BOGOTA, Colombia — The memes flood the group chats throughout the day. A politician makes a playful wink. One politician slaps another city council member. 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. Anyone can make and send a sticker using a photo, video or an app. 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. Two candidates are standing to bring about radical changes. One, Senator Gustavo Petro, is a former guerrilla who would be the country’s first leftist president. The other, businessman Rodolfo Hernandez, 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 Guzman, 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.
That’s especially true for Hernandez, 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 Hernandez, 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.
Danny Miranda, creative director for Hernandez’s campaign, said the TikToks and WhatsApp stickers cater to an audience that’s tired of traditional political messages and campaign rhetoric. The campaign’s creative director, Danny Miranda, said that they are looking for fun and laughter, as well as a candidate who doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
But by sharing the videos and stickers of Hernandez — even if they’re making fun of him — Colombians are giving him publicity. Some WhatsApp users may be sharing campaign materials, even though they don’t know where the sticker came from.
“When the content gets back to us from an aunt or a relative, that’s when you know it worked,” Miranda said.
Cristina Velez, director of the nonprofit Linterna Verde, which researches online public opinion, said the “meme-ification” of Hernandez has drawn in people who would otherwise not be paying attention to politics. These stickers can be used in other political campaigns worldwide.
“It’s a new way to knock on the door of people who had the door shut,” Velez 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 makes stickers but these look more like campaign material. Giovanny Abadia, a member of Petro’s communications team, said many are aimed at capturing Petro’s message of the “politics of love.”
For Guzman, creating and sharing stickers has been a way to relieve the anxiety of analyzing a tense and unpredictable election cycle. They’ve been so well-received that Guzman has started WhatsApp groups with hundreds to distribute them.
Some are simply photos and direct quotations from politicians, such as the time a right-wing senator was recorded saying “we either win or we all go to crap.” Some sound more like something that a politician would say. For example, Hernandez’ stickers show him smiling and telling his rival to push his government program up the rectum.
There’s Petro appearing to pray in a church, despite having said he doesn’t practice Catholic rituals. The sticker reads, “Pretend you are praying, pretend that you’re praying, pretend to be praying, pretend to prayer.” There’s Hernandez’s gun-toting 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 Hernandez 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. The video was not shared by the campaign, but it allowed the TikTok user to access the candidate’s filming. Within hours, Guzman had made a sticker of the cross on Hernandez’s chest, with the words “Someone get me out of here.”
For Evelin Mosquera Ceballos, a 28-year-old lawyer from Cali, Guzman’s stickers have kept her up-to-date on the latest shock or scandal. She searches the internet for answers every time she receives one. In an election season in which both candidates are unhappy, it’s both instructive and amusing. 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 Hernandez’s wife standing next to him as he spoke to reporters. To combat the drug trade, Hernandez 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. An empty stare.
Mosquera couldn’t resist. The next day, she created a sticke