Savvy Social Media Strategies Boost Anti-Establishment Political Wins

Written by Saiph Savage and Claudia Flores-Saviaga

Savvy social media strategies boost anti-establishment political wins

File 20180904 45135 s9d86l.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AP Photo/Marco Ugarte


Mexico’s anti-establishment presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, faced opposition from the mainstream media. And he spent 13 percent less on advertising than his opponents. Yet the man commonly known by his initials as “AMLO” went on to win the Mexican presidency in a landslide with over 53 percent of the vote in a four-way race in July.

That remarkable victory was at least partly due to the social media strategies of the political activists who backed him. Similar strategies appeared in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2017 French presidential race.

Our lab has been analyzing these social media activities to understand how they’ve worked to threaten – and topple – establishment candidates. By analyzing more than 6 million posts from Reddit, Facebook and Twitter, we identified three main online strategies: using activist slang, attempting to “go viral” and providing historical context.

Some of these strategies might simply be online adaptations of long-standing strategies used in traditional offline campaigning. But others seem to be new ways of connecting and driving people to the polls. Our lab was interested in understanding the dynamics behind these online activists in greater detail, especially as some had crossed over from being merely supporters – even anonymous ones – not formally affiliated with campaigns, to being officially incorporated in campaign teams.

Integrating activist slang

Some political activists pointedly used slang in their online conversations, creating a dynamic that elevated their candidate as an opponent of the status quo. Trump backers, for instance, called themselves “Deplorables,” supporting “the God Emperor” Trump against “Killary” Clinton.

AMLO backers called themselves “AMLOVERS” or “Chairos,” and had nicknames for his opponents, such as calling the other presidential candidate, Ricardo Anaya, “Ricky Riquin Canayin” – Spanish for “The Despicable Richy Rich.”

Efforts to ‘go viral’

Some political activists worked hard to identify the material that was most likely to attract wide attention online and get media coverage. Trump backers, for instance, organized on the Discord chat service and Reddit forums to see which variations of edited images of Hillary Clinton were most likely to get shared and go viral. They became so good at getting attention for their posts that Reddit actually changed its algorithm to stop Trump backers from filling up the site’s front page with pro-Trump propaganda.

Similarly, AMLO backers were able to keep pro-AMLO hashtags trending on Twitter, such as #AMLOmania, in which people across Mexico made promises of what they would do for the country if AMLO won. The vows ranged from free beer and food in restaurants to free legal advice.

For instance, an artist promised to paint an entire rural school in Veracruz, Mexico, if AMLO won. A law firm promised to waive its fees for 100 divorces and alimony lawsuits if AMLO won. The goal of citizen activists was to motivate others to support AMLO, while doing positive things for their country.

The historian-style activists

Historian-style activists created explanatory materials to share on social media: a) backing AMLO with a visual description of his economic plan; b) Helping Trump backers ‘red-pill liberals,’ waking them up to a conservative reality. Saiph Savage and Claudia Flores-Saviaga, CC BY-ND
Some anti-establishment activists were able to recruit more supporters by providing detailed explanations of the political system as they saw it. Trump backers, for instance, created electronic manuals advising supporters how to explain their viewpoint to opponents to get them to switch sides. They compiled the top WikiLeaks revelations about Hillary Clinton, assembled explanations of what they meant and asked people to share it.

Pro-AMLO activists did even more, creating a manual that explained Mexico’s current economics and how the proposals of their candidate would, in their view, transform and improve Mexico’s economy.

Our analysis identified that one of the most effective strategies was taking time to explain the sociopolitical context. Citizens responded well to, and engaged with, specific reasoning about why they should back specific candidates.

As the U.S. midterm elections approach, it’s worth paying attention to whether – and in what races – these methods reappear; and even how people might use them to engage in fruitful political activism that brings the changes they want to see. You can read more about our research in our new ICWSM paper.The Conversation

Saiph Savage, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, West Virginia University and Claudia Flores-Saviaga, Ph.D. student in Computer Science, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About Saiph Savage and Claudia Flores-Saviaga

Saiph Savage is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at West Virginia University, where she directs the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory (HCI @ WVU Lab). She is also a visiting professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and adjunct professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her research in Social Computing and Crowdsourcing focuses on the design of systems that spark better coordination of volunteers and empower communities to reach more complex goals. Saiph has been recognized with the Conacyt-UC MEXUS Doctoral Fellowship, Google Anita Borg Scholarship, and is also currently a member of Microsoft's BizSpark, and director of the Anita Borg Community powered by Google. She holds a bachelors degree in Computer Engineering from UNAM as well as a masters and Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Claudia Flores-Saviaga s a Ph.D. student at West Virginia University where she works at the Human Computer Interaction Lab. She is a research collaborator at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her research focuses in social computing and crowdsourcing to design systems that foster coordination of volunteers and empower communities to reach more complex goals. She is currently doing research for the Wikimedia Foundation and PETA where she focuses on recruiting and retaining experts in social networks for execution of micro-tasks. She has developed her career as an technology advisor for the government in Mexico where she has participated in the deployment of the national digital strategy at the local level to give internet access to rural areas and has also developed social media communication strategies for civic engagement.