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A Race Recast by YouTube and Twitter

posted May 3, 2012, 5:34 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 3, 2012, 5:48 PM ]
Mexico City 

It sounds like the typical hardball, American-style campaign. The presidential candidate from the incumbent’s party calls the front-runner a “liar” in television and Internet advertisements. Supporters of the front-runner retaliate with a Web site and Twitter posts that say his top opponent “lies.” And the third-place candidate wraps the gaffes of both of them into a YouTube video cheekily titled “Excuses Not to Debate.” 

The PAN candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, at a rally in Monterrey, Mexico. The election is July 1.

State-of-the-art, no-holds-barred political warfare, perhaps, except that after President Felipe Calderón narrowly won a divisive race here six years ago that featured ads calling his opponent a danger to the country, Mexico’s political establishment had vowed that it would tolerate no more of that. 

But a law passed in 2007 that was intended to keep campaigning orderly and clean — it bans the Mexican equivalent of political action committees, limits spending, regulates language in advertisements and tightens the official campaign period to just 89 days — has been undercut by the unpredictable and uncontrollable Web. 

On Web sites and in the online social media, a parallel battlefield has emerged as candidates vie for the support of voters, more than a quarter of whom, polls say, have not made a choice as the July 1 election nears. Many of the undecided are part of the fast-growing bloc of young middle-class Mexicans who tend to be more politically independent and may prove pivotal in determining the country’s next president. 

“If you want to win a campaign you need to win every space of the terrain,” said Agustín Torres Ibarrola, a 34-year-old lawmaker who coordinates the digital strategy for Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate of Mr. Calderón’s National Action Party, or PAN, who trails by double digits in the polls.

Mr. Torres was sitting beside a large screen displaying his TweetDeck page, which manages Twitter and Facebook accounts, as a handful of young campaign workers hunched over laptops monitoring social media sites and posting material related to a dispute with the campaign of the front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. 

Recently, Mr. Torres used his Twitter account to take a veiled swipe at Mr. Peña Nieto, alluding to suspicions that his party, which governed Mexico for seven decades until 2000, would make deals with drug gangs. The election, Mr. Torres wrote, was “about choosing between politicians who fight drug trafficking or politicians who tolerate it.”

“Which country do you want?” he asked. 

Just under a third of Mexico’s population regularly uses the Internet (compared with 80 percent in the United States). But the campaigns have seen how social media sites can help shape public opinion — newspapers here closely track and publish the number of each candidate’s Twitter and Facebook followers — and they skirt the heavily regulated airwaves.

Often using automated programs or armies of volunteers, the campaigns battle to land trending topics on Twitter and celebrate them as important discussion points. Last Wednesday, “Josefina gets confused,” a reference to a verbal gaffe by Ms. Vázquez Mota, was a popular topic for much of the day. 

So far, the weighty problems facing Mexico — the drug war, feeble job growth, persistent poverty and the failings of the police and judicial system — have received little attention and generated only vague pronouncements.

Instead, the campaigns expand and refine their digital attacks, often using hard-to-trace and easily disavowed volunteers and supporters to do the dirty work. 

Aurelio Nuño Mayer, the media director of the Peña Nieto campaign, said his operation relied on about 20,000 volunteers to post Twitter messages and drive up the popularity of favored topics. While the volunteers are ordered not to undercut Mr. Peña Nieto’s positive message of efficiency — he is broadcasting new ads this week equating the divisiveness in the race this year to that of the 2006 campaign — Mr. Nuño Mayer acknowledged that the campaign could not always control them.

“Twitter is like a jungle,” he said. “With the anonymity, it is like a free-for-all.”

A dizzy spell by Ms. Vázquez Mota during a speech and her failure to directly answer a student’s question on education policy ricocheted across YouTube and Twitter, though none of it carried the signature of her opponents’ official campaign or party.

Mexico has taken one of the more aggressive approaches toward regulating campaign speech, with the result that parties are repeatedly complaining to the election commission about opponents’ ads and remarks, and then calling the decision biased when it goes against them.

Some on the sidelines have said the effort to rein in negative advertisements is misguided; such ads serve a purpose when based on fact and “give more information about a candidate and their record,” said Jeffrey Weldon, chairman of the political science department at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

As the campaigns test the limits of the law, the election commission has publicly wrestled with the rules, with some members acknowledging that the Internet is impossible to regulate and that the agency is loath to infringe on freedom of expression. 

Commission members, in a split decision, decided to allow a television commercial by Ms. Vázquez Mota’s party attacking Mr. Peña Nieto for failing to fulfill promises he made as governor of Mexico State.

“We believe for the benefit of having a more informed citizenry, our role as an authority should not inhibit and silence the discussion of relevant issues so voters can make a decision,” Benito Nacif, an election commissioner, told the newspaper Excelsior in an effort to explain why the agency permitted that ad, which called Mr. Peña Nieto a “liar.”

The Internet and social media, with their immediacy and the opportunities to communicate directly with voters, have also made it easier for candidates to buff their images. 

Mr. Peña Nieto, facing off against the first woman to represent a major party, has deployed his wife, a soap opera star, in the technology fight. He has posted videos shot with her iPhone showing him “behind the scenes,” enjoying cupcakes with his children and in seemingly spontaneous chats with voters at events. 

The third candidate in the race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, narrowly lost the 2006 election. His battering by advertisements calling him a “danger” to Mexico prompted the changes to the election law. In this race, he has used social networks to give himself a political makeover. 

Mr. López Obrador, running third and moving away from his rabble-rouser persona, uses his own Web site, AMLO.si, to show down-to-earth images of him taking the subway, cuddling babies and chatting with peasants.

“The idea is to get the information on the Internet and then to get it out onto the streets,” said Jesús Ramírez, who is charge of the campaign’s Web strategy.

The López Obrador campaign has also asked its supporters to take photos of Mr. Peña Nieto’s political posters, which seem to be everywhere, and send them in to provide evidence for a complaint that Mr. Peña Nieto is exceeding spending limits. 

For her part, Ms. Vázquez Mota, a former education secretary, has made no apologies for her tactics and seems unconcerned about the divisiveness of the race. “It is,” she told reporters the other day, “a campaign of contrasts.”

By Randal C. Archibold, The New York Times, April 19, 2012