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Barbie and the memetic politics of the spectacle - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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A few days ago, the official TikTok account of the Presidency of Colombia posted a video in celebration of the 20 July Independence Day. The video featured images of President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez dressed up in pink, interwoven with clips from the upcoming Barbie film. Although the account swiftly removed the video following a wave of criticism for making light of a day meant to commemorate the fight against empire, it sparked a wave of memes which caused ‘#PetroBarbie’ to trend on Colombian Twitter.

Memes have become a central component of political campaigning in Latin America. In a region with some of the world’s highest social media usage statistics and a highly polarised media landscape, politicians have embraced social media culture as a refreshing and humorous approach to a traditionally serious industry. For instance, during the 2022 Colombian presidential election, a relatively unknown septuagenarian, Rodolfo Hernández, made it to the second round with a campaign focused on TikTok dances. Similarly, in Brazil’s 2022 presidential election campaign, Jair Bolsonaro frequently posted songs and dances to his social media accounts, even collaborating with high-profile celebrities, such as the footballer Neymar.

While this rush to engage in meme culture may initially seem positive, the traction and popularity generated by such online electioneering often leads to a copycat effect, with candidates from across the political spectrum attempting to replicate this humorous campaign method, prioritising style over substance. This interaction between politics and post-ironic social media culture ends up trivialising serious issues; reducing complex topics into mere entertaining exaggerated visuals.

Moreover, instead of fostering dialogue and reasonable discourse, this form of memetic politics further polarises societies, encouraging a tribalism centred on a condescending humour which fundamentally ridicules any form of serious political debate. For instance, consider El Salvador’s ‘crypto bro’ President Nayib Bukele, who in January 2022 tweeted a photoshopped picture of himself wearing a McDonald’s employee uniform following an overnight dip in the price of Bitcoin. Rather than engaging in serious debate around Bukele’s impulsive monetary policy—focused on investing taxpayers’ money in Bitcoin—his supporters merely responded with similar ‘meme-stock’ language. These shared memes and discourse resonate with specific ideological groups, entrenching individuals in their echo chambers rather than facilitating open dialogue.

In essence, the issue is one of trust and integrity. Much like the protagonists in Barbie who come to a sudden realisation that they live in a curated, idealised world, we too find ourselves in a society which blurs the lines of truth and authenticity. Politics is increasingly becoming a spectacle focused more on the pursuit of virality than genuine engagement and meaningful policies. However, when politics is reduced to a mere source of amusement, it becomes challenging for a democratic system to function effectively, generating a widespread sense of apathy and destroying trust in the ability of the system to deliver effective change.

More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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