El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele Wants to Be the Political Elon Musk

The last five years of social media-fueled populism around the world have been defined by former U.S. President Donald Trump and his imitators—but since he left office, things have begun to shift. The overtly nationalist 4chan-led online political movements that helped radicalize countries like the United States, Brazil, India, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom haven’t disappeared, but they’re regrouping away from the cultural spotlight. In their place, a new, more chaotic online identity movement has emerged championing meme stocks, cryptocurrency, and unabashed technological and economic excess. It was once limited to the tech sector—but now, one of its main adherents is running a country.

In the United States, this movement is exemplified by the billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who uses his Twitter account to swirl together a dizzying mix of aspirational science content and unhinged memes. Many of Musk’s followers believe that if they just put their faith in him and his companies, he’ll bring them all into a glorious future where everyone’s a billionaire. Musk’s followers call him “daddy,” and Tesla workers have even thanked him when he’s laid them off. A central part of Musk’s appeal has recently been the meme-based cryptocurrency Dogecoin, which Musk touted aggressively between March and May this year.

Musk’s cheerleading of Dogecoin, along with Tesla announcing, first, that it would accept Bitcoin and then months later doubling back and saying it wouldn’t, created major speculative bubbles. When those bubbles finally popped in May, bringing down the entire cryptocurrency market, bankrupted Musk fans filled up his Twitter mentions, begging him to “pump” the coin again.

Musk had inadvertently stumbled across an important connection between the unregulated hype economy of cryptocurrency and the cults of personality that social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram create so easily. For celebrity influencers like Musk, Dogecoin became the ultimate carrot to dangle in front of his followers. If all online popularity is a figurative pyramid scheme, in which the followers aspire to reach the heights of influencers themselves, accounts with huge followings promoting sketchy cryptocoins make that literal.

Now that dynamic is playing out in El Salvador, where the country’s millennial president recently made Bitcoin legal tender. As Cristina López G., a disinformation researcher for Data & Society, exasperatedly told Foreign Policy, “Every bro is obsessed with cryptocurrency, but they don’t have the ability to run a country with a legislature that will just do whatever they want and pass a law before even considering how it affects banks and other financial institutions.

It’s been a busy six months for El Salvador’s president, 39-year-old Nayib Bukele. In February, his Nuevas Ideas, or “New Ideas,” party won a two-thirds supermajority in the country’s legislature. He then used that supermajority to oust El Salvador’s top judges and attorney general in a move many have called a self-coup. On June 5, Bukele announced the country would begin accepting the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender and then, the next day, he tweeted a picture of himself with laser eyes, a meme used by Twitter users to signal they’re all-in on Bitcoin.

Analysts were scratching their heads. It doesn’t make a ton of sense that El Salvador, a country where 70 percent of the population doesn’t even have a bank account and barely half of its citizens even have an internet connection, would adopt an expensive and volatile digital currency like Bitcoin. Viewed through Bukele’s social media, however, it makes perfect sense.

Like many a tech entrepreneur, Bukele dropped out of college early to go into business. But his political career started in earnest in 2012 when he became mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a city outside of the country’s capital. He then became mayor of San Salvador in 2015. He ran as a member of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front during both campaigns, but left the party in 2017 after he was accused of defaming and harassing other party members and physically assaulting a female councilor. After that, Bukele founded the Nuevas Ideas party and began drifting further and further to the right politically.

His light authoritarianism is built on a sense of coolness. His public image is shaped by glamorous Instagram photos of him wearing aviator sunglasses and meeting with other powerful men, and a Twitter account that alternates between updates about the country’s COVID-19 cases and retweets of his followers sharing reaction memes. His entire online persona is akin to that of Jake Paul, the mega-popular American YouTuber who has tried to parlay his internet fame into a second career as an entrepreneur. Bukele is crushing it every day, and his 2.7 million Twitter followers make sure everyone in El Salvador knows it.

Alberto Escorcia, a Mexican digital rights activist and misinformation researcher, told Foreign Policy that Bukele’s fans swarm trending topics and harass the president’s critics via a technique called astroturfing, or the coordinating of thousands of fake accounts to create the illusion of consensus online. Escorcia said that in 2014, supporters of Mexico’s president at the time, Enrique Peña Nieto, employed a similar tactic.

“These groups in El Salvador remind me of the Mexican pro-Peña Nieto bots, the peñabots, in their early years, before 2014, where their mission was to constantly applaud the president and create attacks on adversaries,” he said.

Escorcia, who has published research on the state of misinformation on Salvadoran social media, said that most of this activity would be immediately shut down by Twitter if it were happening in a bigger country.

“I informed Twitter Latin America about what I had seen in El Salvador, as I have done many times about things that happen in Mexico. I was able to expose the cases that I found, but there was no reaction to it,” he said.

The information landscape in El Salvador is a compressed version of the United States’. According to a national poll conducted earlier this year, the second-most-important news source behind television for Salvadorans is social media. Bukele and prominent members of his party set the day’s online agenda, commonly via hashtags. A prominent Salvadoran media figure named Porfirio Chica, who has run public messaging campaigns for several of the country’s former politicians and helped Bukele with his own presidential campaign, often lays out a series of trending topics for Bukele’s supporters to track.

“The amplification works similarly to [QAnon] in that Nayib Bukele relies on a network of amplifiers or influencers that push his ideas and transform them into the format that will help them stick,” López G. said.

López G. calls Bukele’s publicity-first policymaking style and its symbiotic relationship with whatever’s performing well on Twitter “content governance.” She said Bitcoin, beyond any sort of technological ambitions or real evangelism for decentralized finance, was really just a perfect fit for the president’s enthusiastic online audience of finance bros.

“Because Bitcoin is so hard to explain, he’s given it this allure of coolness,” López G. said. “That’s where I see it compared to Elon Musk, like, ‘This is what makes me cool on the internet with this specific audience that is incredibly vocal and insufferable.’”

Bukele, who took office in June 2019, initially emerged as a somewhat progressive figure. Over the course of his presidency, though, he has become more authoritarian and autocratic while also veering toward a very specific kind of millennial maximalist economic liberalism, something that’s sometimes derided online as “hustle bro” culture.

There’s also an undeniable gendered aspect to Bukele’s allure: He’s the millennial male interpretation of a political strongman. López G. said Bukele’s Twitter army feeds on a very specific kind of misogyny. Pro-Bukele trending topics are guided by huge troll accounts that are regularly suspended for sharing sexist or hateful content—but that return in new guises.

According to Nelson Rauda, a Salvadoran journalist who writes for El Faro, Bukele’s online media network then funnels out into radio and TV. There’s even a network of pro-Bukele YouTubers who help shape his agenda and target journalists who attempt to criticize Bukele’s administration.

“[Bukele’s followers] are usually rather conservative,” Rauda said. “Journalists get accused of being employees of George Soros, advancing the LGBTQ agenda and abortion. It’s all included. I guess that makes them similar to the MAGA [Trump’s slogan Make America Great Again] crowd in a sense, though conservatism runs hard in Latin America.”

Rauda observes that Bukele supporters often use the word “chayoteros,” a Mexican slang term for “sellout journalists,” in an echo of Trump’s beloved “fake news” epithet. It’s not really used in El Salvador, which makes Rauda wonder if Bukele is receiving support from Mexican digital marketing firms or troll centers.

Bukele supporters also swarm social platforms to create counternarratives when things in real life don’t line up to fit Bukele’s perfect online image, like the release earlier this month of the Engel List.

On July 1, the U.S. State Department released a list of over 50 politicians from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who are suspected of corruption. Seven officials from El Salvador were on the list. Bukele’s online army jumped into action.

“They were trying to promote an increase in minimum wage, to draw attention away from it. They held interviews in their controlled media and tweeted about it,” Rauda said.

It was probably this online game of distraction that led Bukele to make economic history with Bitcoin last month. Bukele’s self-coup in early May quickly became the only thing that anyone could talk about in regards to El Salvador—that is, until his Bitcoin announcement weeks later.

It’s possible, however, that Bukele may have overestimated how important Twitter hype is in real life—a mistake made by many Twitter power users over the years. While the Bitcoin news may have played well to his base, a recent poll found that the majority of the country is not happy about cryptocurrency coming to El Salvador. It could be the first crack in Bukele’s “content governance” strategy.

“The online hashtag that went viral was #NadieQuiereBitcoin (nobody wants bitcoin) and the government has had a hard time trying to make the idea stick,” Rauda said. “I haven’t received abuse for publishing Bitcoin articles or opinions, and that’s a lot, because I usually get insulted just for saying good morning!”

The Sept. 7 official start date for Bitcoin becoming legal tender in the country is fast approaching, and Bukele’s administration is offering $30 worth of Bitcoin for any Salvadoran who signs up with the government’s official cryptocurrency app, Chivo, but there are still a lot of unknowns about how it will actually work.

For instance, what happens to the country’s economy when the Bitcoin market dips? In May, after Musk was done playing with it, the market dipped around 30 percent and it still hasn’t recovered.

But as messy as things have been in El Salvador, there are signs that Bukele could be the start of a trend, particularly in Latin America. Young politicians in countries like Mexico, Paraguay, and Panama have all recently tweeted their own laser eyes pictures. And in the United States, Miami’s mayor, in particular, has been extremely focused on turning the city into the U.S. capital for cryptocurrency.

This means we might have more Bukeles soon: millennial influencer populists with slick social media presences who aren’t afraid to use the aspirational chaos of cryptocurrency as a smokescreen for Instagram-ready authoritarianism. The futures of whole nations and their economies may soon be powered by internet hype.