Santa Claus stands at the center of an Instagram photo wearing a big red cowboy hat to promote the music video for a campaign jingle. The song was commissioned by the politician standing to Santa’s right, Samuel García, who is running to be the next governor of the Mexican state of Nuevo León.

Mariana Rodríguez, Samuel García’s wife, uploaded the photo to her Instagram account where she has over 1.2 million followers.
Instagram

But the picture was uploaded by the real star of the show, Mariana Rodríguez, the woman on Santa’s left. She’s a businesswoman, an influencer with 1.2 million followers on Instagram, García’s wife, and a core component of his political campaign. 

The power that politicians wield through social media has received plenty of attention lately. Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for inciting a mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol, while in India, Anurag Thakur, a junior finance minister, is still tweeting after calling on his supporters in Delhi to shoot “traitors.” But overall, the regulation of more innocuous political content — the sort Rodríguez and García post — may prove to be a bigger challenge in the long run.

Regulating politicians on the campaign trail is one thing, but social media has successfully turned certain private citizens into refined propaganda machines, whose content may be more effective at influencing preferences than traditional promotional material. It gives influencers an enormous advantage but also puts regulators in an uncomfortable position. If they dictate how influencers can discuss political candidates, they may also end up infringing on freedom of expression.

In the eyes of the law, Mariana Rodríguez’s involvement with her husband’s campaign is a closed case. In 2018, during García’s run for the Mexican Senate, an electoral tribunal dismissed accusations that Rodríguez’s adulatory posts exceeded campaign spending limits. The tribunal considered the influencer to be “exercising her freedom of expression,” as her posts are legally seen as “spontaneous expressions” rather than “campaign contributions subject to financial scrutiny.” Yet, as Luis Alfredo Santana Barraza, a judge specialized in Mexican electoral law, told Rest of World, Rodríguez is “selling this image of political aloofness, while all she does is live and breathe politics.”

Mexican election rules are particularly strict, to the point that U.S. journalists and researchers periodically report on lessons that can be drawn from south of the border, like putting greater limits on private campaign contributions. But Santana Barraza believes Mexico’s electoral system is instructive not to regulators but to the outdated political class north of the border. Many politicians in Mexico, he said, are much more adept at using social media to their advantage. “Look at the main national figures of the American establishment: Only Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands out as a young, social media–adept politician, and what she’s doing is traditional compared to what’s going on in Nuevo León. Those politicians are already talking to an electorate born after the year 2000, while Mexican officials are working from regulation conceived in the 1990s.”

Other electoral experts, like Rodrigo Ocampo Soria, who was previously an advisor to Nuevo León’s current governor, also worry about how outdated regulation has become. “Mexico’s electoral laws are absurd. Most do not even take digital advertising into consideration,” Ocampo told Rest of World. The National Electoral Institute guarantees political parties “conditions of access to the mass media,” while not allowing “third parties to hire … propaganda either in favor or against any political party or candidate.” Yet, the prohibition only mentions radio and television — a 20th-century conception, especially in Nuevo León, where 67.2% of the population uses social media, the highest rate in the country. 

“Things are better than they were five or six years ago,” Ocampo said. The law now counts social media ads purchased by political parties toward campaign spending limits, but the scope of the rule is limited. The most notable enforcement case happened in 2015, when members of Mexico’s national football team published posts in favor of the Green Party on Twitter. An electoral tribunal later sanctioned the party, according to Ocampo, only because there was a paper trail that proved the Greens had paid for the publicity. 

Compared to this flagrant flaunting of campaign finance limits, Mariana Rodríguez’s behavior stands out for being distinctly within the confines of the law. If she had painted a sign in support of her husband on the side of her house, then electoral authorities would have been ruthless, applying some “randomly assigned value to whatever they thought the worth of that wall propaganda was,” said Ocampo. But because Rodríguez’s support is expressed online — without a paper trail to associate it with a campaign strategy or formal payment — she is safe from punishment.

A legal loophole like this is particularly glaring given that, as an influencer, Rodríguez makes a living through promoting companies and causes. Estimates value her posts on Instagram to be worth $1,000 each. The law might consider her account to be a place for private free expression, but marketing agencies certainly don’t. And it is these influencer marketing tactics — of the sort for which brands pay top dollar — that Rodríguez uses to promote her husband’s campaign. The case of the couple’s Christmas music video illustrates how the song went (and stayed) viral only after Rodríguez encouraged her followers to participate in a related dance challenge on her Instagram page. “Just last week, I saw 14-year-old kids singing and dancing to this jingle in the park,” said Santana Barraza, who lives in a different state, a 1,000-kilometer drive away.

“Citizens do not want the government messing with the internet.”

Ocampo, Santana Barraza, and other election experts who spoke to Rest of World said they believed Rodríguez’s influencer marketing strategy was at odds with the spirit of Mexico’s campaign finance regulations. (Rodríguez and García did not return requests for comment.) On the flip side, “citizens do not want the government messing with the internet,” said Ocampo. 

The election tribunal’s 2018 decision to view influencer posts as private free speech speaks to a profound issue limiting the scope of further regulation. While most media was historically unidirectional, social media has become a two-way channel, a public square where people talk — and, increasingly, sell — to each other. There is inconclusive data indicating that people trust influencers more than traditional ads and celebrity endorsements. If so, then not only has Mexico’s political system failed to adapt to the new currency of digital influence, it has failed to account for precisely the sort of influence that may be the most effective on users, consumers, and voters.

As Samuel García’s campaign capitalized on Mariana Rodríguez’s Instagram platform, the couple’s adversaries reacted by using social media to bully the influencer. In response, Rodríguez stated that she would limit her explicitly political posts on social media. But she did so even as she continued to speak the language of relatability and authenticity (“I want to keep being me”) that Luis Mendoza Ovando — a journalist who covers Nuevo León — believes is increasingly effective in politics. It is why he now sees parties positioning politicians as products: “You’ve got to sell them like a detergent brand or mobile phone package.”

That strategy, he said, is what got the current governor of Nuevo León, Jaime Rodríguez, elected to the position that Samuel García wants. The governor (no relation to Mariana), who is known as “El Bronco,” became so infamous for his antics that he was described by John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” as a “human wrecking ball” with “a firm and unwavering hatred of Santa Claus,” but whose hijinks allowed him to capture the media’s attention without having to spend any money.

It’s no coincidence that the two politicians are from the same place. Mendoza Ovando views Nuevo León, a wealthy northern state whose denizens like to think of themselves as closer to Austin than Mexico City, as the birthplace of celebrity politicians in Mexico, fueled by a culture of rugged individualism and an internet-savvy electorate. (Mendoza Ovando noted that one of the country’s first massively popular memes was the distinctly northern “Edgar’s Fall.”) 

Now, the state’s nearly 4 million voters may be ushering in the age of the influencer politician, with no indication of how it will be regulated. How would someone audit, for example, Rodríguez’s purportedly apolitical, but powerful, Instagram story response to the vitriol directed at her husband after the launch of the Christmas video? “More than being a politician, he’s a person,” she told her followers. “And now, because he’s dancing, it means that he’s not taking things seriously? Even when his work is impeccable! … When did everything change so much?”