Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was Latin America’s number one Spanish-language livestreamer in 2023, according to Streamcharts, a testament to the social media dominance of populist leaders.
AMLO’s hours-long daily press conferences — which are livestreamed on YouTube — racked up nearly 50 million hours watched on the platform last year. With more than 1,200 broadcasts, AMLO has used these press conferences to promote his agenda and rail against “conservatives” and the “corrupt media.”
Other populist world leaders like former U.S. President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Argentine President Javier Milei have also become internet sensations, which experts say is a reflection of how social media’s algorithms promote sensational content that users are more likely to interact with.
AMLO’s press conferences are more about entertainment than accountability
AMLO’s YouTube channel is a direct reflection of his charismatic and unfiltered personality: In past segments, he’s gone on tangents about baseball, flashed his wallet to reporters to prove he does not own a credit card, all while blasting journalists and critics who question his politics and dodging questions about policy. Analysts agree that his rhetoric has helped boost his online fame, but his press conferences are more about entertainment, rather than “an arena for accountability,” journalist Omar Peralta wrote for Yahoo en Español. While AMLO’s “widespread popularity” is undeniable, his entertaining press conferences “should never be compatible with transparency and the free exercise of criticism of the president,” Peralta argued.
Social media rewards the ‘sensational’ tone of populist messaging
Social media platforms are populist leaders’ “partners in crime” because their algorithms “disproportionately [reward] and spread” messages that are more “sensational,” according to political science blog The Loop. With traditional media on the decline — and more people getting their news directly from social media — populist leaders have “complete control over their narratives, allowing them to shape public opinion,” often without being fact-checked, The Loop wrote. “Populists are the stars in political cyberspace,” a 2017 Brookings report wrote, with social media reinforcing their “anti-establishment ideology” to bring their stances on anti-immigration and cultural protectionism into the mainstream.
Disheveled looks bring in likes
Some of the world’s more notable populists appear to share something in common: disheveled hair. Think Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Geert Wilders, and Javier Milei, who have all built somewhat of a persona around their appearance. “Performative charisma” is central to populism, and as more people turn to social media, “the visually arresting becomes increasingly important,” The Guardian’s Andrew Anthony wrote in December. Unkempt looks are simply meme-worthy, and populist leaders are particularly effective at using memes “as a tool to mobilize the masses,” two academics wrote for the Encyclopedia of New Populism and Responses in the 21st Century.