Politicians are always in the public eye, good and bad opinions arise from their political actions, tendencies, media appearances and, in general, anything that they do or don’t do. In my county, Ecuador, politicians, and specially presidents, have been known for always trying to be on the spotlight to gain recognition and support from the people. Governments have been characterized for being populists. And the current is not the exception. A few weeks ago, President Correa, on his weekly address, called on the attention of a satiric Facebook page that often publishes memes about politicians and some Twitter users who have mentioned him in various ways, from criticizing his work to allegedly threatening him. But what does populism have to do with social media and the President’s response to these publications? A lot. For starters, I will lay out some characteristics that scholars consider as populistic practices. From that point, we have to look back at the way his campaign was managed and the discourse he had and how it has transformed over time. Finally, mechanisms used by the President to give a response to the people who post about him will be analyzed.
In Latin America, populist leaders have been able to participate in politics because of a weak institutional structure, in which political parties have been struggling to maintain popular support, and the government itself has not been able to address all the needs and demands of the people. Paul Cammarck explains that they way in which populist leaders arise is based on a promise to the people to solve all the problems without any help from political parties. We can build upon this affirmation that populism can be analyzed form two perspectives. The first is rhetorics and how they are used to appeal to the masses. The second perspective is more related to actual political actions. From the rhetoric point of view, a populist creates the truth, seeks to always have an enemy to blame for past and present failures, fosters clashes between classes or different groups in society and above all, always has the solution for everything. On the other hand, the actual political action is a contradiction itself. A populist leader is against all neoliberal institutions but relies heavily on them to be able to keep afloat its political project; a populist apparently supports democracy but ignores its values whenever it is possible.
Correa’s initial political campaign was based on an appeal to go against what was established by previous politicians that was not providing good results for the people. He created this imaginary enemy of neoliberalism and of traditional politics that were not healing Ecuador’s economy nor its social problems. From a rhetorics perspective, just as any other populist, there is a constant need of having someone to talk about either to divert the attention from political failures or to gain public support against someone or something. Since Correa has been so long in office, he has had to look for new “enemies”. The transformation of his enemy has been very interesting, it has gone from neoliberalism, to oligarchy, to foreign interventionism, to journalists, and now to social media publications. From a political action side, not everything is bad, he and his government have been able to address social problems and have provided public services in places where they were not offered before and he has significantly improved the national highway system. However, the rhetoric always overlaps the political exercise in the sense that everything that is done is tainted with enmity. He has condemned former governments for having relied so much on neoliberalist practices and his government has done the exact same thing, for example oil extractivism. Nowadays, he really needs a new enemy, unfortunately, this new enemy are people who dear to post on social media about their dissatisfaction with the current administration or express their opinion.
As I said in the beginning of this article, politicians are always in the public eye and for that reason they are supposed to understand the fact that their political exercise will create a reaction in the people. Something that should be recognized by Correa, in this case with social media, is the difference between the outreach and impact the social media posts have and him or his weekly addresses. As the President of Ecuador, he has a massive media coverage at his disposal to appeal to the masses in a very populistic way. Then again, let’s not forget that populism is the rule and regardless of the impact some memes might have on his image, they are useful to divert the attention from important matters. He claims that the social media page is allegedly paid by the opposition to destabilize his government but even if it were paid by it, does he really think that this page would have an effect on his political exercise or that a tweet is really a threat. At his weekly address, he exposed the identities-names, pictures and cities-of all of those who have mentioned him in a negative way, was this really needed? He even called to all of his supporters to Tweet in his favor, although there wasn’t a big response. Up to a certain extent freedom of expression is being used against the people and, as a result, repressed.
Memes do not cause instability in a government, rather political mistakes cause instability; political opinions, memes and tweets in this case are consequences and reactions to those mistakes. The procedure that President Correa followed in treating this topic was to drastic and somewhat theatrical. There should always be an assessment of the cost/benefit relation of any political decision and action, I think that in this particular case there wasn’t any. Citizens will always have opinions and it is their right to exercise their freedom to express what ever it is that they believe in, as long as it is in a respectful manner. And for this same reason no one should be exposed in front of a whole country the way some citizens have been exposed. So, are memes really important for Correa? Yes, he needs them to exist to have someone to fight with to demonstrate his ability to single-handedly solve problems in a country where there are still various social and economic issues.
Photo credit: David Wees