The success of a savvy influencer that heralds the collapse of old online internet laws
It may come as a surprise to many, but Mexico is a great place to study electoral reforms due to the history of its long winding democratic transition. Consequently, the country is frequently seen as a good canary in the coal mine for things to come.
Mariana Rodriguez Cantu, the GenZer new first lady of Nuevo Leon, the northern industrial powerhouse state in Mexico, is one of those canaries: a tremendously successful influencer with her own cosmetics brand who used her powerful online footprint during the past elections to help her husband get elected … and is being punished for doing so with a 3 million dollar fine.
Her millennial husband and now governor-elect of Nuevo Leon, Samuel Garcia, won a very clear victory this past June 6th, 2021. Winning Nuevo Leon is a huge deal in Mexican politics. To put things in perspective, it is as if a 34 years old candidate and his 25 years old wife prevailed in California or Texas. In the US, the youngest governor today is Ron DeSantis and he was born in 1978, deep in GenX/Xennial territory.
Now, I am not one to particularly care for the “generational flame wars” ….we often see boomers initiate (sorry! couldn’t resist) but, bear with me. In this case, the age group is actually quite relevant to why I say Gen Z is breaking the electoral internet.
Much has been written already about how Mariana helped her husband win the election. You can read a few good chronicles about it here, here, and here if you are curious. Suffice to say that “Fosfo, fosfo” became a brand name, and Governor-elect Garcia, who started the race as a longshot candidate in fourth place, won thanks to a modern campaign that used online influence techniques with the same acumen that successful content providers demonstrate when curating communities online. Leveraging these platforms in this way is precisely why the Mexican electoral authority wants to fine them 3 million dollars.
But, there is nothing new about a politician using social media to win elections, right? Wrong. While candidates often do have a social media presence, this social media presence is designed to fit the political ambitions of the political actor.
Gen Zs are different. Their social media presence often precludes their entry into politics. Their online footprint is a part of how they present themselves and, throughout their high school and college years it matures as they grow up. A few (like Nuevo Leon’s first lady) that become successful content creators may have hundreds of thousands of millions of followers well before they are even eligible to vote.
The closest the US has to a digital native in a highly visible position of power is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And remember how it went when a 29-year-old woman with a college-age digital footprint became the youngest member of Congress?
This is where the old pre-internet electoral rules in Mexico shortcircuit with the reality of digital natives that bring their media footprint to politics, and not the other way around.
This is the issue: because of strict Mexican campaign finance laws, donations in kind to candidates need to be accounted for. Makes sense, right? If Coca-cola donates a bunch of metal tables that will be used during public events (yes, Mexican political rallies are often sponsored by Coca-Cola), that contribution must count against the campaign limits. Equally, If the owner of a newspaper gives a candidate a political ad for free in his newspaper, that too would be considered a contribution and would also count against campaign limits. You see where this is going:
When Mariana Rodriguez chats with her husband in some of her “Insta” lives or makes an IGTV video with her puppies, her nephews, and family members (including his husband, the candidate) the Mexican electoral institute has decided Mariana should be treated as equivalent to NBC, CNN, or Televisa. Every post where she discussed with her “hubby” the election, even if it was them hugging on a sofa late at night playing with their chihuahua rescues, should be considered paid advertising. The electoral entity deemed that forty-five pictures of them together in her Instagram, during campaign events, should be considered political ads and are worth, given the popularity of Rodriguez, at least 26 million pesos (roughly 1.3 million dollars).
Again: According to the Mexican National Electoral Institute, the wife should charge the husband for every Instagram story in the campaign trail because she is a successful influencer. This is the poster child of a GenZ problem. The only thing missing is a TikTok dance (there is a TikTok sound people could duet, though)
A typical 24 hours in her feed during the election season would have looked something like this: a“get ready with me” video in the morning, then an outfit of the day (OOTD), then an IGTV of a meeting in the middle of a poor neighborhood in Apodaca, then an “eating tacos” story, then an Instagram live of her, gluing campaign stickers to cars in a corner in Monterrey, then a bunch of forwards from her followers taking selfies with her gluing those stickers, and, finally, finish with a video of Mariana and Samuel, in their gorgeous mansion, chatting about how tired they are, how fun is to campaign and some other candidate platitudes.
This was not the kind of “stiff” b-roll content that would end with “I am Joe Applesauce and I approved this message.” It is also not a case of a power couple creating their brand during a campaign. Rather, this is the first known example in Mexico of a lifestyle influencer who already had a massive following, habituated to documenting her life with her iPhone camera, and continued to document her lifestyle that now also included political campaigning.
This rare case in Mexico will become more common all over the world, and it is why Gen Z is different. Although any member of any so-called generation can be good at creating content online, there is the physical impossibility for anybody born before 1990 to have a platform-based footprint spanning their entire post-teen years. As GenZs grow older, they are entering politics as actors, not only observers, and they are bringing their followers for the ride.
Can you imagine if the future first lady of Nuevo Leon actually had invoiced her husband for 2 million dollars for using her online persona to promote his campaign? Considering that Mexican campaigns are publicly funded, it would instantly be framed as a way to steal public funds! What would the corruption scandal look like?
It took a single Gen-Z political couple to showcase how unprepared we are. We would not assume Michelle Obama or Barbara Bush would charge their husbands for a compliment on a morning show. The Gen-Zers do not need to go to morning shows. Having grown up on the platforms, they will already have the megaphone in their mouths before they turn 18 years old.
Electoral laws presume a clear division between broadcasters (CBS, NBC, Televisa) and the rest of us. There is no such divide anymore, and it only took one Gen Z candidate to show how unprepared we are.
This canary in the coal mine is going to become, and soon, the rule instead of the exception. Politics is influence, so we should not be surprised that those who demonstrate, from an early age, the capacity to influence people digitally will discover that they can do more than sell t-shirts and cosmetics with those talents. Former college debate champions often went on to become political actors, but Gen-Z will fill the pipelines of new political elites with savvy online influencers.
I do not believe we can ask them to treat their platforms as traditional broadcast paid advertisements, but some rules can be created to make sure elections remain fair and social media does not become a pipeline for graft.
- Elected officials should not be allowed to endorse products while in office, and this should include their online presence. Non elected political appointees may do so in their private platforms, but declare it as a conflict of interest.
- Candidates and their families with a strong media presence should be allowed to use it to stay in contact with the voters in the same way we would not ask a good public speaker to handicap his/her speeches to make the competition fairer. But those candidates without a pre-existing strong social media presence should have access to publicly supported resources to level the playing field, including media teams. The world should not be owned by Youtubers.
- Influencers know fairly well how to manage multiple accounts. That is part of the job. Therefore, once in office, there should be rules for them to keep their public and private content separated. The first lady of Nuevo Leon should not be running Instagram giveaways in the same account she talks about anti-poverty policies implemented by the agency she will spearhead.
- Politicians should be encouraged to have a robust social media presence and citizens should be encouraged to interact with them online. The more diverse the followership, the more the internet can replicate the town hall feeling lost by the scale of our modern populations.
- Unauthentic coordinated behavior (aka Botnets and other ways to fake online crowds) should be clearly defined in the electoral laws and, in the case of politicians, it should be a criminal offense to use them. If the internet is going to be the place where we will have meaningful conversations, maintaining the honesty and integrity of those conversations is priority number one.
The Gen-Z influencer and her millennial husband were fined 3 million dollars in Mexico. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal overturned a very similar fine years ago when Garcia ran as a senator, but the National Electoral Institute insisted on following their interpretation of the law one more time. Clearly, the laws need to change.
There is no doubt that the newly-elected governor will appeal, and hey!, in the meantime, if you want to help them pay the huge fine, they would surely appreciate a visit to the first lady’s verified Spotify page to be one of the hundreds of thousands of listeners of her campaign hit “ponte Nuevo, Nuevo Leon.” (of course, the official videos are also on Youtube, but they are demonetized)
Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez is a research professor in the areas of North American Geopolitics and Internet, Society, and Conflict.