the occasion or will he have just used this as a onetime wonder to get elected?" Singh mused. He thinks the former. He believes that Colombian voters, having been introduced to quasi-participatory e-democracy, will demand more from their government and be in a better position to organize collectively to get what they want. Half of them live below the poverty line. Expectations for Santos are very high.