The last five years of social media-fueled populism around the world have been defined by former US President Donald Trump and his imitators – but things have changed since he left office. The openly nationalist 4chan-led online political movements that have helped radicalize countries like the United States, Brazil, India, the Philippines and the United Kingdom have not gone, but they are regrouping from the cultural spotlight. In their place, a new, more chaotic online identity movement has emerged, advocating for meme stocks, cryptocurrency, and blatant technological and economic excess. It used to be limited to the tech sector – but now one of its main supporters rules a country.
In the United States, this movement is exemplified by billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who uses his Twitter account to whirl up a dizzying mix of ambitious scientific content and eccentric memes. Many of Musk's followers believe that if they only put their trust in him and his companies, he will lead them all into a glorious future where every billionaire is a billionaire. Musk's followers call him "Daddy," and Tesla employees even thanked him when he fired them. A central part of Musk's appeal lately has been the meme-based cryptocurrency Dogecoin, which Musk aggressively touted between March and May of this year.
Musk's cheerleading of Dogecoin, along with Tesla's announcement that it would first accept Bitcoin and then double down months later and say it didn't, created huge bubbles. When those bubbles finally burst in May, causing the entire cryptocurrency market to collapse, bankrupt Musk fans filled his Twitter mentions and asked him to "pump" the coin again.
Musk had accidentally stumbled upon a vital link between the unregulated hype economy of cryptocurrency and the personality cults that social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so easily create. For celebrity influencers like Musk, Dogecoin became the ultimate carrot dangling in front of its followers. If all online popularity is a figurative pyramid scheme where followers themselves want to reach the level of influencers, accounts with large followers promoting sketchy crypto coins are doing it literally.
Now, that dynamic is playing out in El Salvador, where the country's millennial president recently made Bitcoin legal tender. As Cristina López G., a disinformation researcher for Data & Society, angrily told Foreign Policy, “Every brother is obsessed with cryptocurrency, but they don't have the ability to run a country with a legislature that just does what they want, and pass a law before you even think about how it will affect banks and other financial institutions.
It's been six busy months for the President of El Salvador, 39-year-old Nayib Bukele. In February, his party Nuevas Ideas, or "New Ideas", won a two-thirds majority in the country's legislature. Then he used this overwhelming power to oust the chief judges and the Attorney General of El Salvador, what many refer to as a self-coup. On June 5, Bukele announced that the country would start accepting the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender, and the next day he tweeted a picture of himself with laser eyes, a meme used by Twitter users to signal that they are all-in with Bitcoin.
Analysts scratched their heads. It makes no sense that El Salvador, a country where 70 percent of the population doesn't even have a bank account and barely half of its citizens even have an internet connection, an expensive and volatile digital currency like. introduces Bitcoin. However, viewed through Bukele's social media, it makes perfect sense.
Like many tech entrepreneurs, Bukele dropped out of college early to go into business. But his political career began in earnest in 2012 when he became mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a city outside the country's capital. He then became mayor of San Salvador in 2015. During both campaigns, he ran for a member of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, but left the party in 2017 after accused of defaming and harassing other party members and physically assaulting a female councilor. Afterwards, Bukele founded the Nuevas Ideas party and began to drift further and further to the right politically.
His slight authoritarianism is based on a sense of coolness. His public image is shaped by glamorous Instagram photos of him wearing aviator sunglasses and meeting other powerful men, as well as a Twitter account that alternates between updates on the country's COVID-19 cases and retweets from his followers who Share reaction memes. His entire online personality resembles that of Jake Paul, the mega-popular American YouTuber who tried to turn his internet fame into a second career as an entrepreneur. Bukele is destroying it every day and its 2.7 million Twitter followers make sure everyone in El Salvador knows about it.
Alberto Escorcia, a Mexican digital rights activist and misinformation researcher, told Foreign Policy that Bukele's fans rave about trending topics and harass the president's critics with a technique called astroturfing, or coordinating thousands of fake accounts to create the illusion of an online consensus create. Escorcia said supporters of then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto followed a similar tactic in 2014.
"These groups in El Salvador remind me of the Mexican pro-peña nieto bots, the peñabots, in their early years before 2014, when their mission was to constantly applaud the president and launch attacks on opponents," he said .
Escorcia, who has published research into the state of the misinformation on Salvador's social media, said most of this Twitter activity would stop immediately if it happened in a larger country.
“I informed Twitter Latin America about what I saw in El Salvador, as I have often done about things that are happening in Mexico. I was able to uncover the cases I found, but there was no response, ”he said.
The information landscape in El Salvador is a condensed version of the US. According to a nationwide survey conducted earlier this year, social media is the second most important source of news after television for Salvadorans. Bukele and prominent members of his party set the day's online agenda, mostly through hashtags. A prominent Salvadoran media figure named Porfirio Chica, who has run public messaging campaigns for several of the country's former politicians and supported Bukele on his own presidential campaign, often comes up with a number of trending topics for Bukele's supporters to follow.
"The reinforcement works similarly to (QAnon), as Nayib Bukele relies on a network of amplifiers or influencers to drive his ideas forward and convert them into a format that helps them stay," said López G ..
López G. calls Bukele's number one policy-making style and his symbiotic relationship with everything that goes well on Twitter, “content governance”. She said that beyond any technological ambition or real evangelism for decentralized finance, Bitcoin is really perfect for the avid online audience of the President of Financial Brothers.
“Because Bitcoin is so difficult to explain, it gave it this allure of coolness,” said López G .. “In comparison to Elon Musk, I see it as: 'That makes me cool on the Internet with this special audience, that unbelievable loud and unbearable. '"
Bukele, who took office in June 2019, initially appeared as a somewhat progressive figure. Over the course of his presidency, however, he has become more authoritarian and autocratic, while at the same time turning to a very specific type of millennial, maximalist economic liberalism, sometimes derided online as the “hustle bro” culture.
Bukele's charm also has an undeniable gender aspect: He is the millennial male interpretation of a strong political man. López G. said that Bukele's Twitter army feeds on a very specific kind of misogyny. Pro-Bukele trending topics are led by huge troll accounts that are regularly banned for sharing sexist or hateful content – but which are returning in a new guise.
According to Nelson Rauda, a Salvadoran journalist who writes for El Faro, Bukele's online media network then turns into radio and television. There is even a network of pro-Bukele YouTubers who help shape his agenda and target journalists who try to criticize Bukele's government.
"(Bukele's followers) are usually more conservative," said Rauda. “Journalists are accused of being employees of George Soros who drive the LGBTQ agenda and abortion. It's all included. I think that makes it in some ways similar to the bulk of MAGA (Trump's slogan Make America Great Again), although conservatism is hard to find in Latin America. "
Rauda notes that Bukele supporters often use the word “chayoteros”, a Mexican slang for “sold out journalists”, based on Trump's beloved nickname “fake news”. It's not really used in El Salvador, which makes Rauda wondering if Bukele is supported by Mexican digital marketing firms or troll centers.
Bukele followers also rave about social platforms for creating counter-narratives when things don't match Bukele's perfect online image in real life, like the Angel List released earlier this month.
On July 1, the US State Department published a list of over 50 politicians from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras suspected of corruption. Seven officials from El Salvador were on the list. Bukele's online army took action.
“They tried to promote an increase in the minimum wage in order to divert attention. They conducted interviews in their controlled media and tweeted about it, ”said Rauda.
It was likely this online game of diversion that led Bukele to make economic history with Bitcoin last month. Bukele's self-coup in early May quickly became the only thing to talk about in relation to El Salvador – that is, until his Bitcoin announcement weeks later.
However, it is possible that Bukele overestimated the importance of the Twitter hype in real life – a mistake many Twitter power users have made over the years. While the bitcoin news may have played well for its base, a recent poll found that the majority of the country are not happy that the cryptocurrency is coming to El Salvador. It could be the first crack in Bukele's "content governance" strategy.
"The online hashtag that went viral was #NadieQuiereBitcoin (nobody wants Bitcoin) and the government had a tough time getting the idea through," said Rauda. "I was not berated for posting Bitcoin articles or opinions, and that is a lot because I usually get insulted just because I say good morning!"
The official launch date for Bitcoin on September 7th, when Bitcoin becomes legal tender in the country, is fast approaching, and the Bukele government is offering $ 30 worth of Bitcoin to every Salvadoran who logs on to the official cryptocurrency app the government, Chivo, but there are still a lot of unknowns as to how it will actually work.
For example, what happens to the country's economy if the Bitcoin market collapses? In May, after Musk finished this, the market fell around 30 percent and it still hasn't rebounded.
But as chaotic as things have been in El Salvador, there are signs that Bukele could be the start of a trend, especially in Latin America. Young politicians in countries like Mexico, Paraguay and Panama all recently tweeted their own laser eye images. And in the United States, the Mayor of Miami in particular has been extremely focused on transforming the city into the US capital of cryptocurrencies.
That means we could soon have more bukeles: millennial influencer populists with slick social media presences who aren't afraid to use the ambitious chaos of cryptocurrency as a smoke screen for Instagram-ready authoritarianism. The future of entire nations and their economies could soon be fueled by internet hype.