Twitter’s ownership change will alter Latin America’s political debate
Elon Musk doesn’t care much about Latin America, but he’s about to run a key social media platform that defines the region’s political narrative.
Latin America’s political conversation happens on Twitter.
Citizens use Facebook to chat with family, Instagram to share their lives, and TikTok to do whatever it is people do on TikTok. WhatsApp (and increasingly Telegram in Brazil) are the key forums of political discussion among citizens in the region.
But for politicians, they talk on Twitter, they speak to citizens and the media on Twitter, and they argue amongst themselves on Twitter. The discussion on Twitter drives much of the political narrative in the traditional media in almost every country in this hemisphere. That’s true, even if many of the region’s citizens aren’t on Twitter and the debate that happens on the site isn’t always representative of the region’s diverse population.
For example, this past week, a Twitter fight between Gustavo Petro and Colombia’s top military commanders was a key debate within Colombia’s election campaign.
This Twitter-driven narrative isn’t new. It’s been true for over a decade and is now culturally locked in.
Politicians across Latin America, including in Honduras and El Salvador, have all built large networks of social media manipulation. Hugo Chavez built one of the largest Twitter followings among any world leader prior to his death. He passed along a legacy of social media monitoring and manipulation that continues today in Venezuela. In Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto built botnets to harass his opponents and manipulate trending topics. Then AMLO one-upped the PRI’s efforts, with Morena and the “Pejebots” now operating with efficiency.
Which is all to say, what happens to Twitter matters for Latin American politics. It is a primary communications and political battlefield at the moment and is likely to remain so for at least the next few years.
What happens to the botnets? How is debate (and not just in English!) regulated, restricted and censored? Can politicians and criminals threaten journalists, civil society and average citizens? Or threaten democracy as a whole? Following Trump’s deplatforming, I once asked which Latin American president would be the first to be kicked off Twitter (a newsletter that led to a Financial Times op-ed and a podcast debate).
Now that Twitter has been purchased by someone claiming a greater “free speech absolutist” position, the space of social media regulation is about to be shaken up.
That tweet above hurt.
It’s inaccurate. It’s unethical. It damages US policy and reputation. Musk later deleted it, but that doesn’t make much of a difference. Numerous critics of US policy including some who spread conspiracies about the 2019 coup in Bolivia have grabbed onto it as evidence of US backing. Evo Morales has used it multiple times as evidence of a broader US-driven conspiracy against him.
It’s not clear yet how Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter this week will impact the campaign in Brazil or the harassment of activists in Mexico or the use of Twitter by presidents from AMLO to Bukele to Bolsonaro to Boric. We, as Twitter users, don’t know whether we’re getting Elon Musk, the CEO who has built something impressive at Tesla and SpaceX, or @elonmusk, the guy who often posts garbage on Twitter. Either way, Latin American politics aren’t at the top of his mind. And even when they are, it’s about lithium and launch sites.
Who in Latin America is cheering Twitter’s new ownership? One president who uses Twitter quite effectively and who has used the social media network to promote the detention of over 17,000 people in the last 30 days without due process. It’s just one data point, but it’s a bad early sign.