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Power of social media on display in Argentina’s elections

The unexpected success and popularity of Javier Milei’s political party sparked immediate comparisons with Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, prompting questions about the digital landscape

Javier Milei
Presidential candidate Javier Milei holds a press conference in Buenos Aires; October 2023.AGUSTIN MARCARIAN (REUTERS)

The rise of far-right candidates in the United States and Brazil taught us a valuable lesson — political battles are now largely fought online, where misinformation plays a crucial role. Social networks are becoming increasingly influential in shaping political engagement, especially among the younger generation. The impact of digital anti-establishment rhetoric in recent elections has made finding solutions increasingly challenging.

The August 13 primary elections in Argentina were chaotic, upending the quasi-bipartisan system forged by Together for Change (Juntos por el Cambio) and United for the Homeland (Unión por la Patria). The unexpected success and popularity of Javier Milei’s Liberty Advances (La Libertad Avanza) party drew immediate comparisons to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and prompted debate about the impact of the digital landscape.

A study by Context analyzed the fake news that circulated online during Argentina’s recent elections. It suggests that narratives challenging certain established rights (such as the right to abortion), democratic accords regarding the military dictatorship, and rights to education and access to scientific information, have had a significant impact on election outcomes. These messages have a widespread reach, attracting followers and amplifying those ideas.

The effectiveness of Milei’s message can also be seen in the realm of online political advertising. An investigation by Civic Compass analyzed over 17,000 ads (including texts, images, and videos) across all Google-owned platforms. It confirmed that Javier Milei and his party did not pay anything for these ads via their verified accounts, unlike their opponents who spent over $800,000 through various accounts linked to the two main political parties.

However, this doesn’t mean that Milei and his party had a weak social media presence. Their followers and collaborators produced a continuous stream of advertisements on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, both organically and through paid campaigns. The analysis by Civic Compass identified thousands of ads associated with Milei funded by individuals, municipal candidates, the media and other entities ideologically aligned with the libertarian candidate. Their followers are typically active social media users who regularly create spontaneous content, forming a decentralized network of message amplifiers.

What challenges does this create? There are at least three obvious problems. Mobilization on social media by followers of anti-establishment, populist politicians disrupts the political engagement of citizens. Political news mainly reaches people through online comments, reactions and discussions, as shown by Luminate’s “Youth and Democracy” research. These formats curtail public discourse and feed the dynamics of polarization and bubble effects. As communication fragments and networks decentralize, constructing a plural and diverse public space becomes increasingly challenging. Democracies must now try to preserve freedom of expression while fostering a less divisive and hostile public debate.

The second challenge is associated with regulating digital campaigns. Monitoring and documenting messages supporting candidates isn’t enough. Furthermore, we need transparent controls over private campaign contributions facilitated by algorithms and electoral products offered by digital platforms. We need new ways of auditing these opaque processes, as well as better regulation of both public and private campaign financing.

Lastly, political institutions must urgently address the needs of its citizens. Polarizing campaigns run by divisive politicians to inflame emotions disrupt representative democracy and hinder substantive policy debate. Negotiation and compromise are essential for achieving legitimate outcomes. It is important to listen to and consider how the public accepts, shares and embraces ideas that challenge established social rights.

Political parties, civil society and the media have an urgent task at hand. They need to critically reflect on their mistakes and successes, rethink their roles, and prepare to confront the changes reshaping the political system. As Argentina approaches 40 years of democratic rule, these elections offer an opportunity to reaffirm the commitment to human rights and public policies that improve everyone’s lives, even in the digital realm.

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