Two political outliers claim seats in the European Parliament by harnessing the viral power of social media

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — One is a wildly popular, seemingly cheerful YouTuber from Cyprus. The other is a brash, fringe figure from Spain’s far right who rails against illegal immigrants. They are both new Members of the European Parliament thanks to their clever use of video-based social media.

YouTuber and TikToker Fidias Panayiotou is a 24-year-old with no political experience and no formal higher education, who rode the wave of his online popularity – and public anger at the country’s political elites – all the way to one of the six seats running Cyprus have been assigned. in the European Parliament.

He says he will continue to use social media “as my greatest weapon” when he formally takes on his new job as a lawmaker in Brussels and Strasbourg, France.

Commonly addressed by his first name, Fidias secured a remarkable one in five votes cast in Sunday’s elections without the support of any political party – until now considered the single most important thing to get elected in any political contest also in Cyprus. .

Fidias sent shockwaves through the Cypriot political system by running a campaign in which he took no political positions, made no promises or even presented a program for his term in office.

“It now seems that people are not hungry for political positions, but for real people who don’t lie (but) tell the truth,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in English, the language he uses for most of his messages used.

Riding the wave

While Fidias avoided strong political positions and was already widely known for his online rants, Spaniard Alvise Pérez was largely unknown until he took to his Instagram and Telegram rants against the perceived dangers of immigration. He also denounced claims of widespread corruption among politicians to win not one, but three of Spain’s 61 seats in the European Parliament.

The common factor between the Alvise and Fidias is that they both hit the mark thanks to their mastery of social media to gain support among youth, many of whom may have been indifferent to politics.

“This is not just a Spanish phenomenon or just about a YouTuber in Cyprus,” Steven Forti, a professor of history at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and an expert on the far right, told the AP.

Forti said the creation of “digital subcultures” around unorthodox candidates had been crucial to the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and, more recently, Javier Milei in Argentina, as well as far-right figures across Europe. But this dynamic has been amplified by increasingly video-based trends on social media.

“The newer types of digital platforms like TikTok and Instagram have clearly accelerated the fragmentation of politics,” Forti said, because they help the far right achieve its two main goals: spreading their ideas very quickly and making themselves appear as regular, normal people.

Provocative fun

Fidias has increased his popularity over the past five years with scandalous video posts in which he spends mountains of money in Vietnam, stays in an airport for free for a week and buries himself alive for 10 days.

With more than 5 million followers across all social media platforms, Fidias says that online footprint served him well when he decided to throw his hat into the election ring. He said he learned to play the social media game through trial and error and to understand what makes videos go “viral” online.

“At first I didn’t like what I saw in politics. So if you don’t like what you see, I think you should become the change you want to see,” Fidias said.

By his own admission, his online popularity gave only a segment of Cypriot voters – who are deeply disillusioned by the perceived corruption of a party system that has operated for decades on the basis of favors for votes – an outlet to express and chastise their anger. the political caste of the country.

“It would be a lie to say it was just social media. I think it was the biggest factor, but it was a magnifying glass to who I really am,” he said.

Nicholas Papadopoulos, leader of the centrist Democratic Party, which lost its only seat in the European Parliament, told Cypriot state radio on Tuesday that the vote clearly sent a “message of disappointment, of protest, of despair and anger” aimed at entire political power of the country. system.

Political analyst Haridimos Tsoukas echoed Papadopoulos, saying that one in five Cypriot voters wanted to make their point by “sticking their tongue out at the political system, not only in protest, but also to express their disgust in a ostentatious way.”

The party is over

Alvise, a pseudonym, also successfully tapped into an irreverent atmosphere. It ran under the name “The Party Is Over” (“Se acabó la fiesta”) and with a logo of a cartoon squirrel wearing a Guy Fawkes mask that has long been associated with various so-called anti-system movements. Fawkes was an Englishman who attempted to bombard the British Parliament on November 5, 1605.

Forti said Alvise, like Milei, wanted to connect young people by projecting an image of both entertaining and rebellious. But he warns that the funny veneer is designed to convey a harsh message.

Alvise calls himself an admirer of El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, and says he would like to build a mega-prison like the one the Central American leader is now building. Many of his posts aim to stoke fears about immigration, even as the country’s economic authorities say more foreign workers are needed to keep the public pension system afloat.

“A field full of tomatoes now requires more paperwork to leave the farm than an illegal immigrant needs to enter the country,” Alvise told a screaming crowd after “The Party Is Over” won more than 4% of votes cast had won in Spain and registered. 800,000 votes.

Alvise has shocked Spain’s far-right Vox party, which won six seats in the election but would likely have done much better if Alvise had not launched his rogue government.

Direct democracy?

While Alvise’s rhetoric points to a slide toward illiberal rule, Fidias sees his unexpected triumph as a democracy turning toward a more direct connection between voters and those they elect. He said social media empowers citizens by giving them a real, direct voice, “not just to follow what the TV says.”

“They can comment on the video, they can share it, they can make a video and comment on it. So it is a kind of more direct democracy,” he said of his modus operandi.


Wilson reported from Barcelona, ​​Spain.