- - Monday, July 3, 2017

BUENOS AIRES — It’s late at night at the residence, and the president is tweeting attacks on the mainstream media: Journalists publish nothing but “daily lies, pathetic contradiction and permanent disaster,” she writes.

“She” — because it’s not Donald Trump at the keyboard, but former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez.

Turns out that long before Mr. Trump brought his feisty Twitter style to the White House, his South American counterparts — Ms. Fernandez, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Venezuelan populist Hugo Chavez among them — had already mastered the art of making friends, but mostly enemies, in 140 characters.

According to Twiplomacy.com, Latin American politics and social media sites such as Twitter are fast friends. Mr. Pena Nieto has been tweeting since 2007, and Bolivian President Evo Morales last year ended his holdout as the last Latin American leader without a Twitter account. Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who succeeded Ms. Fernandez in 2015, is rated the most active leader in the world on Snapchat and boasts over 630,000 followers on Instagram.

More than 9 out of 10 governments in the region are on Facebook, one of the highest regional participation rates in the world. Mr. Pena Nieto, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales all have large and active Twitter followings. Ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff regularly keeps her 5.2 million Twitter followers up to date on the failings of the men who drove her from office and her efforts to rehabilitate her reputation.

As much as leftist as Mr. Trump is a man of the right, Ms. Fernandez shares with the U.S. president a penchant for resorting to Twitter to reject the “mainstream media.”

Her trademark 2014 “disaster” tweet was one of dozens aimed at her country’s leading newspaper, La Nacion, which she derided as a “factory of lies.”

“It didn’t cause much amusement [in the newsroom],” said Mariano De Vedia, a La Nacion political analyst. “But the former president’s attacks on newspapers and journalists weren’t limited to social networks.”

Those networks, notably Twitter, did, however, provide Ms. Fernandez with the ideal tool to go around pesky reporters and take her populist message directly to voters. She continues to use that strategy as she tries to mount a political comeback amid several explosive — and widely covered — corruption trials.

An early adopter, Ms. Fernandez signed up for Twitter just four months after Chavez, the anti-U.S. Venezuelan firebrand who started tweeting in April 2010.

With his screen name “chavezcandanga” — which combines his name with a slang term that roughly translates to “rebellious” or “disruptive” — Chavez set the tone for presidential tweeting from the get-go.

In the 1,823 messages he sent his more than 4 million followers before his 2013 death, he used the account to promote his socialist agenda, interact with citizens, exchange compliments with Ms. Fernandez and other populist allies — and, of course, fiercely attack his foes.

“Sanctions imposed by the imperialist gringo government? They are welcome, Mr. Obama,” he taunted in May 2011, four years before the U.S. president inaugurated his official @POTUS account. (Mr. Obama had been tweeting at @WhiteHouse and @BarackObama before the official account was launched in 2015.)

Mr. Chavez, like Mr. Trump, mixed the personal with the presidential on his Twitter feed, sending orders to his lieutenants or chronicling his enjoyment of a “tremendous bowl of fish soup” for lunch in 2012. He even engaged in some memorable feuds via Twitter, prompting an angry response to one posting by then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

“I ask President Hugo Chavez to stop being a coward hurling insults remotely,” Mr. Uribe tweeted. Chavez happily ignored the request.

Online populism

For Chavez and Ms. Fernandez, the Twitter approach offered a logical extension of their unscripted, emotionally charged — and frequently antagonistic — rhetoric, Mr. De Vedia said.

“It’s a characteristic of populism: to approach people through an emotional impact rather than through the reasoning in their discourse or the solid argumentation of their message,” he said.

But to Julia Perie, a Fernandez confidante and lawmaker for her Front for Victory bloc, the former president simply adopted a tool that she says works across the political spectrum.

“Today, there is no teenager, youngster or adult who doesn’t have access to social networks and isn’t connected through social networks,” Ms. Perie said. “[So] the president has used them in her time and continues to use them.”

One need look no further than the U.S. presidential election last year to gauge the impact such a direct appeal to voters can have, she said.

“What happened in the United States with the election of Donald Trump [shows that social media are] at the heart of communication,” Ms. Perie said. “[He reached] 210 million profiles during the campaign.”

Unlike Mr. Trump, however, Ms. Fernandez has been careful not to be dragged into prolonged “Twitter wars” with detractors, instead preferring to keep discussions on her own terms. The 140-character limit has proved to be her greatest challenge.

A tireless public speaker whose long-winded televised addresses often irritated producers and viewers alike, Ms. Fernandez often resorts to “tweet storms” linking dozens of messages to make her point.

Exasperated reporters, in turn, have needled the former president by claiming her refusal to follow Twitter’s basic rules is akin to her nonchalant approach to, say, judicial independence or government accountability.

“Twitter, like televised addresses, suits her as a one-way form of expression that doesn’t require any exchange,” La Nacion’s Enrique Valiente Noailles wrote in 2013. “In her tweets, there are no doubts, no nuances, no bewilderment.”

Ironically, though, Ms. Fernandez’s alleged mastery of the medium did not stop Mr. Macri from out-tweeting her Front for Victory in Argentina’s hard-fought 2015 presidential elections, said political scientist Facundo Cruz, co-director of the Social Network Observatory.

Unlike Mr. Macri, whose campaign knew it had to remedy his awkward public speaking, Ms. Fernandez’s bloc did not have a sophisticated behind-the-scenes Twitter operation. That has changed in time for this fall’s midterm elections.

“We had never seen a coordinated or organized [Front for Victory] presence on the social networks,” Mr. Cruz said. But now, “there is a very important update that affects the use of Twitter as a platform to coordinate her backers and [voice Ms. Fernandez‘s] proposals.”

The crowded battlefield, though, means things have grown uglier, said Ms. Perie, the lawmaker.

“I get discredited by trolls that have been shown to operate out of offices set up by [members of Mr. Macri’s Cabinet], trolls who seek to insult and discredit us,” she said. “In the beginning, honestly, that made me feel sad and a little down.”

But, the lawmaker added, she knows Twitter isn’t going anywhere.

“I believe the future trends toward all things spontaneous, immediate and fast,” Ms. Perie said. “People are getting used to read four lines and keep up to date — or be misinformed — by those fours lines.”



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