10.4185/RLCS-2015-1040en | ISSN 1138 - 5820 | RLCS # 70 | 2015 | |
Latin American leaders on Twitter. Old uses for new media during political crises
F Segado-Boj [CV] [ORCID] [GS] Universidad Internacional de la Rioja (UNIR), Logroño, Spain – email@example.com
Translation of abstract by F Segado-Boj, Ph.D. (Universidad Internacional de la Rioja)
The popularisation of the Internet has radically changed political communication (Dahlgren, 2005).Within this revolution social networks have acquired special importance (Wattal, Schuff, Mandviwalla and Williams, 2010; Woolley, Limperos and Oliver, 2010), especially after the milestone set by Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. That year the main services of the web 2.0 were already widely implemented in almost all of the Western democracies (Hanson et al., 2010) and thanks to the use of these tools the US candidate managed to create a virtual organisation of more than three million members and mobilised more than five million volunteers. The communication strategy of Obama involved the use of these web 2.0 services to encourage supporters and boost the vote (Cogburn and Espinoza-Vásquez, 2011). These new tools have become a new election campaign channel for politicians, a new source of information and topics for journalists and a new platform where citizens can talk and discuss politics (Jungherr, 2014). Among the things that politicians highlight when defending the use of social networks are their versatility as vehicles for marketing -especially in the case of Facebook- and their capacity to facilitate dialogue with citizens -particularly in the case of Twitter- (Enli and Skogerbo, 2013).
Scholars have highlighted the positive role that this new landscape has played in the improvement of political communication, and by extension of democracy. Thus, the academia has highlighted the potential of these tools to include alternative voices in the public sphere and diminish the attention given by the media to the traditional political elite (Hong, 2013). In this sense digital media can, at least ideally, encourage political participation among users (Towner, 2013),operate as a vehicle for the dissemination of views that are alternative to those offered by the conventional mainstream media (Gleason, 2013), as platform for the expression of minorities that have been traditionally marginalised in the traditional media (Bekafigo and McBride, 2013) and as an information channel on topics and issues which the public authorities prefer to censor or keep hidden (Tufecki and Wilson, 2012). The potential of these technologies allows citizens to recover part of the public space that they had given up or from where they had been expelled (Gerbaudo, 2012).Thus, social networks and the web 2.0 play a significant role in the influencing of the decisions taken by governments and the shaping of the relations between the executive power, politicians, citizens and other social actors (Sandoval-Almazán and Gil García, 2014).In this sense, activist movements increasingly use social networks with more intensity and frequency to make the public aware of certain themes and issues (Harlow and Harp, 2012).However, just like they can stimulate protests against the status quo, the use of social networks and electronic media can increase the possibilities of control and censorship of these citizen movements (Fuchs, 2014).
As mentioned, social networks allow dialogue and direct interaction between citizens and their political representatives (Trejo Delarbre, 2011). In this sense, one of the key factors needed to achieve a successful political communication campaign in the web 2.0 is the ability to make citizens feel they are been heard (Mancera Rueda and Pano Alamán, 2013). Although politicians have identified the potential of social networks as valuable instruments to stimulate their voters (Zamora and Zurutuza, 2013), taking advantage of all this potential requires a strategy. It is necessary for politicians to be more interactive on these platforms, and to use social networks not only to promote their discourses but also to consult their voters and talk to them (Graham et al., 2013). It is not enough to be present in social networks or to post more messages to exploit these communication channels in political and electoral terms (Sánchez Duarte and Rodríguez Esperanza, 2013).
The strategy, the frequency of posts, and the type of relationship adopted by politicians in these social networks have consequences on their image, public perception and even in the voting intentions. Political candidates who show a greater level of interactivity generate a greater sense of direct contact with voters, which in turn improve their public image and increase their chances to win more votes (Lee and Shin, 2012). Thus, candidates whose accounts are more prone to conversation and interaction with other users obtain greater political revenue than those who are more inactive or chose to post simple one-way messages (Grant, Moon and Grant, 2010).Thus, candidates’ presence and participation in Twitter throughout the election campaign is directly linked to the number of votes they obtain on the elections day (Kruikemeier, 2014). Based on this correlation, numerous studies have highlighted the usefulness of Twitter as a predictor of election results (for example: Unankard et al., 2014; McKelvey, DiGrazia and Rojas, 2014; Ceron et al., 2013; Tumasjan et al., 2010. For a meta-analysis of this issue see Gayo-Avello, 2013).
However, the adoption of this ideal model of reciprocal communication in which politicians respond to citizens’messages and chat with them is minimal, since the vast majority of politicians follow a one-way communication strategy which leaves no room for dialogue with their followers (Crawford, 2009).Many of them use these media exclusively as a one-way information dissemination channel to gain visibility in the public sphere (Ross and Burger, 2014).A large number of politicians exhibit an erratic or suspicious behaviour on different social networks (Almansa Martínez and Castillo Esparcia, 2014).Politicians have adopted social networks as another campaign instrument but they have not adapted themselves to the communicative logic of the online environment (Vergeer and Hermans, 2013).This distant, incorrect or suspicious attitude towards social networks can be counterproductive for politicians because it can aggravate the communication gap between citizens and their institutional representatives (Vázquez Sande, 2013).
The importance of this new context for political communication has inspired numerous studies on the uses of digital and social media but they have so far focused in the context of election campaigns(for example: Ampofo, Anstead and O´Loughlin, 2011; Dang-Xuan et al., 2013; Hong and Nadler, 2012). Studies on the use of these tools outside of these parliamentary events constitute a minority (Larsson and Kalsnes, 2014). Research should not exclusively focus on pre-election periods, given that contemporary political communication campaigns have lost much of their importance (Sampedro and Sánchez, 2011; Gómez Compay, 2013).
1.1. Research objectives and questions
As explained in the previous section, the increasing use of Twitter by politicians, journalists, strategists and citizens has placed it in an important position of the sphere in which political issues are publicly negotiated and discussed (Ausserhofer and Maireder, 2013). The overall objective of this research is to analyse how Latin American political leaders react on Twitter when possible political scandals breakout, in a context that is conditioned by its own specific characteristics, which are similar to and different from other geographical areas (Welp and Wheatley, 2012). Most political leaders from the region have adopted this tool but their communication strategy is more similar to a monologue and a one-way communication model than to a dialogue (Deltell and Martínez Torres, 2014).
This general objective is translated into a series of specific objectives focused on knowing how political scandals influence revealing aspects of Twitter use: the intensity of use (to establish the frequency of use of this tool among politicians), the type of discourse (to determine whether Twitter is used as a conversational tool or a one-way information dissemination tool), and types of messages posted.
This exploratory study aims to examine the use of Twitter among Latin American politicians. The study is based on the content analysis technique, which has been used in other studies addressing the use of social media by other groups (for example: Golbeck et al., 2010).
The study focuses on the analysis of the Twitter activity of the heads of state or heads of government and the leaders of the main political opposition parties in four Latin American countries in which significant cases of corruption, political scandal or government crisis occurred during 2014 (Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico). The occupation or not of government positions is one of the factors that differentiate the type of use politicians make of social networks (Skovsgaard and Van Dalen, 2013), as well as their ideology (Vergeer, Hermans and Sams, 2013). In all cases, to determine the figure of the leader of the main opposition party we took as reference the latest elections in each country.
One of the limitations of the study is, thus, that it only included leaders of consolidated political parties, and excluded minority parties and parties without parliamentary presence.
In parallel to the method employed by Said and Arcila (2011) in their study of the digital media from the same region, we analysed the Twitter accounts of the Prime Minister and the leader of the main opposition party of Spain, which was taken as a country of control or reference for the development of the rest of the analyses.
Following these criteria, the chosen leaders are those listed in table 1 
Table 1: Position, country and Twitter handle of the sample of political leaders
Source: Author’s own creation
The following step was to limit the time framework of the study, by establishing two seven-day periods. The first period is characterised by the beginning of a media scandal or any event that generated a crisis of government, and thus this period is different in each of the five countries under analysis (see table 2). In all cases, the second period matches the week of 23 to 29 September, a period in which no relevant political developments occurred in any of the five countries. With this strategy we aimed to determine whether this geographical framework confirmed what other studies (Larsson and Moe, 2012) have proven: those media events such as televised debates cause greater activity on Twitter and a greater involvement of the parties around these events (Elmer, 2013)
Table 2: Description and dates of each of the analysed scandals and crises
Source: Author’s own creation
The following step was to code the messages. The variables included in the analysis are the following:
Table 3: Types of messages posted on Twitter
Source: Naaman et al. (2010).
It must be noted that these categories are not mutually exclusive, so some tweets have been placed in more than one category. For example, if a politician posted a link to his/her YouTube channel, this message would be classified in the information sharing and self-promotion categories.
The sample of politicians posted a total of 688 tweets in their accounts during the two periods under study. The figure was similar in both periods: 340 in the respective weeks of crisis in each country and 348 in the week of September, which was established as control week.
As Table 3 shows, there was greater activity in two of the analysed countries: Spain and Colombia, whose leaders (Mariano Rajoy, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, Juan Manuel Santos and Óscar Iván Zuluaga) were the most active along with the leader of the opposition in Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso. Together, these five leaders posted a total of 516 tweets, representing 75% of all the messages. On the contrary, politicians such as Rafael Correa, Enrique Peña Nieto and, above all, Hermes Binner and Andrés López Obrador had a much lower activity, with less than 35 tweets posted during both periods. In this way, Mexico exhibited the lowest activity of the sample of five countries.
Table 3: Number of tweets posted by politician and period of time
Source: Author’s own creation
On the other hand, data from both periods reflect differences across countries. Thus, Spain and Ecuador show similar trends: leaders in the government had lower activity during periods of crisis while the activity of the opposition leaders increased in those days. On the other hand, the Presidents of Argentina and Colombia posted more tweets during the crisis weeks than in the control week. Finally, the Mexican President was less active during the crisis, while the leader of the opposition was much less active in both periods.
3.2. Discourse directionality
This section also shows opposite trends (Figure 1), since the mentioning of other users increased during the crisis week in four of the analysed politicians and decreased in four, while there are two leaders (Rafael Correa and Andrés López Obrador) who did not employ this resource during any of the weeks. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, stands out among the politicians who mentioned other users in their tweets during the crisis weeks: the mentioning of other users in his tweets went from 9% to 51%. There are also significant increases in the case of Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba (from 42.4% to 70.4%) and Guillermo Lasso (from 47.8% to 71.4%). On the other hand, the cases of Enrique Peña Nieto and Óscar Iván Zuluaga are interesting, as mentioned more users in their tweets during the control week.
Figure 1: Percentage of tweets that mention other users
Meanwhile, up to five of the ten leaders under analysis (Cristina Kirchner, Hermes Binner, Rafael Correa, Enrique Peña Nieto and Andrés López Obrador) never retweeted messages (Table 3). Among those who did use this resource, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is once again the most active, with very similar percentages in both periods, followed by the leader of the opposition in the country, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, who on the contrary made greater use of the retweet during the control week. Also, the opposition leaders from Colombia and Ecuador, Óscar Iván Zuluaga and Guillermo Lasso, respectively, retweeted more frequently during the crisis weeks, while the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, made a minimal use of this tool.
Figure 2: Percentage of retweets
Source: Author’s own creation
On the other hand, the use of links is quite similar to the use of retweets in several respects: the Spanish political leaders, and especially Mariano Rajoy, are the most active and there are three leaders (Hermes Binner, Rafael Correa and Andrés López Obrador) who never employed this resource, while two more (Juan Manuel Santos and Enrique Peña Nieto) used it very sporadically in two and four occasions, respectively (table 4).
The breakdown of the links posted by Mariano Rajoy shows that a large number of them direct users to governmental sources, in particular to the Press Office of La Moncloa, which are sources that are also related to his party. For his part, the account of the Spanish opposition leader, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, stands out for the number of links to media outlets.
Table 4: Links included in the tweets posted by politicians during the period under study
Source: Author’s own creation
As for the leaders of the other countries, Cristina Kirchner more frequently uses sources unrelated to her party (either media or external sources), while most of the links posted by the leaders of the opposition of Colombia and Ecuador, Óscar Iván Zuluaga and Guillermo Lasso direct followers to their parties’website.
3.3. Types of messages posted
Finally, the analysis of posts according to the categories proposed by Naaman et al., (2010) shows that the most common category is, by far, “opinions and complaints”. In addition, the “information sharing” and “self-promotion” categories are also fairly common. Less common are tweets belonging to the “me now” category, while “statements and random thoughts” are minimal. Also, in the period under study none of the analysed politicians posted “presence maintenance” messages or personal “anecdotes” or about the “anecdotes” of others.
Figure 2: Classification of tweetsposted in the crisis week
There are differences between the two weeks under analysis (see figures 5.1 and 5.2), including the greater presence of opinions/complaints during the crisis weeks. On the contrary, self-promotion messages are more abundant in the control week. Meanwhile, the percentage of “information sharing” messages is similar in both periods and there is also an increase of “me now” messages during the control week, although it focuses on a single account, that of Mariano Rajoy.
Chart 3: Classification of tweetsposted in the control week
Source: Author’s own creation
With regards to the individual analysis of the different accounts there were two different trends in four of the political leaders in the Government: while “information sharing” messages increased during the crisis week in Mariano Rajoy’saccount, the opposite occurred in the case of Cristina Kirchner, Juan Manuel Santos and Rafael Correa, who also posted the largest number of “opinions/complaints” tweets in that period. These data would suggest the development of opposing communicative strategies to deal with crises by those affected in Latin American countries and in Spain. In the first case, the leaders do not avoid speaking openly on the issue that has generated the crisis, while conversely Mariano Rajoy chooses to share information originally published by the media and other platforms, trying to divert attention and reduce as much as possible the effects of the crisis.
Also, it should be noted that all of the tweets posted by Andrés López Obrador were opinions and complaints, in both periods, while most of the tweets of Enrique Peña Nieto, Guillermo Lasso and Óscar Iván Zuluaga also belonged to that category in both weeks.
4. Discussion and conclusions
Based on the obtained data, it is impossible to reach a positive definition of the uses of Twitter among Latin American politicians. The dispersion of trends and the practical absence of constants in the variables allows us to affirm that there is still no universal or common strategy or manual on how to use Twitter to overcome -from the perspective of the heads of government- or take advantage of-in the case of the opposition leaders- media crises among Latin American politicians. The reason for this scenario is either that the respective managers of these accounts are still exploring this tool (in a phase of “trial and error”, if you like) or that they prefer to apply ad hoc strategies for each situation.
The only common trend seems to be the reduction of self-promotion tweets that can be considered as counterproductive for the reputation of the Government in contexts of crisis. This does not prevent some of the leaders in the government to expose themselves to their followers and openly express their point of view on the issue that has generated the crisis.
On the contrary, it is possible to offer a negative definition of these uses on the microblogging platform. In other words, it can be argued that that “Twitter is not for Latin American politicians” and that Twitter is not employed as a conversation tool, given the extremely low frequency of mentions of other users and retweets in the sample of analysis. The study thus confirms that Latin America’s main leaders remain clung to the mass dissemination model inherited from the large media companies and have not adapted their behaviour to more effective models in the social networks.
Comparing the accounts of Latin American politicians against their Spanish counterparts the main difference is related to the mentioning of other users in the context of media crisis. While the Spanish President and opposition leader mentioned more users in their tweets, the Latin American leaders did the opposite -except in the case of the Mexican opposition leader. This fact may indicate that Latin American leaders fear users might react aggressively or that they prefer to use other means when it comes to criticise the President (depending on the case).
Regarding the types of messages posted by political leaders, there was a preference among the leaders in the government to post messages that contribute to the construction of their public image, especially “self-promotion” and “me now” types of messages. Complementarily, opposition leaders showed preference to post/share opinions and criticism, probably aiming to undermine the discourse of presidents and heads of government. Media crises intensified this trend among opposition leaders, although to an insignificant degree.
Thus, for Latin American politicians, Twitter is seen more as a tool to promote their political discourses and public persona than as a new space for dialogue or debate.
This study can be the starting point of future research that involves a new level of analysis. On the one hand, qualitative work may be carried out to establish the motivations of these politicians (or those responsible for their online communication) to follow the aforementioned strategies. On the other hand, content analysis can focus on new variables like the types of media that are linked to in tweets, the users whose messages are retweeted, and the users who are mentioned in tweets.
 The exception found by the authors of this article would be A Chadwick (2011): “The political information cycle in a hybrid news system: The British prime minister and the ‘Bullygate’ affair”, International journal of press-politics, 16 (1), pp. 3-29, which analyses the impact of Twitter in a media scandal that took place in Great Britain.
 By the time we were about to complete this research the Party Chief of the PSOE was Pedro Sánchez, but at the time the “Bárcenas case” this position was still occupied by Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, and that is why his profile was analysed.
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How to cite this article in bibliographies / References
F Segado-Boj, J Díaz-Campo, B Lloves-Sobrado (2015): “Latin American leaders on Twitter. Old uses for new media during political crises”. Revista Latina de Comunicación Social, 70, pp. 155 to 173.
Article received on 7 January 2015. Accepted on 16 February. Published on 21 February 2015.