Two years after winning the presidential election, Nayib Bukele, the current President of El Salvador became popular in Latin America for being the “Social Media President”. As a typical Millennial he made things official for his presidential candidacy through his Facebook live that reached over 1.3 million followers on his page, equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the country’s population. In his Instagram with 3 million followers, he portrays an image of a serious politician and fearless millennial that can be seen in his posts ranging from his political rallies, international trips, and even his picture on the Iron Throne. Recently, he has also explored the world of Tiktok by posting a video in a military vehicle as soldiers salute him to the tune of Bichota by Karol G days after he led a coup in occupying the Legislative Assembly that dismissed all the five justices of El Salvador’s constitutional court. Given these narratives, the Presidency of Bukele is full of paradoxes.
The Paradox with Media
Despite using various social media platforms to boost his millennial image, Bukele has launched a relentless attack on press freedom as he grants few interviews mostly to the international media. He also prohibits his ministers from engaging with investigative journalists or refusing to take their questions and give other reporters preference of choice. One of El Salvador’s largest mainstream newspapers “El Diario de Hoy” had its advertising license canceled after reporting the said action of the president and some journalists were blocked in Bukele’s Twitter. Aside from El Diario de Hoy, Bukele has hostility towards the other local newspapers who have been exposing his government’s corruption, secret negotiations with gangs, and the response to the current pandemic.
For his critics, Bukele openly mocks those people who are against him not just journalists but also including human rights defenders, judges, and even the attorney generals (who are elected by the legislature) alleging that they all belong to an oppositional network that aims to destroy the government. He also proclaimed that these people are enemies that pose a great threat to the nation.
By examining his communications strategy via Twitter, (Alba and Chavez, 2020) have observed that by a span of fifteen days most of his messages (tweets) can be placed under the category of propaganda with 62.5%, that highlights his administration achievements and pushing their agenda of public security that involves adding more funding to the National Police in tackling the gang violence of the country. Despite this, it also contains messages criticizing the opposition and exposing the corruption of the previous governments. Last year, During the Salvadoran political crisis of 2020 it was tailored for the social media era as the Millennial president used Twitter asking for the people to present themselves to the assembly to witness the extraordinary session for the vote on financing his security plans, A move seen to pressure the national assembly to vote yes.
As Bukele’s established party Nuevo Ideas (New Ideas) dominated the legislative election last February 2021. Their first session was made when lawmakers voted to remove the magistrates of the Supreme Court. This action gathered concerned from the International Community as it is an example of a dangerous power grab. However, Bukele defended the said actions and tweeted that those judges blocked the government’s public health response to the current pandemic and his party’s just “cleaning our house”. Despite this claim of authoritarianism, in a recent poll, last February Nayib Bukele was able to score an almost 91% approval rate because of his managing of the pandemic and the reduction of gang violence across the country.
A President who vocally denounced the corruption of the past administrations with an allegation of corruption himself, he represents a familiar dynamic common to the Latin American region, a similar scenario with Hugo Chavez. Bukele’s threat towards the dissolution of the legislative assembly resembles the actions of Former President Fujimori of Peru in 1992 that paved the way for the erosion of democracy. Lastly, with his populist personality, he also represents the same rhetoric and reasons why Daniel Ortega the current President of Nicaragua, and Former President Rafael Correa of Ecuador dominated the electoral results and make use of this to reduce the capabilities of the opposition in order to consolidate the power directly with the executive. It is said that being a millennial makes you more critical of social issues and inclines you more for advocating a strong democracy yet for Nayib Bukele it is only shown in his small actions rather than his grand gesture.
With the power mostly vested under Nayib Bukele, together with a continuing symptom of authoritarianism and populism it is no doubt that Latin America has finally crowned again a new dictator in the region but it’s the first millennial one. His personality may be relatable to most but his actions are not. The true question is what more can this millennial dictator offer us to erode the El Salvadoran democracy.
Photo: Obtained from Bukele’s Main Twitter Account: https://twitter.com/nayibbukele/status/1402444423728873477
Alba, N & Chavez R. (2020). “The communications strategy via Twitter of Nayib Bukele: the millennial president of El Salvador” retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340969898_The_communications_strategy_via_Twitter_of_Nayib_Bukele_the_millennial_president_of_El_Salvador last June 5, 2021
A well-written piece from the author about the social media president Nayib Bukelele. Indeed, Millenials were the ones most critical of past authoritarians, but Nayib is following the footsteps of previous Latin presidents and populist leaders. Nayib used the effectiveness of consolidating power through populism through social media and reach a wider audience. His outright antagonism of the opposition is similar to the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte. Populists leaders in history should serve as a lesson for citizens in El Salvador as Nayib becomes a threat to the country’s democracy.
This was a great and informative article! I personally have been very interested in Bukele’s presidency because as mentioned, he has authoritarian actions but still has very high approval ratings. Even with the coup of the legislative assembly that he led, he still had support and posted a tiktok with the military days after. It is alarming to me how we can see the power grabs he does but he still has a 91% approval rating. His nickname is the “millennial dictator” and it is quite fitting seeing as how he tweets justifications for his controversial actions. My question would be how much longer can El Salvador try to keep this democratic erosion from happening? How many more of Bukeles power grabs can it withstand before it truly does turn into a nation run by a “millennial dictator’?
This is a well-written article on a man who is arguably cultivating a cult of personality. Many people I know follow and actively support him because of his advocacy of bitcoin and illusion of a progressive platform. However, I do not know how many of them know that they are actively retweeting and sharing propaganda to unsuspecting peers, which helps cultivate a better image for him.
An interesting extension of this article could possibly be how he is similar to and departs from other autocrats that rely on social media (namely former President Trump). Is social media usage always an attempt to circumvent media for nefarious reasons (propaganda and alternative facts) or could it be a way to connect with the younger generations?
To amend my statement, I also wanted to add about something specifically I agree with. His hostility to newspapers is a very alarming action. Even if a newspaper is reporting negative aspects of a government, they should be allowed to share their criticism to foster a better democracy. Twitter does not have a press team making sure each tweet that goes out is accurate; almost every single newspaper does. A flow of free and accurate information is essential to preventing the spread of propaganda, the stifling of “alternative facts” , and the strengthening of democratic institutions.
Thank you for your research and writing! Your analysis of Bukele’s online presence is a very good example of how new political norms can develop and be subverted in the modern era. Bukele’s paradox is not an isolated incident; it is activity that is present in many countries and across politicians. The digital age has allowed for much more visibility and perhaps the “humanizing” of politicians and their actions, but this intersection of the media and government remains largely uncharted waters. We must ask ourselves to what extent politicians should be able to relish in the use of social media and other largely unregulated platforms. We must also analyze how this activity can undermine the free press and alternative media sources, either directly or indirectly.