October 31, 2014
CFK and Latin American presidents love Twitter
When a million angry Argentines flooded the streets earlier this month to protest her government, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner decided to post a message on Twitter.
And another. And then another.
“Yes, I’m a bit stubborn, and I’m also old. But in the end, it’s lucky to arrive at old age, isn’t it?” one tweet read. She also mused about a 19th century fresco in her “gorgeous” palace, and the merits of a state-run literacy programme.
At the end of the day, Fernández de Kirchner had sent 61 tweets in a nine-hour period — prolific even by the standards of Latin America, where presidents and other leading politicians have embraced social media with a zeal unmatched anywhere else.
Their love for Twitter, in particular, has given millions of voyeurs a real-time window into policymaking — and, often, their leaders’ most intimate thoughts.
Yet it has also fuelled debate on whether some are guilty of “oversharing” — making politics more polarized, confrontations more personal, and potentially making the leaders themselves look awkward when they post about chats with strangers in a bathroom, for example, as Fernández de Kirchner also did this month.
“Everybody who uses Twitter knows that sometimes you write something and push the send button without thinking enough about it. That’s dangerous in politics... and we’ve seen many examples of it,” said Alan Clutterbuck, head of Fundacion RAP, a group based in Buenos Aires that seeks to improve the civility of political discourse.
“We should hold our political leaders to a different standard,” he said. “You see a message that says ‘I’m having a sandwich,’ and you think: ‘Who cares?’”
With a rich tradition of florid oratory, Latin America produced Cuba’s Fidel Castro and his famed five-hour-long speeches. So it’s unsurprising that some of its modern-day leaders have embraced a new platform to express themselves — but also struggle to shoehorn their thoughts into a few tidy blasts of 140 characters or less.
Politicians have also been hurling around insults since before the Twitter age, such as when the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez called former U.S. President George W. Bush the “devil” at the United Nations in 2006.
Yet there is no question that the technology has made the invective fly faster than ever before. In the aftermath of this month’s bitterly contested election to succeed Chávez in Venezuela, there were moments when both candidates were simultaneously tweeting attacks on each other.
Eventual winner Nicolás Maduro referred to the opposition as “fascists,” declaring: “In their crazy hatred and desperation they’re capable of anything.”
Losing candidate Henrique Capriles used Twitter to question the results of the voting hours after polls closed, tweeting “There is an illegitimate president!”
SHOWING THEIR HUMAN SIDE
Latin America’s most prolific tweeting presidents — Fernández, Maduro, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto — all send a large percentage of messages themselves, their aides say. The most popular of all was Chávez, who had more than 4 million followers prior to his death in March.
Not everybody’s on board: The president of the region’s biggest country, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, stopped tweeting right after she was elected in 2010. “She thinks it’s a total waste of time,” one aide said. But for others, it has become part of their identity. At its best, Twitter can remind voters that their politicians are human — and even vulnerable.
The night of the march against her in Buenos Aires, Fernández de Kirchner travelled to Caracas, and began to reflect on Chávez’s death — words that added poignancy given the sudden passing of her own husband, former President Néstor Kirchner, in 2010.
“Why is it that those who live with so much intensity abandon us so soon?” she tweeted. The following night, she started writing about “the human condition,” before seemingly remembering that, even on Twitter, there are limits.
“Pardon me,” she tweeted. “I started thinking, and since I can’t speak (because my voice is gone), I’m channelling it through here.” “In the end, it’s healthy and absolutely inoffensive.”