Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is one of the last holdouts in a disappearing club of world leaders who refuse to use Twitter or other social media platforms to communicate directly with followers, constituents and countrymen.
According to a report by the Digital Policy Council, more than 75% of all world leaders— and virtually every president in Latin America—use Twitter on personal accounts or institutional accounts managed by staff. The data suggests that many world leaders became Twitter converts following the “Arab Spring” of 2011, when political activists throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa demonstrated the power of the social media platform to inform, mobilize and organize followers.
Within a year of the uprisings, the number of world leaders using Twitter increased by an astounding 78%, according to The Digital Policy Council. The group expects that number to approach 100% by the end of 2013 as social media continues to penetrate the darkest corners of cyberspace. (Earlier this month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani famously tweeted for the first time, disregarding his own government’s ban on social media.)
But when it comes to presidential tweeting, Nicaragua’s Ortega is bucking the global trend. The Sandinista strongman, who abstains completely from social media, is one of only two presidents in Latin America (Bolivia’s Evo Morales is the other) who have never opened a Twitter account (although several counterfeit accounts have been opened in their names.)
The question is: why does a president who is so concerned with improving his popularity ratings and expanding his follower base refuse to engage in online activity geared towards those ends?
One possible explanation is that Ortega is an antisocial who is immune to the siren song of social media. The president, by most accounts, has very few— if any—close friends, and no apparent social life. With the rare exception of a questionable photo published in 2008 that appeared to show Ortega dancing tango in the streets of some unidentified country with an unidentified woman, the Sandinista leader is an extremely private man with no public profile.
A second theory about Ortega’s aversion to social media is that he is a fuddy duddy luddite whose vision of power, communication and leadership is stuck in 20th century Nicaragua. And a third hypothesis is that Ortega is philosophically opposed to social media platforms such as Twitter because they represent a level of transparency, disclosure and accessibility that goes well beyond his comfort zone.
The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) last week released a report criticizing Ortega’s government for its “prevailing culture of government secrecy.” If IAPA’s observations are accurate, Ortega’s absence from Twitter and other social media platforms might have more to do with politics than personal preference.
And politically, Ortega, who enjoys high polling numbers, might not see any upside to tweeting—especially in a country where only 10% of voters are online.
“He doesn’t use Twitter because he doesn’t feel the need to,” says Nicaraguan social media buff Rodrigo Peñalba. “(Ortega sees no need) in his everyday life to log on to a website or smartphone to post random messages.”
Peñalba says Twitter, which limits messages to 140 characters, is also a bad fit for Ortega’s long-winded style of communicating a thought.
But Ortega’s absence from Twitter and other online platforms does not mean his administration lacks a social media strategy. Peñalba notes that the Sandinista media outlets all have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages and encourage party supporters to use certain hashtags to manufacture trends.
“The Sandinista Youth and the National Institute of Technology continually train students and young leaders in the use of social media for broadcasting the official agenda, events, news and victories,” Peñalba says. “And with every campaign, they are monitoring social media.”
Social media use among other Central American leaders
Throughout the rest of Central America, Twitter is becoming an increasingly common tool for heads of state to communicate with their followers. The presidents of Guatemala (@ottoperezmolina), Honduras (@PEPE_LOBO), Costa Rica (@Laura_Ch) and Panama (@rmartinelli) are all very active on personal Twitter accounts. El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes, a former journalist, dabbled with a personal account a few years ago, but has since handed over tweeting responsibilities to his staff (@presidencia_sv).
Meanwhile, Belize’s Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who proudly opened his Twitter account on June 23, 2011 with the unmemorable words: “Officially on Twitter…Check often for the latest updates on issues affecting you,” has apparently forgotten his password. The 122 Belizians who immediately signed up to follow their leader were most likely disappointed to learn that Barrow abandoned his account a week later. Two and a half years later, the prime minister’s two inaugural tweets remain frozen in time as a testament to his failed foray into social media.
Most Central American presidents use their Twitter account to tout their administration’s achievements, inform citizens about their daily agenda, and occasionally answer questions from voters. Some presidents strike a serious and professional tone, while others are more chatty.
Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla is the region’s most active president on social media, and by far the most personal. Chinchilla, whose approval rating is the worst in Latin America, enjoys a slight degree of popularity on social media (223,139 Twitter followers), which may explain why she spends so much time tweeting to her fans. But she doesn’t always have something important to say; last week Chinchilla’s followers on Twitter were treated to a tedious chronicle of her “tortuous” five-hour layover in Panama’s Tocumen Airport, including a tweeted picture of a plate of french fries she ate in the terminal (the picture was retweeted 63 times).
Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli (2,716 tweets and 383,715 followers) and Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina (3,291 tweets and 98,363 followers) also spend a fair amount of time on social media. Honduras’ Porfirio Lobo joined Twitter later than his Central American counterparts, yet still manages to compose an average of one tweet per day for his 28,384 followers.
Popular with democrats and dictators alike
The surging popularity of the social media continues to cut across nearly all geographical and cultural divides around the globe, appealing to open-minded democrats, iron-fisted autocrats and fleshy-fingered monarchs. The Digital Policy Council report found that the leaders of 87% of democratic countries are now on Twitter, as are the heads of 42 “non-democratic” nations.
A look at the top five most followed leaders on Twitter last year reveals just how widespread the social media platform has become. U.S. President Barack Obama was the most popular world leader on Twitter in 2012, followed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Rounding out the top 10 was His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, prime minister of UAE and ruler of Dubai, who surpassed 1 million followers on Twitter last year. In total, 123 out of 164 world leaders tweeted last year.
But can something being inferred about the outliers who refuse to join the party?
The Digital Policy Councils seems to think so. “The political leadership of most fragile nations, or those with a high degree of political instability, continued to view social media as a threat,” the report claims.
Others are less certain that there is a consistent and clear correlation between use of social media and a leader’s commitment to transparency and democratic governance.
Josh Stearns, a journalism and public media campaign director for online advocacy group Free Press, says social media can be used for strengthening and stifling democracy—even in the most developed nations. Stearns notes that the Committee to Protect Journalists recently criticized President Obama and his administration for using social media tools to circumvent the media and to evade scrutiny by the press. In other countries such as Turkey, presidents have used their Twitter account as a bully pulpit to attack journalists and opponents.
“In the end, social media is a tool, and politicians will wield that tool in many ways,” Stearns told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Some use it to simply broadcast out press releases, others may use it to gather feedback from constituents, others still will use it to follow and track their opponents and dissidents.”
And still others, such as Ortega, won’t use it for anything.