@LATAM: Connected. Social Media in Latin America

When Pulsocial Community Manager, Lina Maria Ceballos, received a “tweet” at her home in Argentina from a friend in need of a type O+ blood donation in Colombia, she eagerly “retweeted” this message to as many of her contacts she could. Five minutes later, a donor had been found. While scores of others would have to patiently face the prospect of death, a life had been instantaneously secured in the course of a couple of “tweets.”

The high-speed nature of social media is not any different in Latin America than in any other part of the world. However, because the region is gradually pushing itself out of a vicious cycle of poverty and inequality, the impact of social media is being felt in remarkably different ways than in already developed regions. From new and strategic political campaigns to organizing aid for Haiti, social media is bringing dramatic change across the hemisphere and is showing no sign of abating. Before addressing the impact of social media, it is crucial to delineate its actual definition.

An important distinction exists between new and social media. According to Christopher Penn, Chief Technology Officer at the Student Loan Network, social media is a subset of new media, which includes SMS texting and mobile communications. New and social media appear to be rapidly converging, as proven by new cell phone models with incorporated social media applications, making it increasingly difficult to tell where one of these modalities starts and the other ends.

With media access at the highest level it has ever been, new media technology allows for global communication in real time. According to a study conducted in September 2008 by comScore World Metrix, a digital marketing research agency, more than 8 out of 10 internet users surveyed in Latin America said they used online social networks such as Twitter, which are growing in number of users daily. Also, 95% of Latin American internet users have an account in at least one social network such as Orkut, Facebook, or Hi5, to mention a few. Finally, almost every Latin American mobile operator launched 3G services in 2008. This expansion of markets and numbers of users begs analysis of social media’s impacts on various fronts: political, informational, and entrepreneurial.

Furthermore, while carrying out this analysis, it is important to remember that while social media in Latin America operates much as it does everywhere else, it has unique effects due to the region’s distinct background. For instance, while in United States, social media has already allowed for networks of entrepreneurship to be consolidated to the point of near saturation, such official networks are only starting to flourish in Latin America.

The Invisible Hand Behind the Movement

The unprecedented use of SMS texting in the campaign for relief and rehabilitation for Haiti emblemizes the power of mobilization through new and social media. Through text messaging campaigns, organizations received donations of $5 or $10 by the simple click of a button. According to the Christian Science Monitor, since the January earthquake hit Haiti’s coast, Americans have donated about $41 million via text messages alone to the Caribbean island; $21 million of that amount within the first 48 hours after the event. Also, about $100,000 in text message donations has gone to Chile since the earthquake on February 27th.

Of course, solidarity campaigns are not the only ones that are riding the social media wave. As the Chile’s Penguins’ Revolution, the student led movement for educational reforms, demonstrated in 2006, grassroots and bottom up organizing have gained an important ally with social media. Internet resources as well as mobile phones were used to coordinate and expand the idea behind the student protest, as pointed out by Catalunya University Researcher on Social Media, Mireia Ardévol. Here, social media channels were the centerpiece in Chile’s largest student demonstration in the past three decades. Online mobilization took place from late April to early June 2006 and culminated on May 30th when 790,000 students participated in strikes and marches nationwide. Within three days, twenty-two schools were occupied and fourteen more went out on strike. The effectiveness of mobilization is evident: the generous LOCE (Organic Constitutional Teaching Law) reform proposed by the government went beyond realistic expectations for both parties, establishing a new National Education Council and numerous state-subsidized facilities.

The power of social media to mobilize is evident worldwide, and even political leaders want in on this new movement. Ever since the Obama campaign successfully used social media as a way to channel feedback from its supporters, political aspirants all over Latin America have followed, though hardly with as much success. In September of 2007, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa launched his personal blog, complete with Youtube videos and a Flickr account, calling out to all Ecuadorian internet users to actively participate in the building of the new constitution. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez inaugurated his own Twitter account, which he regularly updates with comments in order to maintain openness with his constituents.

The recent Colombian presidential elections have also gone “2.0.” Here, social media played a key role for Green candidate Antanas Mockus and his party in the country’s first round of the election. Using blogs and micro-blogs, such as Twitter, a direct connection with citizens and a space for conversation and participation for supporters was established. This allowed for an open, volunteer driven type of publicity, in which supporters were motivated to make the public aware of Mockus’ platform. The strategy paid off. At the beginning of his campaign, Mockus had a 3% popularity rate but reached about 40% on the eve of the first round of elections, ten percentage points above candidate Juan Manuel Santos.

However, Mockus’ online campaign, “The Green Wave,” did not go uncontested. Juan Manuel Santos, the main opposition, struck back with his own “Digital Revolution.” Nonetheless, Google traffic rates for Mockus stayed above Santos during most of the campaign and placed the former in sixth place overall while Santos did not appear in the ranking. While at first no one candidate received a majority of votes, Mockus received 3,120,000 votes and went on to the runoff elections, which took place on June 20, 2010. Mockus and Santos were not the only ones who saw opportunity in social media campaign strategies. Gustavo Petro, Rafael Pardo, and several other prominent candidates pursued similar strategies. However, as Colombian independent journalist Mauricio Cardenas remarked, the digital audience is hard to fool. At the sight of poorly managed Hi5 and Facebook profiles, many supporters immediately shuffled off many of these candidates, rendering the social media campaign strategies counterproductive.

The Challenge Facing Social Media Today

The success of Mockus’ campaign, however, was eclipsed by the disappointingly low percentage of votes he ended up receiving in the final round of elections. Where Mockus had captured about 35% of the vote in opinion polls prior to the first round elections on May 30th, he received only 21% of the vote. Many question how a campaign that had initially held the support of 3,120,000 Colombians could be defused to only a fragment of that figure, and why there was a 14% drop in opinion polls in the span of just a few days. Although certain public blunders and political naiveté on Mockus’ part during course of the campaign may have been responsible for the drop, another theory has also gained credibility. Although social media has revolutionized the way underdogs can rapidly gain support, modern networks such as Twitter and Facebook are still no replacement for traditional channels of communication. In fact, social media has proven to be more useful when it is utilized in collaboration with traditional media. Social media alone often neglects the important impact of “human contact.” The best online Facebook campaign will never be the same as the direct and personal contact of traditional media such as television or radio.

Democratization of Information

Besides their effects on the political scene, social media outlets have also brought about a related openness, transparency, and diffusion of information throughout Latin America. Breakthroughs in what is called “web 2.0” have paved the way for an era of “digital democracy,” where universal access to media production has created the increasingly popular “citizen media” phenomenon which, according to York University Master of Environmental Studies student Lisa Campbell Salazar, encompasses developments of blogs, vlogs, podcasts, SMS messaging, participatory video, digital storytelling, and social networks.

This citizen media serves as a means to preserve open political space, as is the case with Twitter in Venezuela. To confront censorship and keep the world adequately informed, tweeters used the hashtag (or twitter username), “#FreeMediaVe” to broadcast how Chávez shut down thirty-four radio stations. Without these social media channels, it would certainly be more difficult to maintain a virtual political space to broadcast the latest updates. The Democracy Center, a Cochabamba based NGO focused on social justice through presenting commentaries on public issues, uses its blog to educate people both in and outside of Bolivia on the realities affecting the impoverished country. Similarly, in Cuba, Yoani Sanchez’s blog “Generation Y” is the epitome of digital democracy and modern means of diffusion of information. As Obama himself wrote in a personal letter to Sanchez, “Generation Y,” which can be found in over 17 different languages, “provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba” and “empowers fellow Cubans to express themselves through the use of technology.”

Social media will continue to universalize information such as powerful personal narratives and testimonies, contributing to expansion of liberal democratic values to the farthest corners of Latin America where they presently may be in limited supply.

The Limits of Digital Democracy

However, there is concern that the exponential growth of online media comes with an influx of spam, making it difficult for people to know what is credible. There is fear that the legitimacy of journalism may be compromised by the various self-serving voices and mediums found online. Many also wonder how the pervasive use of social media will influence democracy.

While it is refreshing to open political platforms to share information world wide, it is worth noting, especially in an era where it seems that the limits of social media and user generated content are boundless, that there is something worth preserving about professionalized media. For instance, objectivity in reporting news must not take a backseat to any sort of “yellow journalism.” There is much at risk for the social media movement itself, as it could lose much of its legitimacy, given the inherent problem of misinformation.

As Pulsocial Community Manager Lina Ceballos remarks, “Twitter Media, a journalism focused blog managed by Twitter, expects that journalists can best use Twitter as a tool and not as an end unto itself.” In this way, addressing any issue will require comparing and contrasting information published by social media with other primary sources. Journalists should utilize social media as a raw fountain of real time news and information, which needs to be confirmed by other reliable channels.

The Googling of Growth

Finally, social media has had a significant impact on economic development. In his 2005 book Cuentos Chinos, Argentine journalist Andres Oppenheimer presented CIA and EU parliamentary reports that led to the dreary conclusion that in 50 years, Latin America may not even be on the economic landscape. Yet at the start of a new decade, social media gives strong reason to defy this grim outlook.

Social media has influenced economic growth in Latin America in two ways. The first is by serving as a centerpiece or platform for start-ups and upcoming entrepreneurs. By synthesizing all know-how and making it highly accessible, market entry and expertise are at the grasp of entrepreneurs’ fingertips, as are other tools for the average entrepreneur, whether in-the-making or already established.

Secondly, social media has brought consumers together, creating newer and larger markets for innovations. Social networking, digital video and audio tools, microblogging, RSS feeds, and Wikis are connecting potential markets to new investors. The Latin American mobile messaging market earned $2.4 billion in 2005 and is predicted to reach $7.8 billion in 2011 for mobile operators. Six out of ten Latin American consumers surveyed in April 2008 by AméricaEconomía and Visa said they thought it would be safe to make online purchases. Social media is strongly stimulating entrepreneurship, an integral part of economic development and autonomy in which Latin America previously had largely fallen behind.

Pio.la y Pulsocial: The LATAM Pulse

Social media not only connects markets together, but also facilitates access to these markets for entrepreneurs. Latin America has become a new place for investment and innovation. In fact, whole communities are created online by pioneers and visionaries who do not want to see the region left behind.

The “Valleys,” including Silicon Valley, Palermo (Argentina) Valley, Tequila (Mexico) Valley, and Lima Valley, are ideal examples of these virtual communities. These Valleys are bastions of entrepreneurship launched by a few leading visionaries in each country who were dedicated to creating and expanding a web of entrepreneurs across the region. Each Valley, comprised of a new wave of growing entrepreneurs in each country, has provided support for an established network to assist in the launching of new business projects and ideas. Another ideal example is Pio.la, an active online community of over 1,500 innovators in Latin America. When Pio.la and Pulsocial, a blog dedicated to following and promoting entrepreneurship in Latin America, teamed up to create the first ever Latin American competition for start-ups in 2009, sparks flew. The contest, called PiolaPS10, not only brought together the energy of around 100 entrepreneurs all over the region, but also incentivized and raised visibility of the endless innovative initiatives. Contestants were judged on production, innovation, target market, business model and management team. The winning Colombian start-up, LetMego, allowed travelers to send their itineraries and transportation schedules to different hotels and receive a variety of price offers to choose from. Pulsocial and Pio.la look forward to stimulating the Latin American entrepreneurial world through region wide competitions in the future.

By the People, for the People

One could easily be misled into thinking that because social media originated on the internet, it is only useful for a select few who have access to computers, namely middle and upper class citizens in developed countries in enclaves of emerging societies. However, this is not so. While it may be true that many Latin Americans still do not own computers, easy access to social media is growing daily. Wireless access subscriptions are expected to grow from 15 million at the end of 2009, to 320 million in 2014, according to the European Travel Commission Report in 2010. Even in agricultural settings of traditional societies, farmers can keep in contact through different communication technologies and are using basic social media to manage producers’ cooperatives, allowing them to make faster and more well-informed decisions. Also, sellers and buyers both gain access to information such as input and output prices, and ways to improve income. Through the universalization of technology to the most disconnected parts of Latin America, social media will continue to reach and connect millions in the region, and with numerous ramifications.

Looking Forward

Social media has revolutionized communication and interactions worldwide. It can jump start millions of entrepreneurial start-ups throughout Latin America. It can make the difference for rural farmers between covering fixed costs and earning profit. It allows one single set of hands to command international attention and put pressure on precarious political situations in the region. It can even save lives in a matter of minutes. However, social media should not be glorified without question. As it continues to embed itself deeper in Latin American political, economic, and social realities, its potential as well as its limits should not be forgotten. On one hand, utilizing social media without an ulterior purpose may prove fruitless, and treating it as the single-handed replacement for all other traditional media seems premature. On the other hand, when used strategically, social media has the potential to break down barriers in every way. It is the modern vehicle for freedom of expression and instantaneous access to information that can give each Latin American citizen the power and tools to change the course of Latin American history.