Social networks have revolutionized the way in which politicians communicate with citizens during election campaigns. And this is no surprise. In fact, it is assumed that platforms such as Instagram, where images and visual content acquire unprecedented relevance, compete with and dwarf the influence of media communication monopolized until recently by television. That projection, however, has much less to do with connecting and mobilizing voters based on programmatic affinities, individual character, or debates. Recent research on the use of Instagram in campaigns such as Colombia’s 2022 has revealed a growing trend: politicians of different ideologies such as Gustavo Petro (left) and Rodolfo Hernández (right) adopt attitudes that bring them closer to celebrity culture than to ideological onslaughts, persuasions of ideas or particular moralities that are linked to traditional politicians.
This tendency is not limited to Colombia. Leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Gabriel Boric in Chile, and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela have also used Instagram to build their public image, thus prioritizing spectacularity and a provocative artistic aesthetic or immediate fame and glamour.
Bolsonaro, known for his polemic and confrontational style, has used the platform to share inflammatory messages in order to feed his base of followers. Boric, the young progressive candidate, has used the network to show his closeness to social movements and highlight his commitment to social justice. While Nicolás Maduro has used Instagram to spread populist messages and symbols between the mystical and seductive of the cult of strength, armed and militant sacrifice, but attaching to a military aesthetic that glamorizes his authoritarian regime.
This instrumentalization of social networks to gain followers (particularly on Instagram) has the paradoxical effect of sacrificing the construction of a clear media agenda. Instead of presenting proposals and debating on issues of political relevance, Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández are examples of political marketing contemporary transformations, in which the exposure of their intimacy is prioritized as if they were influencers in search of likes and popularity.
Petro, for example, has shown himself playing soccer, enjoying meals in popular kitchens, wearing typical attire, and sharing family moments. For his part, Hernández focused his campaign on appearing with well-known figures such as singers or television presenters and also sought to relate his image with that of his mother, and even with the affection or empathy generated by the link with pets, such as a duck, to accentuate his figure as a colloquial politician.
These attitudes of politicians raise serious questions about the implications of this transformation in political campaigns. In the first place, they trivialize the notion of democratic representativeness anchored in the electoral decision, as they nurture the construction of a superficial image far above the presentation of solid proposals and the discussion of transcendental issues. While it is true that social networks allow for greater closeness between politicians and citizens, these leaders must be able to create a real impact on society through their actions and policies.
The strategy of Petro and Hernández seeks to generate empathy with voters, deviating from the programmatic points that may also result in the greatest confrontation, polarization, and antagonism, with the consequent risk to their popularity. The concern of the top political referents in showing their most human and daily side, leaving in second place the public and polemic approach to the real challenges and problems faced by society, may end up feeding a superficial link not only with their candidacies, but with the political order they seek to lead, but propelling skepticism with democracy.
Can the average Latin American citizen, with his or her cognitive and interpretative limitations, think that the image of a politician playing soccer or posing with a duck will provide solutions to their daily deficits and collective problems of education, security or economy?
The adoption of celebrity attitudes by politicians generates a greater emotional identification between candidates and citizens. But, on the other hand, there is a latent risk that this emotional connection prevails over the critical evaluation of politicians’ ideas and concrete proposals, trivializing the electoral ritual itself.
Instead of analyzing political platforms and ideological positions in depth, voters may be seduced by the image of these celebrity candidates. When this happens, across the ideological spectrum, these approaches come to be perceived as an intrinsic characteristic of the prevailing political system or order. In Colombia, Petro and Hernández represent different ideological currents. Yet, despite their political differences, both end up succumbing to the temptation of celebrity culture. The search for popularity and desire to become recognized figures seem to be a constant in contemporary politics, regardless of political beliefs.
There is, therefore, a need to reflect on the implications of Instagram and social networks in political campaigns in Latin America. Voters should be aware of the risks due to the superficiality of politics and the overvaluation of their image over concrete proposals. Authenticity and political responsibility should be the pillars of political communication on any platform.
It is essential to find a balance that allows politicians to show their humanity without neglecting the importance of their role as leaders. Citizens must demand that candidates present solid and clear proposals, even more so in times of electoral competition, when they address the challenges of society and that they are willing to debate with transparency and openness. Should politics be staged as a popularity contest or become a space for critical analysis, constructive dialogue and the search for solutions?
Ultimately, the transformation of politicians into celebrities can have negative consequences for the quality of political debate and informed decision-making. It is the responsibility of voters and society as a whole to reflect on these implications and demand politics based on ideas and proposals, beyond image. Only in this way will we be able to strengthen democracy and foster a political future more committed to the collective well-being of Latin America.
*This text is written in frame of the X WAPOR Latin America, Congress: www.waporlatinoamerica.org.
*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues