The far-right Javier Milei, 52, has become the favored candidate to win the October 22 presidential elections in Argentina… even though he has barely toured the country.
Milei —an economist and TV panellist by profession— visited 13 of the 24 provinces during the primaries, yet still won in more than half of the provinces he didn’t visit. Among them, the case of Salta was especially surprising. In the northern Andean province – where he achieved his best result – 49.38% of the voters voted for him in the mid-August primaries. Milei has been called the “candidate of television studios,” because he rose from being a talk show host to a member of Congress in less than five years. But you could also call him the YouTube and TikTok candidate, because, if social media is the new public square, Javier Milei is shouting the loudest.
No other candidate for the presidency has managed to dominate the discourse of social media like the far-right economist does – especially with so little effort and even fewer staffers.
Patricia Bullrich —the candidate of the traditional right— remains the most popular on Twitter. Sergio Massa —the current Minister of Economy and the presidential candidate for the left-wing Peronist alliance— is Facebook’s favorite. But Milei dominates Instagram and TikTok, the preferred spaces of voters under the age of 29, who make up a third of the electorate. He’s also the most popular candidate on YouTube… although not because of the content put out by his official channels.
“Around the world, the parties that are linked to the right have a special place in social media. In Argentina, this is the case of La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances, a far-right coalition) and its leader, Javier Milei,” explains Ana Slimovich, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires. For the researcher, this is because these political forces “construct discourses with simple language, which isn’t technical… it appeals to emotions, both positive and negative ones.” Milei began his campaign by comparing himself to a lion who came “to awaken other lions, not to guide the sheep.” Today, he walks around Buenos Aires with a chainsaw —a symbol of the cuts to the public sector that he intends to implement should he take office.
Milei, Slimovich notes, has grown strong because of the sporadic organization that his followers have built, including those beyond the party’s structure. Accounts like @elPelucaMilei or @MileiPresidente have almost a million followers and act as the most important spokespeople for the libertarian. They have almost four times more followers than Milei’s official channel, getting millions of views from videos that they cut, edit and publish. The most popular ones are the clips of television interviews with titles celebrating how Milei “destroyed” or “annihilated” journalists or political opponents in live debates.
“Even if the candidate isn’t present, they’re reproducing his speech,” Slimovich says. “This explains the [high number of votes] he gets in places where he’s not physically present. His followers on social media are always present, resharing his speeches. And, of course, the mass media also disseminates his content.” The same thing happens on TikTok, Instagram or Twitter, where online libertarian militants churn out viral memes that Milei often shares.
Agustín Romo – director of digital communications and a congressional candidate for La Libertad Avanza – states that only about 15 people work for pay in the libertarian campaign, but that “90% of the content is produced ad honorem.” For Romo, Milei’s victory in places he has never visited “sets the tone for an epochal change in the way of doing politics.”
Milei jumped into politics from the world of TV. With this background, he then imposed his anti-establishment fury on the political debate and amplified it via social media. In the last year, the country began to talk about the dollarization of the economy or the sale of organs —subjects that Milei brought to the table. “We use social media to install our own narrative and our agenda. If we put out a song in the morning, at night, everyone is talking about it,” Romo laughs.
The digital strategist believes that his candidate’s success in getting his agenda out there has two ingredients. On the one hand, Milei projects a message that connects with the electorate. This discourse among candidates —who present themselves as “outsiders” who aren’t really part of the political system— was successful for Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Milei often says that the “decadence” of the country is the product of a “political caste (or class)” that prioritizes its interests “at the expense of the people.” On the other hand, the consultant continues, the “libertarian movement” has been brewing for “10 years,” but “it had no political representation” until Javier Milei arrived on the scene.
The leading presidential candidate is also advised by Fernando Cerimedo —a major figure in digital communications among the Latin American extreme-right. A report published by the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigation (CLIP) revealed that the consultant has spread “messages based on lies in Brazil, Argentina and Chile.” Cerimedo was one of the great agitators behind the accusation —presented without evidence— that Lula da Silva won the recent presidential elections in Brazil only because of electoral fraud. Some of this influence has already been seen in Milei’s campaign. On August 13 —despite being the candidate with the most votes in the primaries— Milei insisted that votes had been stolen from him.
Among the left-wing Peronist coalition, they admit that they’ve started this campaign with a disadvantage. Their candidate was announced as a surprise: Minister of Finance Sergio Massa —who has been in politics since 1999— was proclaimed “as a unity candidate” on June 23. He opened his TikTok account days later. “This happened to us when [Massa] contested the presidency in 2015 —Mauricio Macri’s campaign (which ultimately won) had a better-developed social media campaign. We balanced it out, but we were far behind. We prioritize other forms, other types of campaigning,” a member of the campaign tells EL PAÍS.
Sergio Massa’s advisors say that they still see a scenario of the vote being divided into thirds, but that “the most stark polarization is with Milei.” Massa’s social media campaign is now being supported by Lula da Silva’s advisors, who have joined the Spanish consultant Antoni Gutiérrez Rubí. “They came to share their experiences with us about the two elections that they had to fight against Bolsonaro: the one that Fernando Haddad lost [in 2018] and the one that Lula won [in 2022]. They’re working with us on the possibility of reaching the runoff [election] in November.”
In Massa’s race to attract young voters, the latest to join the campaign on TikTok has been the current vice president (and former president from 2007 until 2015), Cristina Kirchner. The main representative of the Peronist movement opened her account this past Monday and has already uploaded dozens of videos. Ironically, less than five months ago, she urged young people to not spend more than “20 minutes a day on TikTok.”
Massa’s left wing coalition —made up of traditional parties that are accustomed to large street events and rallies— is beginning to make its presence more known online. The current president, Alberto Fernández —who decided against seeking re-election— recently answered questions with his dog on Instagram. And Massa has begun to announce his economic proposals via short videos tailored to social media. His younger supporters and party members were the ones who encouraged him.
After Milei’s victory in the primaries, a group of young Peronists began to reflect on their poor communications strategy and created a TikTok account —@Indisciplinadxs— to create a “new space” in the campaign. “Social media is a disputed territory where we’re not fighting. And, if we’re fighting, we’re doing so incorrectly,” lament two members of @Indisciplinadxs. A recent video —in which they showed how voters are misinformed on a certain topic— went viral and reached 166,000 people. “The battle on social media shouldn’t be considered lost,” they insist. “The field is wide-open — there are ways to take advantage of it.”
Patricia Bullrich —the candidate for the traditional center-right Together for Change coalition— is also staking out her place in the presidential race. She won her party primaries against the current mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. Bullrich deployed a “tough-on-crime” rhetoric, while Larreta, a moderate, prioritized dialogue and centrist policies. While Bullrich ultimately emerged triumphant, the question remains whether she can retain the votes of her formal rival, while trying to take on Massa and Milei, who have mostly focused their attacks on each other.
Her social media consultants are taking a careful look at her opposition. “I’m not looking at everything that Massa put out online as much, because what Milei does is more striking,” explains Yasmin Hassan, Bullrich’s principal advisor. The most positive element that Hassan sees in her party is similar to what Milei has going for him: an organic bloc of adherents who, of their own free will, circulate information for the campaign. They call the movement “Bullrichmania” —it consists of groups of self-convened online warriors, who spread information via WhatsApp groups.
Bullrich —who served as security minister under President Mauricio Macri (2015-2019)— has focused on pointing out the corruption that has taken place in the Kirchnerist governments: from 2003 until 2007, when Néstor Kirchner governed, from 2007 until 2015, when his wife, Cristina, governed, as well as the present administration, where she serves as vice president.
The bulk of her interactions on social media are with voters who similarly point out the corruption or bad policies of the ruling party.
Last week, a criminal court reopened two corruption cases against the former president and current VP. Immediately, Bullrich released her latest campaign video: in one minute, she revealed the model of a new maximum security prison for criminals that, she promised, will have a wing that is named after Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The candidate got what she was looking for: on Saturday, while Kirchner was speaking at her first public appearance in months, the video was already trending.
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