Tweets that cost votes

Following the Zapata case, Spanish politicians are taking steps to delete their digital trails

Juan José Mateo
Guillermo Zapata in 2015.
Guillermo Zapata in 2015.CLAUDIO ÁLVAREZ

For €6,000, anyone can hire a specialist to delete an online news story or other item that makes them look bad.

The consequences of one’s online activities are best reflected by the case of Guillermo Zapata, a Madrid councilor for the leftist Ahora Madrid alliance who lost his job in June 2015 after he was found to have tweeted jokes about the victims of the Holocaust and of the Basque terror group ETA.

Connect, converse and share. Don’t be afraid of exposure

Inma Aguilar, MAS Consulting Group

“It is very difficult to control your future reputation, but what’s really complicated is controlling your past reputation,” notes Imma Aguilar, a partner at MAS Consulting Group. “It is very easy to uncover someone’s past reputation, and very few people would pass the test.”

What politicians do online has the potential to ruin their present and future careers. And fixing that has a price that many are prepared to pay.

“There are professionals who specialize in eliminating results from online searches. For instance, they can insure that a lawsuit does not turn up at the top of the results,” explains a source who works at a major advertising and communications firm.

“This job is performed by freelancers who go deep underground using fake profiles on social media and working on search engine positioning,” he adds. “It’s an artificial manipulation of the online presence of a brand or person.”

Irene Villa is one of several ETA victims that Zapata made fun of on Twitter.
Irene Villa is one of several ETA victims that Zapata made fun of on Twitter.

“It is very easy for Google to win this war, because it is constantly cleaning up its algorithm. But not so much with Twitter,” adds the source. “And the only ones who manipulate Twitter, as far as I know, are political parties and politicians.”

But it is too late for Guillermo Zapata. A search of his name on Google will invariably yield results reminding readers about the controversy. It has become the highest-impact case in the history of Spanish politics, even making it into The New York Times, which underscored other jokes that Zapata had made about the Holocaust.

Like him, thousands of individuals have started participating in politics with the new parties Podemos and Ciudadanos – both of which have made heavy use of social media – after years of expressing their opinions without any filters. And these opinions could now come back to haunt them.

Following the Zapata debacle, Podemos (which is part of the Ahora Madrid alliance in Madrid City Hall) recommended that members delete their most controversial comments from social media. And Ciudadanos made background checks to ensure that its members had the right profile.

Accentuate the positive

So how can politicians or business leaders improve their reputation, or avoid a negative news item from popping up in a name search?

Besides the preliminary controls by political parties, specialists can use small digital media outlets to write up favorable stories, then give these stories a wide exposure by using thousands of fake profiles on social media to pick up and comment on them. This allows the positive information to bump the negative information down in the top search results.

“I don’t know if it’s a common practice, but I know that it does exist,” says Jean Marc Colanesi, a brand strategy consultant and graduate school teacher who believes this market is still under-exploited in Spain.

What politicians do online can potentially ruin their present and future careers. And fixing that has a price

“People rarely stop to consider the fact that exposure on the social media is much higher than at a rally or a television appearance,” he says. “I wouldn’t be afraid of paying thousands of euros a month for this service. It’s a great deal of work. We are talking about strategy, content, a contingency plan, supporting positive currents while stopping negative currents, and an entire control system. And that is worth money.”

Spain, say the experts, is certainly not the United States. Nobody here uses social media as skilfully as Barack Obama does. Instead, what we see is a collection of automated messages: congratulations on sports achievements, condolences after accidents, and party propaganda.

Aguilar, of MAS Consulting Group, has a recommendation for politicians. “Connect, converse and share. Don’t be afraid of exposure, don’t use the social media as a display window or as propaganda. Be real. Whatever you don’t want people to know, don’t do it. And make sure everything you say is true.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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