Colombia election: WhatsApp stickers mock, support Petro, Rodolfo

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The memes flood the group chats throughout the day. One politician gives a mischievous wink. Another slaps a city council member in the face. A third flounders in a debate; the text reads that he “inspires nothing.”

Stickers, the photos or animations that flash across the messaging service WhatsApp, have become the language of Colombia’s highly contentious elections this year. With a photo or video and a simple app, anyone can create and send one. And in a country where voters are fed up with politics and politicians, the stickers have become a cathartic way to mock the candidates and capture the most absurd moments in Colombia’s you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up presidential campaign.

On June 19, Colombians will vote in the final round of what has been an election cycle unlike any other, marked by violence, death threats against candidates, scandals and preemptive accusations of fraud. The choice is between two unusual candidates promising radical change. One, Sen. Gustavo Petro, is a former guerrilla who would be the country’s first leftist president. The other, businessman Rodolfo Hernández, is an unfiltered populist known for insulting his own employees.

“This campaign produces a lot of anxiety. It’s pulling families apart, it’s causing unnecessary tension in workplaces, in group chats, among friends,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis and the creator of at least 300 political stickers. “We need something we can collectively make fun of.”

The stickers have become so popular that the campaigns themselves are embracing them, in some cases to mock their own candidates.

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That’s especially true for Hernández, the 77-year-old former mayor who has claimed the title of “TikTok King” for his quirky, at times bizarre videos on the platform. His social media team is made up of mostly 20-somethings working on their first campaign, according to spokeswoman Luisa Fernanda Olejua.

One widely circulated sticker of Hernández, created by his own campaign, shows him mouthing the words “relocos, papi,” roughly “crazy, daddy.” Another shows him on a swing, saying “weee.” Others play off his tough, straight-talking personality — using vulgar slang from his home department of Santander.

(Video: The Washington Post)

Danny Miranda, creative director for Hernández’s campaign, said the TikToks and WhatsApp stickers cater to an audience that’s tired of traditional political messages and campaign rhetoric. They’re looking to have fun, to laugh, to see a candidate that doesn’t take himself so seriously.

But by sharing the videos and stickers of Hernández — even if they’re making fun of him — Colombians are giving him publicity.

“When the content gets back to us from an aunt or a relative, that’s when you know it worked,” Miranda said.

Cristina Vélez, director of the nonprofit Linterna Verde, which researches online public opinion, said the “meme-ification” of Hernández has drawn in people who would otherwise not be paying attention to politics. The stickers are a part of that strategy, one that could be replicated in political campaigns globally.

“It’s a new way to knock on the door of people who had the door shut,” Vélez said. “He says, ‘Look, I’ll entertain you — let me in.’”

The approach has forced other campaigns to do the same, though with less success. Petro’s campaign also makes stickers, but they look more like traditional campaign materials. Giovanny Abadía, a member of Petro’s communications team, said many are aimed at capturing Petro’s message of the “politics of love.”

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For Guzmán, creating and sharing stickers has been a way to relieve the anxiety of analyzing a tense and unpredictable election cycle. But they’ve become so popular that he’s started making WhatsApp groups with hundreds of people solely to circulate them.

Some are simply photos and direct quotations from politicians, such as the time a right-wing senator was recorded saying “we either win the elections or we all go to crap.” Others sound like something a politician might say, such as the stickers of Hernández smiling and telling a rival to shove his government program up his rectum.

There’s Petro appearing to pray in a church, despite having said he doesn’t practice Catholic rituals. “Pretend to pray, pretend to pray, pretend to pray,” the sticker says. There’s Hernández’s gun-trotting mother, 97, who speaks of having slapped her son until he bled and having fired shots at her husband during a fight. In the sticker, a photo taken for El Pais by Carlos Buitrago, she smiles as she aims her revolver toward the camera: “Values are taught in the home,” the text reads.

Over the weekend, a TikTok influencer released a video of a shirtless Hernández wearing sunglasses and a gold chain and cross around his neck. The video zooms in on his bare chest, then shows him walking with two younger women by his side to a 50 Cent song. (While the campaign did not share the video, it gave the TikTok user access to the candidate for the filming). Within hours, Guzmán had made a sticker of the cross on Hernández’s chest, with the words “Someone get me out of here.”

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For Evelin Mosquera Ceballos, a 28-year-old lawyer from Cali, Guzmán’s stickers have kept her up-to-date on the latest shock or scandal. Each time she gets one, she searches the web for an explanation. It’s been both informative and entertaining in an election cycle in which she’s unhappy with both options for president. She says she’s supporting Petro because he’s the “least worst option.”

It’s a coping mechanism familiar to many Colombians: “You laugh so you don’t cry.”

On Wednesday night, Mosquera saw a video of Hernández’s wife standing next to him as he spoke to reporters. To combat the drug trade, Hernández suggested the government should just give drugs to people struggling with addiction.

The changing expression on Socorro Oliveros’s face mirrored the progression of emotions of many others watching: Surprise. Confusion. Exasperation. A blank stare.

Mosquera couldn’t resist. The next day, she created a sticker.