Celebrities have used it to gossip, activists have used it to inform of uprisings, but only Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has used Twitter to govern.
After recently reaching 2 million followers President Chávez has become the second most followed political leader in the world, only after US President Barack Obama, with tweets that go well beyond campaigning or informing. Chávez ’s tweets have included anything from announcing a pay raise to government workers to approving “the forced acquisition of a rice processing plant”.
Through his twitter account @Chavezcandanga, Chávez has reprimanded ministers, called the US a “parasite of the (world) economy”, and even broken his week-long silence following the emergency removal of a cancerous tumour in Cuba.
But President Chávez’s most ingenious use of Twitter has been as a means to engage in a one-on-one dialogue with his followers. “President Chávez, through his @Chavez candanga account gets an average of 800,000 tweets a day,” says Moira Serrano, a specialist in IT for the Ministry of Foreign Relations, “and through our platform they all get answered.” Most of these tweets are citizens’ petitions that get channelled on to the respective ministries and from then given a prompt solution. “The immediate response has contributed to creating an emotional bond between the president and his followers,” Serrano says.
Recently diagnosed with cancer and having to undergo debilitating chemotherapy treatment Chávez has been forced away from the public eye and yet, thanks to Twitter, he has maintained his presence. For a leader who is accustomed to presiding over nearly all public acts, Twitter has done more than allow for a closer relationship to his followers. It has allowed Chávez to survive politically. “Because of the strict treatment he has to follow Chávez could have lost visibility but he’s somehow succeeded in telling people that, even in Twitter, he’s the boss,” Jimenez adds.
Twitter has also given Chávez an in to a media traditionally dominated by the middle class where Chávez lacks support, helping him reach young Venezuelans who traditionally won’t tune in to state-run media outlets. And yet despite the wide penetration he has achieved, the style of Chávez ’s tweets have brought some supporters to object. For Oscar Lloreda, a communications researcher with close ties to the government, tweets and social media in general are successful at informing but fail to build the social project Chavismo has vowed to set forward. “Leftist thought has always called for reflection and tweets are by nature more like slogans,” Lloreda says.
But 2012 is an electoral year and slogans have been known to make a difference. At 2 million followers (and counting), Chávez is dominating twitter as well as the traditional campaign trail. Jhofreth Chacon, one of thousands of followers who wished President Chávez a prompt recovery via his twitter account, got more than just a tweet back from Chávez. He got the president, himself, calling back.
“He is giving me a computer and he told me where my two older brothers, who don’t have a home, can sign up for help,” Chacon, a 13-year-old high school student from the central region of Venezuela, said. And Chávez signed up to become Chacon’s fourth follower.