BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - In a high-rise office in downtown Buenos Aires, a loose band of twenty-something influencers gather to plan how to propel Javier Milei to the Argentine presidency with TikTok videos, memes - and some help from Elon Musk.
The group, who take the occasional break from filming and strategizing to hoverboard ride around the office, say they are unpaid volunteers who believe in Milei's libertarian ideas and "chainsaw" plan for the country's hard-hit economy. They are helping drive an online battle for votes that has contributed to making Milei the front-runner ahead of the Oct. 22 election.
On TikTok, Instagram and YouTube they share clips of Milei explaining inflation or the peso, anime-style cartoons, and viral videos of Milei, such as one where he tears down sticky notes with the names of ministries he plans to shut, angrily shouting "afuera" - out with you.
"Social media is the new way of doing politics," said Eugenia Rolon, an 21-year-old influencer who describes herself as anti-feminist and fighter of a "cultural battle" against progressive ideas. She has over 100,000 followers on both Instagram and TikTok.
Taking a page out of the playbooks of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, Milei has waged a guerrilla-style campaign online against his more established political rivals. His acid-tongued diatribes and theatrical rallies are easy to edit into soundbites or viral clips.
The economist and former TV pundit, who sports wild hair and leather jackets, has hit a nerve with voters angry at triple-digit inflation, rising poverty and a looming recession. That's put him ahead of Peronist economy minister Sergio Massa and conservative ex-security minister Patricia Bullrich in opinion polls and gave him a shock first-place finish in an open primary vote in August.
He has also gained online fans overseas, including controversial American news pundit Tucker Carlson, Bolsonaro, and social-media-to-Tesla magnate Elon Musk.
"If you look at metrics of interactions like mentions, views and engagement, Milei is always setting the agenda," said Diego Corbalan, a data expert who collaborates with social media analytics firm SciData Argentina.
MEME WARS BEGIN
Milei's success online has sparked a fightback from Massa and Bullrich supporters, who say the libertarian's policies are radical, impossible to implement or even dangerous.
"To be heard you have to speak in the same language as the people you are trying to debate with," said 28-year-old Jeremias Madrazo, an influencer who has satirized Milei's proposals on YouTube.
Madrazo recently went viral after he appeared on television lampooning Milei's proposal to dollarize the economy. That would help amplify his voice beyond his own followers, said Madrazo: "It's a message that can appear on timelines everywhere."
The hashtag #JavierDelay, a play on the candidate's surname that pokes fun at Milei's plans as being unfeasible, also recently trended on social media platform X.
Massa and Bullrich both outgun Milei in terms of followers on X. But on TikTok, popular among younger people, Milei has 1.4 million followers, well ahead of Massa's 43,500 and Bullrich's 215,000.
"The message on TikTok spreads faster, reaches many more people," said Inaki Gutierrez, who manages Milei's account on the video-driven platform.
Massa's and Bullrich's teams did not respond to interview requests by Reuters for this story.
Madrazo said the other candidates needed to find ways to compete with Milei's brash message, which includes wielding a chainsaw, mocking his rivals and insulting the Argentine pope.
"What's still lacking is a new narrative, a better counter-narrative," he said.
'I DON'T HAVE 7 MILLION TROLLS'
One of the masterminds behind Milei's digital strategy is Fernando Cerimedo, who has said he worked with Bolsonaro on his campaign and whose social media accounts were suspended after he falsely claimed Brazil's 2022 presidential election was stolen.
Cerimedo said social media support for Milei was organic, and played down previous comments he made to local media that he had used AI-powered trolls.
"Many people said Javier was going to do poorly because what happened on social media was my trolls," Cerimedo said. "Well, I don't have 7 million trolls, much less 7 million who vote."
Milei got just over 7 million votes in the August primary, the most for a single candidate and ahead of the overall ruling Peronist bloc and Together for Change conservative opposition.
Earlier this month, divisive U.S. commentator Carlson traveled to Argentina to interview Milei, posting favorably about him on X and saying he was "probably the next president of Argentina." Musk criticized government overspending in his quote tweet of the video, an apparent reference to Argentina's deep fiscal deficit and Milei's plan for rapid cuts to spending.
Musk and X did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Agustin Romo, 27, a legislative candidate for Buenos Aires province with Milei's Libertad Avanza party, informally coordinates the social media team. Milei's direct style was why he was picking up followers at home and abroad, said Romo.
"These are people who are contributing their grain of sand where they can, so that Argentina changes and Javier Milei becomes president," Romo said.
(Reporting by Anna-Catherine Brigida and Candelaria Grimberg; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)