Colombia vote showed social media's limits

The crushing defeat of Colombia's opposition candidate Antanas Mockus — who had a record following on Facebook — in last Sunday's first-round elections confirms what I have long suspected: The political and business impact of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has been widely overrated.

Mockus, a former university president and two-time mayor of Bogota, had drawn international attention in recent months for becoming one of the world's politicians with the greatest numbers of "friends" on Facebook.

In addition to more than 150 independent Facebook pages supporting his campaign, Mockus' official Facebook page gathered more than 700,000 "friends."

Newspapers covering the Colombian elections credited social media for Mockus' meteoric rise in the polls.

A week before the May 30 first-round vote, Mockus had risen from virtually nowhere to a tie with government-backed candidate Juan Manuel Santos, with 34 percent of the vote each. Ecstatic pro-Mockus bloggers were already referring to their candidate as "the world's first Facebook president."

Mockus himself had bought into that idea. He told the Spanish daily La Vanguardia that he had based his campaign on social media, which had allowed him "to replace the traditional political vote-buying practices."

But on Election Day, Santos won a landslide with 47 percent of the vote, and Mockus ended a distant second with 21 percent. The two candidates will now go to a runoff June 20, which Santos is expected to win easily.

"Mockus may have had 700,000 friends on Facebook, but many of them felt they had already voted for him by becoming his 'friends' on Facebook, and didn't vote," said Mauricio de Vengoechea, a political consultant who works for the Santos campaign.

Jonathan Salem Baskin, an author and Advertising Age magazine columnist, told me that social media "have been misunderstood and therefore oversold," in politics and business.

"They are important, but to say that they are a replacement for retail campaigning in politics — the actual hand-shaking or speech-making — or that spending time on social networks is a replacement for companies offering meaningful goods and services, is crazy. It is absolutely stupid," he said.

"That number of 700,000 Mockus' friends is meaningless: Those aren't friends, but anonymous clicks. For the nanosecond that it took them to click into the candidate's page, they are persons. But to call them 'friends' immediately thereafter, is stretching the definition of 'friend,' " Baskin said.

But weren't social media a key factor in the 2008 Obama campaign? I asked him.

"What Obama's people did is using social media as a distribution list to get people who just clicked to do something more in the real world, such as knocking on doors and getting out the vote. The list itself was meaningless. The list of people who did things for real was priceless," he said.

Something similar happens in the business world, Baskin said. As more and more people are being paid by companies to write in social media posing as anonymous bloggers, Facebook and other social media are losing some of their original credibility. They were born as independent sources of information, but they are rapidly losing that appeal.

So what's the lesson, both for politicians and businesses, I asked.

"I can have a million friends on Facebook, but if we are just entertaining each other, it's worthless," Baskin said. "If a candidate or a corporation can figure out how to tell the truth, they have a great future for their ads, whether they are on Facebook, on paper or television. It's not a media problem, it's a substance problem."

My opinion: I confess that I have a Facebook page linked to my television show (Oppenheimer Presenta) and I plan to activate my personal page. But I'll do it more to stay in touch with acquaintances than to sell books, or promote my columns. In my previous column, published three days before Colombia's elections, I suggested that Santos would win, because Facebook and other social media would not replace old-fashioned political campaigning, or a well-oiled party apparatus to count the votes.

The outcome of Colombia's vote proved me right. Social media will continue growing as virtual meeting places, but their real impact in politics and business has yet to be proven.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; e-mail:

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