In 2000 only 8 million Latin Americans were active online. Today that number has ballooned to 129 million regular users—more than a 1000 percent increase—with almost all (127 million) signing in to their social media accounts at least once a month. The number of absolute and relative users differs by country, but the upward trend has been steady across the region, led in sheer number by Brazilians and in time dedicated by Argentineans and Chileans (10 hours and 8.7 hours a month respectively).
Facebook dominates for most of the region, with 114 million unique Latin American visitors monthly, spending over a billion combined hours on status updates, wall posts, and photo browsing. Twitter comes in a (distant) second place, with some 27 million Latin Americans expressing their thoughts in 140 characters or less (here #Mexicans and #Brazilians outpace their neighbors). Millions more in the region access sites such as Orkut, Slideshare, Tumblr, and the more professionally oriented LinkedIn.
The region’s politicians have noticed, and adapted. Social media platforms offer direct access to millions of constituents and, during campaign time, often provide a means to avoid media regulations. While most Latin American politicians are active online (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia’s presidents all have over one million followers), no Latin American political figure has embraced social media as wholeheartedly as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Though he once famously referred to Twitter as a “tool of terror,” today Chavez is the second most followed president in the world (coming in only behind President Barack Obama), with 1700 tweets, 3.5 million followers, and a rumored Twitter account staff of 200.
Political incumbents aren’t the only ones using social media to advance their causes. Mexico’s #YoSoy132 movement exploded onto the scene through a YouTube video and a Twitter hashtag bearing its name. Chile’s student protestors use Twitter and Facebook to organize protests and release statements, recently starting an English language account @Mobilized2011 to reach the international media. And Venezuela’s political opposition hasn’t shied from taking on the master in this realm: opposition front-runner Henrique Capriles may only have half the numbers of followers as Chavez, but he (presumably with the help of his team) has three times the number of tweets.
This frenzy of activity has attracted journalists, commentators, and ordinary citizens. Joining in, many share minute by minute news updates, and retweet, like, and share political minutiae and commentary across the globe, letting gaffes and ideas alike go globally viral in hours. Social media has taken on life and death seriousness in places such as Mexico, where reporters and civilians alike tweet real time crime reports, at times paying the ultimate price for their bravery. Whether for established politicians, opposition activists, the press, or voters, social media has become a dynamic battleground, increasingly shaping the narrative.
But in this brave new world of political interaction, how much will social media actually matter? In the book Going Public, Samuel Kernell argues that when politicians find new ways (and reasons) to engage directly with constituents, the initial effects are quite powerful, transforming politics as usual. But he also finds that these effects diminish quickly as the public becomes “fatigued.” While Kernell is talking more about the rise of radio and television in politics, there is reason to think that social media may follow a similar path as its predecessors. As the novelty wears off, newsfeeds become saturated, and other technologies emerge, these platforms will likely overtime become less useful and effective in shaping the political arena. Still, at least for now, social media campaigns will play a defining role in Latin America’s politics.