When CNN announced the results for the first round of Peru’s presidential election on Sunday, April 11, the image they used was striking — or rather, the one they didn’t use. Their chosen image of the candidate who came in clear first, Pedro Castillo of the Perú Libre Party, was a stock cutout of a dark silhouette.

It wasn’t just a case of ignorant foreigners overlooking a key player in a Latin American election; Peru’s own national media seemed to be equally oblivious of the man who ended up gaining almost one in five votes. Just a week prior to the election, many polls saw him coming in seventh place among a slate of 18 presidential candidates.

Since the election, Castillo has been described by many as the voice of “deep, unheard Peru,” a term that tends to irritate many Peruvians outside of Lima.

Following Sunday’s shock result, this logic led Lima-based pundits to declare that “the Peru with no internet access has spoken” — conveniently explaining why they had been so blindsided by his unexpected victory. But speaking to rural and working-class Castillo supporters reveals a deeper story. It is not so much that they are disconnected, they’re just in a different social media echo chamber.

Ingrid Montoya, a 35-year-old teacher from San Jerónimo, a rural town in the Andean region of Andahuaylas, laughs at this misconception from Lima. “We have social media, just like everyone in Peru. And we’ve been talking to our parents over WhatsApp during the pandemic.” She first heard about Castillo’s candidacy on Facebook, on one of the regional groups she belongs to. “I don’t know what the media was doing. Where have they been? How can they claim we are not online? My Facebook timeline has been busting with posts!”

The story of a digital disconnect across rural and impoverished Peru, however, is true to an extent. The country has a wide digital gap. While 62% of the households in Lima have internet access, in rural areas, the percentage dips to just under 6%. Castillo came out ahead of all other candidates in the latter portion of Peru. In the capital, he came in fifth.

A 51-year-old union leader, former public school teacher, and self-described Marxist, Castillo campaigns with a distinctly pre-digital flair. He deliberately privileged community-held media — mostly local radio stations — and arrived at his voting station on horseback.

Having flown under the radar for so long, Castillo’s account still has less than 8,000 followers at the time of reporting (April 14). Reportedly, he had just 3,000 on election day, having only joined the social media platform in February 2021. In stark contrast, Keiko Fujimori, whom Castillo will face in a June runoff, has 1 million followers. The Perú Libre candidate still has no blue check marked Facebook page and does not appear to have an Instagram account. 

Franco Pomalaya, a 28-year-old communication strategist for Castillo, told Rest of World that he laughs when he hears pundits claim there was something innovative about their strategy. “Our campaign was very basic; this is how politicians have been campaigning for decades. What’s so weird about it?” He believes the actual reach of social media has been exaggerated in Peru. “People talk about numbers and percentages, but they never talk about the quality of the network. A household might have internet access, but if it’s slow and spotty, they’re not going to use it.”  

Moreover, neither Castillo nor Perú Libre has a concerted social media strategy. Sebastián Reyes, one of Perú Libre’s legal representatives, is quick to point out that the party’s digital presence remains one of the weaker points of the campaign. “If I’m being completely honest,” Reyes told Rest of World, “we’re not quite sure how to get the blue check mark next to the candidate’s name. But we definitely want to.”

Perú Libre’s lack of coordinated official channels has created some confusion. Campaign officials only confirmed which of the Twitter accounts purporting to be Castillo was the authentic one after the election was over. Before then, the media had at times quoted from unofficial accounts as if they represented the party line. 

Marco Antonio Paz Olivares, a 29-year-old Castillo supporter from a shanty town in Catacaos, a city in the northern region of Piura, doesn’t seem to think this is an issue. He is convinced that his candidate won because he put in the work rather than betting on newfangled tech. The overemphasis of social media, according to this Piura local, is a mistake often made by Lima-based pundits.

“I am from a settlement that has no running water, much less internet access,” Paz Olivares told Rest of World. “Castillo actually took the time to go from door to door, from town to town, reaching the places that no candidate thinks are worthwhile visiting. And he didn’t pass through, waving from an SUV, but actually talked to people who don’t really get any publicity on social media.”

“I don’t know what the media was doing. Where have they been? How can they claim we are not online? My Facebook timeline has been busting with posts!”

Digital platforms may play a bigger role in the upcoming runoff, but the Perú Libre candidate’s lack of a cohesive social media strategy doesn’t mean that he’s not mobilizing masses online.

Just a week ago, it seemed like Verónika Mendoza, a candidate with strong support in urban areas and among educated voters, was the stronger left-wing contender. Her supporters, dubbed verolovers by some pundits, were extremely active on social media. Online interactions concerning Mendoza were the most positive out of all candidates — a metric often seen as another key indicator by pollsters and political commentators. Yet, before the polls had registered any increased interest in Castillo’s candidacy, a look at Google Trends shows that he was already being Googled more than Mendoza.

Some young rural Peruvians are going even further in challenging the stereotype that their regions are fundamentally disconnected. The hashtag #PedroCastilloPresidente has over 7.7 million views on TikTok, with creators mostly coming from rural areas in the Peruvian Andes. And, while Castillo has no confirmed official Facebook presence, there are dozens of groups on the social network that have organically cropped up to support him.

Pages like Pedro Castillo en Segunda Vuelta Presidente, Todos con Pedro Castillo Presidente or Pedro Castillo “Presidente de los Pobres” and others each have tens of thousands of extremely active members, all of whom share memes and promote political discussion. 

Regional groups are also particularly active, something the campaign has been quick to notice. “Each region has its own interests, and our focus is to decentralize politics. So we let regions speak for themselves. This includes the communication strategies. We give some guidelines to the local followers but let them plan and execute their own ads,” Pomalaya tells Rest of World. 

As in Brazil’s 2018 presidential elections, the shift to private virtual spaces made digital tracking harder. For those who didn’t know where to look, it was tough to notice the incremental interest in Castillo.

As his campaign attempts to win over new voters in the next few months, his online presence will undoubtedly become more pronounced, particularly in reaching young, urban constituents. “We know we are going to have to change how we do things,” says Pomalaya. “For starters, we are going to hire someone to do social media.”