2012-05-30 08:00:00

In Mexico Elections, It’s Old Media vs. Social Media

MERIDA, Mexico – Mexico’s presidential elections are less than six weeks away, and for now it appears that opposition candidate Enrique Peña Nieto remains the clear favorite. His party’s reliance on traditional media, however, has ignited a firestorm within the country’s “Facebook Generation.”

Younger Mexicans expected this to be the first presidential election cycle in which social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn would transform the political landscape. Instead, they’ve found, Old Media is striking back.

At last check, Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held a 20-point lead over his rival Josefina Vázquez, from the ruling National Action Party (PAN).

Vázquez, a Social Media sensation, got millions of women Tweeting, and enlisted millions of youth as “Friends” on Facebook. But her campaign has run up against a PRI advertising blitzkrieg that has blanketed the country’s newspapers, billboards and airwaves.

Concepción May is a PRI member. For the past few months she has been hard at work organizing neighborhoods – handing out T-shirts, making sure voters have transportation to polling places and delivering campaign posters people can hang on doors and windows. “This is a campaign and the winner will be chosen by people who get away from their computers and go vote,” she says.

That’s a far cry from her sister, who supports the PAN candidate but spends her time on the sofa with her Facebook friends. “She might as well be playing video games,” May says. “I doubt she even knows where to vote.”

The PRI, which expects to win the presidency after 12 years of PAN presidents (Vicente Fox and the incumbent Felipe Calderon), appears to share that skepticism in social media.

In an unprecedented display, the PRI has blanketed Mexico with posters, billboards and fliers displaying the party’s candidates. Television and radio advertisements are running non-stop, as are full-page ads in newspapers and magazines. Millions of T-shirts, banners and stickers, meanwhile, along with full-size advertisements on buses and billboards have become common place, as was customary before social media.

It is the audacity of the PRI – which has spent an untold fortune on traditional advertising – that has enraged Mexico’s youth.

In a series of “strikes,” “protests” and “rallies,” the so-called Facebook generation has taken to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, directing their anger at the opposition and at traditional media – newspapers and television broadcasters – who, they say, have sold out to the relentless advertising of the PRI.

More intriguing still are the demographics behind these mounting protests: 24 million Mexicans (out of a population of 105 million) are aged 29 and under. Of these, 14 million are expected to vote for the first time in presidential elections (in 2006, they were too young to vote).

Most are too young to remember the heavy-handed tactics of the PRI, and how it governed when it ruled Mexico. Instead, they denounce what university organizers call “a Soap Opera Democracy.”

Their movement, moreover, is emboldened by video clips on YouTube, some showing the parents of protestors – identified by name – holding signs in support of their children.

One video that went viral soon after it emerged shows Peña Nieto being jeered off stage during an election campaign rally. Students are heard shouting “Fuera!” – “Out!” – as organizers were forced to cancel the event, which ultimately descended into chaos. Seen more than 600,000 times, the clip has fueled further protests.

The PRI’s subsequent statements -- that the incident was the result of 131 malcontent students – triggered an improvised “I am #132” YouTube campaign, in which university students denounce the PRI and the media they see as capitulating to the financial incentives of massive advertising.

The largest rally to date occurred May 20 and was centered on Mexico City’s Monument to the Angel, on the city’s Paseo de la Reforma. Drawing more than 40,000 protesters, it paralyzed city traffic.

Political commentators and observers see this social media backlash against the PRI’s campaign as the beginning of a “student movement” that stands to upend the presidential race in the last month of the campaign. While the latest polls show Peña Nieto with a comfortable lead, they do not reflect the student insurgence that began two weeks earlier.

Whether it will be enough to upend the PRI and their Old Media allies is another question.