President Nayib Bukele and his populist conservative party, Nuevas Ideas, won a crushing victory in El Salvador’s recent parliamentary elections on February 28. Hours after taking office, the Legislative Assembly installed a Bukele-friendly Attorney General and packed the country’s Supreme Court, seizing control of the third and last autonomous branch of government. Meanwhile, the social media-savvy administration carried out a different sort of takeover online. 

In the small hours of Saturday, May 1, more than 12 hours before a single Nuevas Ideas representative had been officially sworn in, images on the Legislative Assembly’s social media accounts switched to feature imagery that resembled the design and color of Bukele’s own insignia. The same happened at the local level, as hundreds of bukelista municipalities awoke to find their official seals had been graphically aligned with the former advertising executive-turned-president’s look and messaging.

These digital tweaks went hand in hand with aggressive on-the-ground action that left the country reeling, says Jorge E. Cuéllar, a professor of Central American Studies at Dartmouth. Hours after the Assembly’s first parliamentary session, during which the Supreme Court was packed with pro-government judges, a phalanx of police and army officers were sent to occupy its buildings. “No physical force was used, but the institutional violence was tremendous,” José Luis Sanz, the Washington correspondent for the news site El Faro, told Rest of World

Just as the court buildings were secured, the digital overhaul continued in earnest. In addition to the sudden rebranding of the Supreme Court and the General Attorney’s social media accounts, public documents that were previously available on official websites were scrubbed. “This is very serious because we’re talking about parliamentary records, approved laws … All of that ceased to be available,” said Sanz. Shortly after, the Legislative Assembly’s Facebook page was deleted altogether.

Sanz believes that the urgency of Bukele’s digital takeover is “profoundly symptomatic” of how the president understands the source of his popularity.

The administration values social media so highly that accounts get their style guidelines from the very top. “It is the president who imposes this line,” Guillermo Gallegos, the pro-Bukele vice president of the new Legislative Assembly told Rest of World. “President Bukele uses social media as his main form of communication with the population. In this way, he can communicate with a far larger audience than through other media. That’s how he won the presidency” back in 2019, he added.

According to Dartmouth’s Cuéllar, the rebranding is part of Bukele’s effort to create an overarching “aesthetic grammar” for his movement. It is “representative of a rebirth,” he said, one that the party claims is intended to scrub the country clean of 30 years of corruption. Thanks to Nuevas Ideas’ supermajority, alongside their staunch allies in the conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, the administration believes it has a mandate to overhaul the country. 

Meanwhile, critics are characterizing the digital changes as an important part of Bukele’s “technical coup,” in which independence is being stripped from separate branches of government. “It seems strange that in a country like El Salvador, the new Attorney General’s priority should be to change his website’s image to align to the president’s in the same breath as he declares that the prosecutor’s office is finally independent,” remarked Sanz, the journalist.

Facebook profile picture of El Salvador's Supreme Court before May 2, 2021.
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Facebook profile picture of El Salvador's Supreme Court after May 2, 2021.
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Gallegos, who is also the founder of the GANA party, justifies Bukele’s actions with the claim that “there has never been such a drastic transition from one legislature to another.” Before the Nuevas Ideas landslide, there had been established transitional procedures. For official social media accounts, the Assembly’s Communications Administration would have set up an organized hand-off. Not this time. “This time, [the opposition] didn’t hand anything over, rather, control of all of the Assembly’s communications was taken non-violently. There was no resistance, they just deserted their posts.”

Bukele’s victory marked a radical shift from the country’s de facto two-party system which had existed since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords that put an end to El Salvador’s civil war. The collapse of that political model, and the subsequent power vacuum, has allowed the president and his party to sweep in and recreate the blank canvas of state in his own image. “The idea is to erase everything that has happened over the past 30 years,” concluded Gallegos.

To the Bukele government, control of the social media narrative is just as important as actual control of the country’s formal institutions, says Sanz. “There is an inextricable link between physical and digital spaces,” he said.

El Salvador is highly dependent on a large U.S. diaspora that, outside of social media, had been out of reach of bukelista messaging. Twitter and Facebook have bridged the gap, and to great effect. Cuéllar, who is based in the United States, says he has witnessed the traditionally left-wing Salvadoran diaspora embrace Bukele’s brand of socially conservative governance.

The aggressive deployment of the government’s online branding has served as a sort of bukelista equivalent to Twitter’s blue check mark. It acts as a stamp of allegiance to the new government. Bukele’s followers have been flocking to the brand-approved accounts to amplify their messages and flooding social media with his talking points.

The rebranding of the Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the General Attorney’s social media accounts has had immediate effect. “I can finally follow this account,” declared one user tagging the Legislative Assembly’s handle after Bukele tweeted an image of the parliament’s new logo. After a year of stagnant growth, the Assembly’s account gained over 15,000 new followers in the first three days of May. In turn, that account has followed key Nuevas Ideas’ personalities and bukelista media outlets, while unfollowing 52 handles it had previously followed. 

Whether the widespread sharing of Bukele’s message has been achieved organically or through bots, the result has nonetheless been to effectively drown out dissenting voices. This is the darker side of this mass social communications strategy, according to Cuéllar. He believes that part of Bukele’s strategy of social media domination exists in part to “make it hard to be in opposition.” 

Gallegos disagrees. “A change of graphic identity cannot break the separation of powers,” he said. The idea is simply to “present uniformity across all levels of government.”