Thursday, 6 October 2016

Twitter wars: Political marketing lessons from Colombia

Colombia’s recent rejection of a landmark peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is viewed as a letdown, considering how widely applauded the deal had been globally. No outsider who watched videos of the dramatic treaty signing ceremony would have thought that Colombia remained divided over the question of ending the five-decade insurgency. Yet when Colombians came out to vote, 50.2 percent rejected the government deal with the FARC; 49.8 percent supported it.

Analysts now say a key figure in the no vote victory is Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe, a close ally-turned-archenemy of the incumbent Juan Manuel Santos. The current government of course had the upper hand in terms of funding, influence and machinery, but Uribe was not to be outplayed. As soon as the Santos administration and the FARC had struck a deal, Uribe ramped up what the Washington Post in 2015 described as “a one-man Twitter war” that painted the peace accord as an “Agreement of Impunity.”

“We have an opportunity to stop the mockery of the FARC victims,” Uribe told his Twitter followers in Spanish after the treaty had been signed September 26. He was fuelling an already burning sentiment among Colombians that the FARC had to be prosecuted for the atrocities they have committed. The armed struggle between the government and the FARC has left some 250,000 dead and displaced some six million.

In marketing terms, it appears that the Santos government had a weak value proposition for the wider population who needed to approve the peace agreement. Santos knew that he had to appeal to swing voters—those whose sentiments about the FARC rebellion are not strong enough to make them decide just yet between a yes and a no vote. Still, he focused his campaign on the not-so-appealing “transitional justice,” a framework that will allow FARC rebels to run for office and grant them amnesty depending on the gravity of their crimes.

Uribe, on the other hand, made sure that Colombians who did not understand what the FARC deal offered knew what it took away: the opportunity to bring to justice rebels viewed as perpetrators of the war horrors Colombia had to suffer. Uribe consistently pushed this theme on Twitter, where he posts four times more frequently than Santos does. (Uribe has tweeted some 51,000 times since July 2009, Santos some 12,100 times since August 2009. They have about the same follower size: Uribe has 4.55 million; Santos, 46.2 million.)

Photo: Screengrab from the Twitter profile of former Colombia President Alvaro Uribe
The case of Uribe’s Twitter storm against the Colombia peace deal bolsters Twitter’s relevance in political marketing. “Politicians are always looking for ways to get their message across without having it filtered and potentially altered by others, such as news media,” John Parmelee and Shannon Bichard wrote in their book Politics and the Twitter Revolution. Citing previous research, they added that although Twitter’s reach seems limited in size, it is high on impact, because its users consist of opinion leaders—both on the Internet and offline.
Twitter’s role in shaping the political landscape is apparent not only in Colombia, but also in the U.S., where a Twitter war rages between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The heated exchanges arguably peaked in June, when the Republican bet Trump said, “Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. He wants four more years of Obama – but nobody else does!” Clinton replied using three words, “Delete your account,” a popular Internet retort for posts too preposterous or despicable to directly respond to.
It may be said, however, that Trump has been getting more media value from Twitter—that is, more of his tweets make the news. On September 30, the media reported heavily about how Trump took to Twitter early in the morning to assail Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who Clinton cited as a victim of Trump’s sexist and racist behaviour. News outfits also carried the views Trump tweeted about the vice presidential debate on October 5. Whether or not the media coverage has been to his favour, of course, is another question.
Twitter’s negative impact on a political figure is more discernible in the case of the Philippine’s newly named ambassador to the United Nations, who has run amok online. Teddyboy Locsin, a former congressman and a popular broadcaster, has been widely criticised for spewing expletives on Twitter against users who question Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war against drugs. He was recently hit for an old tweet which said “the drug menace is so big it needs a final solution like the Nazis adopted.” He has since deleted his tweet.
“The evolution of marketing in politics has reached a critical stage where politicians can no longer rely on a loyal party following but must be prepared to use any tool necessary to respond to unexpected events in a world that is changing every day,” Bruce Newman wrote in his book The Marketing Revolution in Politics. Twitter allows politicians to put out their messages quickly, directly, and widely. The fact remains, however, that social media is simply a channel; sound strategies make them effective political marketing tools.
Kim Patria
Current student in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney Business School

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