How laughter brought more voters to the polls in Colombia

Why We Wrote This

When political differences become entrenched, sometimes humor is an answer. That was the case in Colombia this year, where political participation soared as online, political satire drew in young voters.

Andres Stapff/Reuters
Followers of right-wing candidate Ivan Duque celebrate after he won Colombia's presidential election, beating leftist Gustavo Petro in a victory that will reassure investors but raised the prospect of changes to a landmark peace accord with Marxist rebels, in Bogota, Colombia, June 17, 2018.

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Colombia recently elected its next president in a hotly anticipated runoff election. Voter turnout this year was historic – about 53 percent – with many first-time voters pointing to the role of new, online political humor programs as waking them up to the importance of getting involved and casting their ballots. With a media landscape long associated with political parties, online humor programs entered the political conversation, helping many voters find their voice in the conversation. For example, the on-screen personality of Maria Paulina Baena, the face of the show “La Pulla,” appears frizzy-haired, without makeup, wearing a masculine jacket and tie – and she's angry. Through her frustration, she channels some of the powerlessness felt by the Colombian public. And for this election, it struck a chord. “Satire is very important in a country where many people are scared to say what they really think,” Juanita Léon, head of political website La Silla Vacía, says of Colombia’s long history of violence. “It becomes the place where truths are said without fear.”

A week before Colombia’s June presidential run-off, Sebastián Os was perched in the second row of Bogotá’s crowded national theater. Ecstatic, the teen sat just a few feet away from the star of the show, his unlikely hero: a middle-aged political humorist and YouTube celebrity Daniel Samper.

Mr. Samper’s online series, “#HolaSoyDanny” (Hi, I’m Danny), has developed a huge following across Colombia. His show, and the equally popular “La Pulla” (The Taunt), have become the politically minded antiheroes of Colombia’s YouTube generation – which is more accustomed to watching fresh-faced teens perform complicated stunts or makeup routines online.

“I only started learning about serious politics with Daniel,” says 17-year-old Sebastián, who began following “#HolaSoyDanny” earlier this year. “At first I was like, ‘no, anarchy! I don't like politicians!’ But then with Daniel's videos, ‘I was like, this is interesting.’ ”

Sebastián first watched Samper for the entertainment value. But then he started reading the news to be sure he would “get” all of Samper’s jokes. Now, Sebastián is part of a growing trend among young Colombians who may consider all politicians as homogeneous, but who are waking up to the importance of following the news – and casting ballots.

Colombia’s recent presidential election saw voter turnout at a 20-year high. New-voter registration rates nearly doubled those of the last presidential election, suggesting an uptick in youth registration. The higher levels of engagement reflect the high stakes and divisions in this election. The two candidates held views on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and the controversial peace process brought to fruition by President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 polarized voters who disagree on how demobilized fighters should be treated.

A handful of government and nongovernmental-organization efforts focused on mobilizing voters this year, like youth-focused get-out-the-vote campaigns and mock election events. But, in this tense climate, political humor – online, unfettered, and reaching into the millions of viewers per video – has proven one of the more popular tools in making sense of the political environment, analysts say. As these programs continue to attract followers, there’s hope that the medium will further increase political conversation and engagement here.

“Both ‘La Pulla’ and Daniel Samper remind us that political humor is necessary, that it had been something missing in” our news coverage, says Maria Alejandra Medina Cartagena, a communications researcher and journalist. “What makes it successful … is to be able to criticize everything that is wrong, everything that needs to be criticized” in a way that broadens the conversation beyond political elites.

Filling a gap in traditional media

It is no coincidence, according to Ms. Medina, that “#HolaSoyDanny” and “La Pulla” came out in the spring of 2016. Colombia's two main television stations removed all of their political humor programs in 2013, her research found. At the time, there was a broad fear of alienating audiences and losing money – as well as self-censorship. In 2013, political polarization was already growing, as popular ex-President Álvaro Uribe split from his successor and former minister of defense Santos over how to resolve Colombia's 50-year civil conflict, which left more than 200,000 people, mostly civilians, dead. 

At the same time, Colombia experienced a burst in online video consumption, according to Google data. The nation’s monthly YouTube users ballooned to 24 million in 2016, half of the country’s population. Between 2014 and 2015, the site’s visitors increased by 75 percent.

Though YouTube and online comedy stars are a new phenomenon here, Colombia long examined its political situation through humor, says Juanita Léon, head of political website La Silla Vacía. 

“Satire is very important in a country where many people are scared to say what they really think,” Ms. Léon says of Colombia’s long history of violence. “It becomes the place where truths are said without fear.”

Humor doesn’t equate a lack of seriousness in reporting. Samper and the team from “La Pulla,” for example, are professional journalists with backgrounds at some of Colombia’s biggest, most reputable print publications.

The lack of barriers to entry on YouTube allowed them to take their reporting chops and present them in new ways online. Both these shows stand out for their basic formulas: rapid-fire, talk-to-the-camera aesthetics, without a lot of bells and whistles.

“It is recorded with a cell phone, there is no big production, there are no people doing makeup, there are no lights, there are not 20 people on set. Many times my 9- and 10-year-old daughters record it, or my wife,” Samper says. “This is the format of our times: homespun videos, hosted on the internet absolutely free… it was a way to mainstream satire.”

Shifting the political discourse

Even with low production value, the topics tackled by these programs are robust. Extensive research goes into each episode.

“We do this because we’re trying to give people tools to think about the reality they’re living in, and for us, that’s only possible through satire,” Juan David Torres, one of three young journalists behind “La Pulla,” says. “Our final goal is to tell people, well, this is important for you because it is affecting you. Maybe it’s harming you. Maybe sometime in the future, it will hurt you. So you really have to pay attention.”

For Mr. Torres, that has also meant using a relatable tone – almost the opposite of what Colombians see in their nightly news anchors. The on-screen personality of Maria Paulina Baena, the face of “La Pulla,” appears frizzy-haired, without makeup, wearing a masculine jacket and tie – and she's angry. Through her frustration, she channels some of the powerlessness felt by the Colombian public. And for this election, it struck a chord.

“Normally, the comment we get is that people weren’t interested in politics until ‘La Pulla’ came around,” Ms. Baena says. 

Colombia has historically struggled with voter turnout, but saw 53.4 percent of the population at the polls in the final presidential election. And while other factors weighed in, new voters – many of them the young YouTube audiences – played a key role.

“La Pulla” released videos criticizing each candidate; episodes on the final contenders, Ivan Duque and Gustavo Petro, were viewed almost two million times each. “#HolaSoyDanny” featured a 2-hour live “YouTubers vs. Candidates” debate, where he brought in young, non-political YouTube personalities to question three of the candidates face-to-face.

Even these politicians knew that their online presence mattered.

According to Santiago Castaño, a university student in his early 20s, YouTube humorists like “La Pulla,” “#HolaSoyDanny,” and “Me Dicen Wally” are his main sources of political news. In a country where many traditional outlets are linked to political parties, Mr. Castaño feels that these overtly opinionated YouTube satirists are in the best position to start a dialogue.

“I think they’ve had a huge influence on the political debate among Millennials,” he says. They criticize political parties indiscriminately, and while they are transparent about their own perspectives, “they don’t try to impose on you what to think.”

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