By James Davis
If Barack Obama’s campaign introduced American voters to the raw power of the web to win elections, the come-from-behind victory of Juan Manuel Santos as President of Colombia showed that e-democracy works even in places where democracy itself is fragile.
Santos, a conservative-leaning Defense Minister under popular incumbent President Àlvaro Uribe, ultimately won election on June 20 in a 2-to-1 blowout, racking up 69 percent of the vote. But on the day 38 -ear-old Ravi Singh from Washington-based Electionmall.com arrived in Colombia, Santos’ campaign was clearly in trouble, with polls showing Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus’ reformist Green Party within striking distance of victory in the first round of voting on May 30.
"We were being crushed by the ‘Green Wave,’" explains Luis German Lopez, who was Singh’s liaison with local campaign operatives.
Mockus had captured the imaginations of an increasingly tech-savvy Colombian population utilizing innovative social media techniques: by the time Singh and his team came on board, the Greens had accumulated nearly 700,000 Facebook friends and a big Twitter following. Santos, the establishment candidate, had virtually no online presence at all.
With Santos looking squarely at defeat, Singh’s "Web 2.0 Victory Team" was given orders to do in 50 days what had taken Mockus and the Greens more than six months to accomplish.
Operating from a "war room" that was literally built within two days to his own specifications, Singh and his Internet Task Force quickly deployed to create a "Virtual Campaign Headquarters," a hub of 1,076 separate websites, one for each of the towns, counties and cities that comprise Colombia’s electoral map.
"Each site’s content included personalized data and information where every Colombian could find information pertinent to his or her region and life," recalls Lopez.
The technique allowed Santos’ campaign to tailor-design its outreach for every remote corner of Colombia, from the bustling streets of Bogotá to the Caribbean coastline. Voters would find appeals and information specific to them or download window signs and bumper stickers proclaiming their local community’s support.
"Each country faces its own challenges over technological growth," says Singh, an Illinois-born Sikh sporting his now-trademark turban. That’s especially true in Colombia, where violent clashes with drug lords and FARC rebels have tapered off over Uribe’s tenure but almost half the population still lives in poverty and unemployment is highest in Latin America.
Nevertheless, Singh observes, internet penetration is over 40 percent and Colombia has the 12th-fastest growing Facebook presence in the world. "Colombia is changing," he notes, "and the Internet is playing a crucial role in it, becoming a part of people’s lives and changing things at a very rapid rate."
Singh hired a local team of designers to come up with "SuperSantos," a Mario Brothers-themed online computer game so players could compete to help Santos fight unemployment, narcotics traffickers, insecurity and poverty, all against a backdrop of catchy music and colorful (if simple) graphics.
"It wasn’t a deep discussion of the issues, but it gave us voters’ tops-of-minds, especially those under the age of 35," jokes Lopez.
One of the biggest problems in Colombian democracy is the complexity of the voting process itself, with polling locations concentrated at places like university campuses, where voting can take place in 10 different buildings, each with a dozen or so separate voting rooms. In some of the rooms, voters can encounter as many as six voting tables each dedicated to a different voting precinct. To make matters worse, assigned polling places often change from election to election.
With a cell phone penetration topping 100 percent as many people own more than one cell phone, Singh’s team turned the obstacle into an opportunity, allowing voters to text their nationally-issued voter numbers from their cell phones and to get their exact voting location via SMS. If they entered their number on santospresidente.com, the computer spat back the exact location of their assigned polling place and turn-by-turn directions to get there on a digital map. Like all others who supplied their email addresses or cell phone numbers to the campaign, these voters could also opt in to receive SMS feeds of campaign news – and friendly reminders to vote.
How to confront the web’s viral tide of nastiness, especially in a superheated political environment? Singh’s team created a "Wall of Shame," where the opposition’s worst excesses – from unsubstantiated wild charges to nasty cartoons and photographs distorted by PhotoShop – could be posted for the world to see.
The tactic seemed to work, showing the would-be web assassins’ work to be just what it is. "When you see a Great White shark in open sea, it can be beautiful," observes Lopez. "But when you see that same shark hanging from a hook on the deck, it’s grotesque, horrible and frightening. The ‘Wall of Shame’ was a place where people could see just how extreme their ‘Dirty War’ had become."
Before long, Singh’s team hadn’t just caught up with Mockus’ online presence, they were setting the pace. As the Santos campaign kept coming up with new web tactics, Mockus would mimic them about a week later, by which time Santos was on to something even more innovative.
By the Sunday morning of the final round of voting, Santos had amassed more than 278,172 Facebook friends with over a million interactions and more than 10,500 followers on Twitter – and a vote tally of over 9,000,000 or 69 percent, the most lopsided in Colombia’s history.
And modern-day politics had gained a toehold in Latin America.
James Davis is a campaign and digital strategy expert, former legislative and public affairs special assistant for Secretaries Rumsfeld and Gates at the Pentagon, communications staffer at the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, MN and an RNC communications veteran.
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