Mexico's Youth Uprising: How a Social Media-Powered Student Movement Upended the Presidential Election
This story was originally published before Mexican election results were announced. Last night, July 1, election authorities announced that the Institutional Revolutionary Party's Enrique Peña Nieto won with 38 percent of the vote.
Mexico City -- On Sunday July 1, most of Mexico’s 79 million voters will go to the polls and cast votes for one of four leading presidential candidates. For the overwhelming majority of the campaign, the dashing and young Enrique Peña Nieto, who hailed from the party that ruled Mexico with an iron fist for 71 years, has led the race by wide margins, according to polls.
But on May 11, in an instant as quick as a smartphone-posted tweet, everything changed--and not only for Peña Nieto. Some argue that the emergence of a burgeoning and nationwide student-led social movement has changed the very future of Mexican democracy itself.
At first, everything went as planned. Peña Nieto had successfully negotiated a stage-managed appearance at the Iberoamericana, a prestigious university based in a well-to-do suburb of Mexico City.
“EPN [Peña Nieto] had turned down two prior invitations to come to the Ibero, due to concerns of student opposition and lack of control. Finally, the third time, he agreed to come when stage-managed conditions were set,” said an insider who works for the school administration and agreed to speak anonymously to AlterNet.
Questions were asked by pre-selected students and answered with ease, and Peña Nieto left the auditorium wearing his trademark smile.
But then hundreds upon hundreds of students started shouting at Peña Nieto, telling him, “Fuera, fuera, fuera!” (Get out!) Signs were unveiled pointing to Peña Nieto’s role as governor in authorizing repressive acts toward a movement hailing from Atenco, a farmer-based autonomous community located in the state over which he presided. (In Atenco, hundreds of protesters were arrested and beaten on the way to prison in May 2006, and over two dozen women filed official complaints about having been raped.) Other signs railed against a return to the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) rule.
Peña Nieto was clearly unnerved, as security agents and university officials formed a small circle to protect him against the protesting students. Eventually, Peña Nieto found his way off-campus through a back-door exit.
The event at Ibero University, which attracted national news media attention, would have likely been forgotten were it not for the effective utilization of social media by a handful of activists at Ibero.
The students who gave Peña Nieto the shout-down at Ibero were instantly attacked and one by one, the accusations were repeated by the Mexican TV news media duopoly: “They didn’t look like Ibero students,” “they're intolerant and anti-democratic,” “the authorities should investigate them” “they had to be paid protesters,” bellowed a variety of high-ranking functionaries of the PRI and its allied parties.
But the Ibero students fought back—successfully.
“We need at least 50, with less than that, we won’t do anything,” muttered Rodrigo, an Ibero journalism student, via a Facebook chat he held with his fellow students and activists, Ana and Oscar. It was already a day after the accusations had made the rounds on Mexico’s media airwaves, and the students knew time was of the essence.
Minutes later, Rodrigo read a blinking chat message on his screen: “We have 131.”
“Having” the 131 students meant that there was a legion of volunteers who uploaded testimonials proving that they were not paid protesters and were, in fact, authentic students at Ibero. They did so by making sure to include images of themselves along with their student credentials. Soon after, the Twitter hashtag #Somos131 was created. The students’ quick counter to the media attack on them spread like wildfire through social media. Overnight, the mainstream media myths were destroyed--much to the embarrassment of the media moguls.
The student movement was soon dubbed on Twitter and beyond as the #YoSoy132 movement--which translates to “I am 132,” a reference to everyone else beyond the 131 Ibero students being a supporter of the movement. It exploded like none other in recent times in Mexico. Support flowed throughout the country’s Internet veins as fast as the tweets that flew across Egypt that helped organize the anti-regime protests there.
EmeEquis, a bi-weekly, nationally distributed magazine in Mexico, put it best with one of its article headlines: “Mexico, yes, has a memory … what it didn’t have before was the Internet.”
Mass protest against Peña Nieto’s campaign was successfully organized through Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, with many attracting tens of thousands of people. T-shirts were made. Media outlets started saying that the opinion leaders of family households were not the parents, but the young students of the household. A new and youth-based mass movement was spawned. Nearly everyone in Mexico, so it seemed, wanted to be a #YoSoy132 supporter.
Students not only from Ibero, but from beyond, piped in on what inspired their participation. “We are sick of repression and killings and EPN represents a return to violence. Like in Atenco. And we are against the manipulation he has undertaken with the broadcast networks,” said Agueda Valenzuela, a student from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) satellite Acatlán campus, during a mass protest against Pena Nieto on June 10.
“We are trying to change the country and are protesting the monopoly of Televisa. The people are left with false impressions of the country and don’t know what is actually happening,” Teresa Beatris Nava, a 21-year-old biology student from UNAM, told AlterNet during a protest at Televisa’s offices.
The movement with spontaneous Internet roots made an almost instantaneous difference in the way the election was coming about, having literally cut Peña Nieto’s lead in half. At one point in early June, EPN’s lead was less than the margin of error of most polls.
But that was not all the movement achieved. Rodrigo, one of the founders of the movement, explained to me that the movement was on the cusp of organizing the country’s first independent presidential election debate. Weeks later, his efforts came to fruition. The main questioners behind the final debate of the presidential campaign were not mainstream journalists or election officials, but students.
Still, in spite of the impressive reach of the Ibero-inspired student movement, which by now has gone nationwide and has a sizable presence at nearly any major university, Peña Nieto is still positioned to win Sunday’s electoral contest. According to activists and media analysts, the reasons behind Peña Nieto’s survival of the onslaught cut to the very center of Mexico’s news media system.
Handsome, dashing and a skillful manager of crowds, Peña Nieto is a news media-friendly figure. Having recently married Angélica Rivera, a telenovela soap-opera star of the Televisa television network, Peña Nieto attracts a movie-star-like reaction from his fans.
The leading opposition candidate, Andres Manuel Obrador, is with the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which has long won mayorships in the nation’s largest city and capital, but never the presidency. Obrador has long attracted mass-movement-like support; on June 27, the last official day of campaigning, he managed to overflow Mexico City’s historic downtown center-plaza with over 200,000 impassioned supporters. In contrast, Peña Nieto’s (admittedly smaller) gatherings are more akin to stage-managed events that play up celebrity-like admiration and adoring fans.
In front of this challenge, Peña Nieto continued to rely on Mexico’s mainstream news media in a way that has firmly positioned him to win the election.
“We already know which media product is going to win the election,” said 20-year-old Daniel Martinez, a #YoSoy132 supporter, shortly after finishing a rap he wrote railing against Mexico’s dominant media and political systems. He performed the rap at a street corner during a protest at Televisa’s main offices on June 26. “This election is a circus of media products and the biggest product will win this Sunday,” he said.
Describing Peña Nieto as little else than a creation of the media may be a harsh critique. But it is undeniable that the man whom many call the new face of the PRI has committed a number of rather embarrassing gaffes.
Last November, Peña Nieto was flush red in the midst of his response to a seemingly innocuous question. During an international book fair in Guadalajara, Peña Nieto was asked what three books had influenced him the most in terms of his intellectual development. The journalist who asked the fateful question, Jacobo Garcia, the foreign correspondent for the Spain-based daily El Mundo, described the moment as a “great opportunity to know the candidate, because he really hadn’t let himself be seen during the event.”
Peña Nieto immediately cited the Bible as an important influence. He stumbled rather clumsily through citing two more books, however, and incorrectly cited one of Mexico’s most well-known and famous authors, conflating him with another author. Carlos Fuentes suddenly became Enrique Fuentes.
Carlos Fuentes himself was far from amused: “This man hasn't read me, [and although] he has the right of not doing so … he doesn't have the right to aspire to be president of Mexico based on [his] ignorance.”
Garcia told colleagues that aides were nervously gesturing for Peña Nieto to cut his losses and shorten his answer, but the candidate continued in spite of laughter from the press corps at various moments.
Other gaffes were committed as well, including when Peña Nieto couldn’t pin down what the minimum wage for the country was, much less the going price of a tortilla. His explanation for failing to know these answers was that he was not a “housewife.”
How can a man who doesn’t know the price of a tortilla, the minimum wage or name three books that have influenced him be on the cusp of winning an election? A series of investigative reports undertaken by the London-based daily, the Guardian, has pointed squarely to media favoritism, while additional reports have surfaced of vote-buying and manipulation.
A Television Duopoly and Alleged Illegal Tactics
In a poll released on June 30, no less than 71% of Mexicans believed that electoral fraud will be committed, which is what many argue occurred in the last election and in the widely disputed election of 1988. In both of those instances, the center-left PRD candidate came out on the losing end of the stick.
Concurrently, the most important target of #YoSoy132’s critique has been the TV news media duopoly controlled and run by Televisa and TV Azteca.
Televisa is the world's largest Spanish-language television network. In Mexico, two-thirds of channels are controlled by the media behemoth, with the second leading TV network, TV Azteca, controlling most of the remaining third. But these facts, in and of themselves, are not enough to prove officially sponsored bias. Televisa officials and leading broadcast journalists have fervently denied the accusations by the movement and others.
When Rodrigo appeared with his fellow students and activists on Televisa, he managed to gain control of the interview and asked Carlos Loret de Mola, a leading Televisa broadcast journalist, tough questions that elicited defensive responses like this: “I work here … and I can almost bet you that with difficulty, you won’t be able to find in Mexico an interview of Peña Nieto that was as hard as what we [have done here at Televisa].”
In a sweeping validation to the movement, the Guardian revealed on June 7 that from 2005, Televisa sold favorable coverage to a number of politicians, including most prominently Peña Nieto himself, as well as an apparent smear campaign against Obrador’s first presidential campaign.
Televisa responded by denying the accusations and demanding an apology. But the report was followed up by yet another investigation published June 26, which revealed that a secret initiative emerged during the 2009 elections that was responsible for distributing pro-PRI campaign videos through mass e-mailing and promotion on sites such as YouTube. Furthermore, a key figure in the initiative, Alejandra Lagunes, now works for Peña Nieto’s campaign.
Matters have gone north of the border as well. A lawsuit was recently filed in California alleging that Peña Nieto's campaign failed to pay $56 million to a Spanish-language media group that purchased airtime for the campaign in the U.S, which violates Mexican election law.
Even Wikileaks documents were summoned, showing U.S. knowledge of the situation: “It is widely accepted … that television monopoly Televisa backs the governor [current PRI candidate Pena Nieto] and provides him with an extraordinary amount of airtime and other coverage,” read the leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.
During this same period, a climate of censorship emerged on Televisa. Héctor Suarez is a comedian who resigned from Televisa in protest last November after being employed there for 38 years. Suarez says that Televista “started vetoing scripts. No you can't do this, no you can't say that. They shut me up.”
Questionable news media arrangements with Peña Nieto were coupled with the revelation of several vote-buying schemes. The worst of these included a strategy involving over 300 election districts, which were slated to receive 9,500 debit cards worth $5.2 million in exchange for promised votes by citizens. The debit cards that were distributed were angrily held up to the press by opposition party public officials.
Since the start of Mexico's election season, the attorney general's office has arrested 380 people and convicted 58 for electoral crimes, most of which have involved vote buying or coercion schemes.
As Mexico-based media experts interviewed by the Guardian pointed out, coverage of these scandals and controversies was limited within Mexico’s mainstream media spectrum and were mostly just picked up by the progressive-leaning daily La Jornada.
Looking toward the election, #YoSoy132 supporters are realistic about the chances of beating the candidate they oppose. But what what will be done afterward?
The answer to that question was given on the eve of the election by a group of impassioned student activists.
They were giving speeches outlining an ambitious political platform in front of well over 100,000 candle-bearing protesters, who had completely filled the main plaza of the nation’s capital. One speech read: “The day after the election, we are going to continue our struggle, as we will continue protesting and organizing no matter who wins, so we can all realize a democracy in this country that responds to the needs of the community, so as to fight against the lies spread by the media.”