The Ultimate Political TikTok Handbook

After Rodolfo Hernández's successful TikTok strategy to get himself in the final showdown for the Colombian presidency, every Latin American politician has been looking at the platform for a political miracle. Here are some do's and don'ts, with examples

In early July, I got a text from a friend with a link to a TikTok video. I thought it was one of those recipes she and I would never cook, but it came with this comment: “This guy’s so cringy.” When I opened the link and waited several seconds for my Venezuelan mobile internet connection, I finally saw a close-up of Carlos Prosperi,  Acción Democrática’s candidate in the presidential elections of 2024, smiling and winking at the camera in slow motion. All this when the video played the song “Ojitos lindos”  by Bad Bunny and Bomba Estéreo, a viral song on the app. The description sort of tried to sound a bit like a politician’s: “Venezuela, just look ahead.” 

My friend was right about the cringe. But I wasn’t surprised.

@prospericarlos Venezuela solo miremos el futuro, aqui nadie se rinde!!! #elfuturonospertenece #vamosxmas #viralvideo #parati #UnidosXVenezuela ♬ sonido original – Alejandro Betancourth

By that time, I was new on TikTok, as a political journalist. I read that Rodolfo Hernández, who used to call himself “the little old man on TikTok,” could be the surprise in Colombia’s presidential elections. When I looked at his profile, I found it unbelievable that some could build a political campaign with such absurd editing and shallow messages, and pretend to rule a country by being popular on TikTok. But I won’t lie: it struck me as a fantastic communications strategy. 

When he lost to Gustavo Petro, I thought that TikTok had played against Hernández, besides his own lack of political program. But to my surprise, and even if no media outlet was calling him a tiktoker, Petro has way more followers and reproductions on TikTok than Hernández. So, is TikTok, then, a factory of presidents, of election winners? “Of course not,” answered Luis Rendueles, a political scientist who specializes in digital strategy, “but it can help you reach a big part of the population, more than many other spaces.” That’s the point, Rendueles says: with the right strategy, TikTok can build successful candidacies and shape a politician’s image.

We have lots of examples in Latin America: Xavier Hervas and Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador’s elections in 2021; and Gabriel Boric and José Antonio Kast in Chile.

With those experiences in the region, the lack of popularity of the political class in Venezuela and the prospects of presidential elections here in 2024, I thought that Venezuelan politicians would double their efforts, so far quite timid, to adapt to the TikTok era. However, when I looked at their profiles and talked to some of them, I found that most are trying to decipher that platform on their own, improvising their strategies. I couldn’t find a middle point: some of them are just being ridiculous, and others are trying to avoid just that by creating videos that could reach some thousands of reproductions but have a limited impact.

I want to be clear: I’m talking about the opposition. Within chavismo, things are very different. Nicolás Maduro and Rafael Lacava, the two chavista leaders I looked for on TikTok, have well-defined strategies and adapted successfully to the ways of TikTok. This is not what I saw in the profiles of Andrés Schloeter, Gabriel Santana, Antonio Ecarri, Carlos Prosperi, María Corina Machado, Manuel Rosales, and Henrique Capriles Radonski. 

Are Our Politicians Human Beings?

I met Andrés Schloeter in late 2021, before the regional elections of November 21st. He was a candidate for mayor in the municipality of Sucre, in Miranda, and I went with him on a tour of Petare to write a story. After a long day and a formal interview, he took out his cell phone and started what seemed an enthusiastic chat with the photographer about the videos Schloeter made for his social media, how many followers he had, what he was planning for his future content. He was talking about TikTok.

Despite the fact he was campaigning, Schloeter never used his TikTok account for political objectives. “It wasn’t the essence of what I was building,” he told me. “I rather post things about my personal life.” 

For instance, during the Tokyo Olympics, he recorded himself reacting to the competition where Daniel Dhers won a silver medal. That video had more than 300,000 views. In another video, his grandfather kisses Schloeter’s pregnant wife’s belly. The tender scene reached 7 million views, the most watched video on TikTok by a Venezuelan politician. “It was madness. I got messages from people from several countries and I won a lot of followers,” says Schloeter, still thrilled about it.

But looking too personal can be a problem for a politician. “Social media is never for you, but a tool to achieve something,” says Luis Rendueles. “In politics, what matters is to be liked as a person among the public, but also to offer a vision for your country.”

First lesson: a politician can be “humanized” and be relatable without having to hide his political side.

When I saw Schloeter’s profile, I realized that, if I didn’t know what he does, I wouldn’t identify him as a politician, and I would never guess what party he belongs to or what he proposes for Venezuela. When I asked him if that doesn’t worry him, he said: “It’s something I must work on, no doubt.” If you see other politicians’ profiles, you will see just the opposite. Most of them are doing what Verónica Ruiz del Vizo, an expert on digital strategy, told me they have to avoid.

“Basically, they must quit the typical narrative discourse in terms they are used to,” she explained. “In political campaigns, you always see pictures with the candidate surrounded by a crowd, hugging a granny, holding a baby,” or an adult person with a growth disorder, as Henri Falcón did, I thought. “This narrative is so predictable that it won’t work on TikTok.” 

In María Corina Machado’s case, the closest attempt to look like one of us was a video of an interview in which she talks about her experience as a mother. Henrique Capriles did it only in the first of the three videos he’s published on TikTok, when he listens to his family singing happy birthday to him. Manuel Rosales only posts about the work he does as governor of Zulia (which is a message itself) and Antonio Ecarri tried to do it once with a dirty joke while visiting a farm in Guárico. Regarding that video, Ecarri said to me: “That’s my red line,” his limit regarding how comical or personal he can be without being ridiculous.

Among the opposition politicians considered, only one has managed to unify his political brand and his personal side: Gabriel Santana, one of the fresh faces at Primero Justicia. 

In a recent video, Santana used a trending song, “Efecto” by Bad Bunny, to upload pictures politicians don’t normally post. While the song says “esta sí”, you see his photos campaigning or doing interviews, and when the song says “esta no”, you see him with a dog, at a party or playing bolas criollas. This video gave me no cringe, and I think it nails it. “I try to look human,” Santana explained to me. “It’s not an effort, I just post the things I do every day.” That piece was a success and has more than 200,000 views, his most popular video so far.

@gabosantana35 #fyp #politica ♬ EFECTO – VASSAG

But we are not talking only about humanizing politicians, but about their ideas. Maduro’s TikTok account combines both things, according to Rendueles. Besides showing himself dancing or praising Cilia Flores, his videos deliver this message: Venezuela is better. “Our economy is growing like a rocket,” Maduro says in one of his recent videos promoting the law of Special Economic Zones, among shining copy and emojis. “Venezuela is back,” he says. The video has more than one million views and Maduro is reaching 600,000 followers, a record for a Venezuelan politician.

Rendueles says that “as citizens, we must awaken our critical sense and be able to question whenever a strategy is working to clean someone’s face.”

Fearing Cringe

When I asked politicians why they don’t use the songs or challenges that are viral on TikTok, all of them said they fear the cringe. “But there’s something we need to understand,” points out Verónica Ruiz del Vizo: using the trends doesn’t mean you are being ridiculous. “If there’s a trending song playing, this doesn’t necessarily mean the candidate has to dance,” she said. “It’s about being skilled at using the narrative discourse of the song and taking it to the political discourse.” 

And, why are trends so important? Because of how TikTok’s algorithm works. In a few words: if you like to watch videos with Bad Bunny songs, and a politician uses one of those songs for a video, there are more chances you would watch that video on your home page, even if you don’t follow that politician’s account. But trends are not only songs and dances: that same pattern also plays when it comes to some challenge or dynamic that demands interaction from followers, which a politician can use as well.

Ruiz del Vizo explains that, contrary to Facebook or Instagram, which focus on community  (on the followers you already have, which you need to feed with content), TikTok is made to discover people. Using the trends is an easy way to be discovered. Only three of the leaders we considered here are doing that: Nicolás Maduro, Rafael Lacava and, at a lower scale, Gabriel Santana.

In his videos, Ecarri—who plans to be an “independent” candidate in 2024—targets emotions with his messages on education, entrepreneurship, and the ideas of Venezuelan conservative intellectual Arturo Uslar Pietri. “My audience on TikTok is people who have nothing to do with political parties, despite their age,” he told me. About Ecarri’s strategy, Rendueles thinks that it could be effective to deliver his ideas, but he’s not using the trends. So far, Ecarri has failed to accumulate even 4,000 followers.

María Corina is not taking advantage of the algorithm either. In her case, she just stayed close to her radical discourse against the rest of the opposition—which she casts as an accomplice of chavismo—and, predictably, her famous video calling Hugo Chávez a thief, which she has uploaded three times. “She addresses the people that demanded to ‘order the pizza’,” says Rendueles. In Venezuelan political jargon, ‘ordering the pizza’ means asking for a military intervention by the U.S. Right now, Machado has a little over 54,000 followers.

Here’s another lesson: when using the trends on TikTok, you need a strategy in order to achieve success.

Jumping on a trend without a strategy may turn you into the fool of the town. The best example is Carlos Prosperi using “Ojitos lindos” with no message, says Rendueles. “In a positioning campaign, what you seek is that even spontaneous things are very well planned,” he explained. “It’s hard to believe that, given the discredit of politicians, they would try to be popular at the expense of the little reputation they could still have.” 

Both Schloeter and Santana told me that they are the ones producing their videos, while Ecarri assured that his strategy comes from what he learned using the platforms on his own, with the help of young militants from his party Alianza del Lápiz. Prosperi ignored my message asking for an interview and his press team said his schedule is too tight.

In today’s Venezuela, according to Verónica Ruiz del Vizo, being a communications adviser is, well, complicated: “Working in political communications in Venezuela isn’t easy, because of persecution, important costs, and self-censorship.” I remembered when, in April, the regime detained 72-year-old Olga Mata for uploading a satirical video on TikTok in which she was cooking arepas and calling each one after a chavista leader. She was accused of “inciting hate” and was forced to record a public self-blaming retractation.

Fertile Ground

At this point, we can wonder how a Venezuelan politician can build a successful candidacy using TikTok. 

To begin with, Rendueles says, the main political work must be done on the streets, not on social media, and it must include several platforms. Politicians can’t dismiss the fact that 30% of Venezuelans have no internet at home, according to some reports, and those who have it, navigate at a speed six times lower than the global average, so watching a TikTok video could be a huge effort. On the other hand, contrary to countries like Chile or Colombia, where I could find data on TikTok users broken down by age and gender, there are none of those records in Venezuela. 

“This is what always happens with all platforms,” adds Ruiz del Vizo. Yet this shouldn’t be an obstacle to define an audience, she says, because you can examine the amount of reproductions, visits, and followers of the local influencers on every platform. Some of them have more than a million followers on TikTok, “a strong enough indicator to say that the usage is high.”

Furthermore, TikTok videos don’t stay on TikTok: just like Prosperi’s post came to me, you can share them through Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and the platform allows you to download them. And that TikTok is just for young people is a myth.

Ultimately, even if Venezuelan politicians are using TikTok in wrong ways, this is an opportunity for them to be innovative. “It’s a good moment because it’s up for grabs,” says Ruiz del Vizo. “When everyone joins, it will be harder to compete. Now, political TikTok in Venezuela is virgin territory.”