By James Bargent
With close to 90% of Latin American internet users engaging with at least one social media platform, the region ranks second only to North America in adoption of this passing fad turned digital revolution. There are now over 118 million Facebook users and more than 55 million Tweeters in Latin America’s social network and where the internet-savvy have led, politics and business have followed.
The most popular Latin American political tweeter by some distance is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with 2.8 million followers. Before his recent travails, Chavez’s tweets were as likely to be passing comments on the weather as mini-rants against the bourgeoisie or new policy announcements. However, as the socialist firebrand now finds himself fighting an election campaign from his sick bed in Havana, Twitter has become his main tool for communicating with the electorate, a tool predominantly used for attacking his opponent and fighting the rampant rumors about his ill-health.
After Chavez, the most popular tweeters are the leaders of the countries with the region’s highest internet usage and deepest internet penetration; Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Chile. Among those, perhaps the least skilled management of Twitter comes from the leader of the country with by far and away the most internet users and with 4.3 million tweeters, more than double the number of twitter users than its nearest rival. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, an infrequent and sporadic tweeter, has 1.3 million followers on an account that hasn’t been used since she took office at the start of last year, yet just 8,000 following her new official presidential account.
In Colombia, tweeting by public officials has drawn the ire of the Inspector General, who has criticized politicians for the “overuse” of twitter as a forum for making announcements. The Prosecutor General’s Office has drawn up a list of legally and ethically questionable tweets by ministers, governors, mayors, secretaries and councillors, who prematurely released sensitive or even inaccurate information, including the dismissal of public officials, the release of prisoners and details of combat deaths.
Despite the near-universal take-up of Twitter or other social media among the region’s leaders, those hoping for serious policy or economic insights or hoping to catch leaders letting fly in unguarded moments will be disappointed.
A Tool to Rattle
Twitter talk in Colombia though, is dominated by the public fall out between ex-President Alvaro Uribe and his successor Juan Manuel Santos. While Santos (900,000 followers) utilizes Twitter with typical in-office caution, Uribe (1.1 million followers) primarily uses it as a tool to attack his former ally for betraying his presidential legacy. Uribe also uses twitter to launch legally dubious broadsides against officials and journalists investigating the former president and his allies over alleged paramilitary ties and abuses of power. Santos, for his part, claims he “doesn’t lose any sleep” over Uribe’s Twitter torrent.
Despite the near-universal take-up of Twitter or other social media among the region’s leaders, those hoping for serious policy or economic insights or hoping to catch leaders letting fly in unguarded moments will be disappointed. Most tweets rarely stray far from trumpeting the government’s achievements, publicizing new policies, imparting (nearly always) positive economic and trade information, or passing grandiose but generally bland presidential comments on the issues of the day. Some, like Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera (760,000 followers), also like to complement their political communications with humanising comments describing family dinners or their deeply felt pain at the latest poverty figures. Nevertheless, the tweets emanating from Latin America’s political leaders rarely amount to much more than 140-character press releases or campaign propaganda.
Little Bravado from Businessmen
Those turning instead to the region’s business leaders may be patchily rewarded. While the world’s richest man Carlos Slim has yet to send a single tweet to his 170,000-plus followers (or the two people he follows), the man who says it his intention to become the world’s richest man, Brazil’s Eike Batista, has tweeted over 19,000 times. Batista (helped by his tweet team) has amassed 800,000 followers with tweets dealing with business, politics and even individual communications with his followers, all written in a smart and playful style.
Latin American businesses themselves have yet to fully engage with social media, according to the largest study on the subject to date – the rapidly aging Burson-Marsteller’s 2010 Latin America Social Media Study. According to the study, only 49% of Latin American companies used at least one social media platform, in comparison to the global average of 79%.
Facebook was the most popular tool, used by over 39% of companies, followed by Twitter, where 32% had an account. The study also showed 53% of those companies were being talked about on Twitter by stakeholders, suggesting a serious communication failure on the part of the businesses. However, those that did use Twitter did so actively and had on average garnered twice the number of followers than the global average.
Startup Fever an Engine for Social Media
Nevertheless, throughout the region there exist examples of IT trailblazers utilizing social media’s potential. In Argentina, the name “Palermo Valley” began to be bandied about by Twitter users in 2008 as an ironic term for the high concentration of IT start-ups in the Palermo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Early take-up of Twitter was dominated by IT sector workers, so when one such entrepreneur decided to try to bring together the people behind those start-ups, Twitter allowed him to locate and communicate with the right people in a way never previously possible.
Sixty people showed up for the first meeting, 150 to the second and over 400 to the third. Out of those meetings grew the organization Palermo Valley, a non-profit collective run by IT professionals who have helped fuel the Argentine tech sector by bringing together IT workers and entrepreneurs to create professional, commercial and educational connections.
However, while the case is not isolated it is far from the norm and it seems that while the people of Latin America’s have caught on quickly to the social media revolution and its politicians are rapidly catching up, the business sector is lagging behind and has yet to fully exploit the opportunities social media present.