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In Bogotá, Politics is Anything but Usual

WHILE CONDUCTING RESEARCH IN HIS NATIVE COLOMBIA THIS SUMMER, Hernando Rojas PhD’05 found himself in a new, exhilarating position: talking into a camera on the set of a national television news program. “I was basically trying to forecast the role that new communication technologies will have in the forthcoming presidential election in Colombia,” says Rojas, an assistant professor of life sciences communications. Rojas is uniquely qualified to provide that kind of analysis. For the past five years, he has been monitoring levels of media consumption and community involvement in Colombia through a series of biennial surveys. The newest data he’s collected, which show significant hikes in Internet usage and civic engagement since 2006, will be published this fall. But his expertise also has him in demand with both political operatives and the media in his home country. Leading up to the Colombian elections next spring, Rojas will work with El Tiempo, one of Colombia’s largest media conglomerates, crunching the company’s monthly poll numbers and sharing his analysis through television, radio and newspaper outlets. “We’re going to try to explain why the population thinks the way it does,” he says. “Typically, this kind of analysis would end up in an academic journal somewhere. We’re going to try to bring it to mainstream media in language that people can understand.” Rojas’s media role will give him access to mounds of data to support his academic research, which seeks to understand how Internet use leads to real-world civic engagement. He first considered a direct model, whereby people who express themselves online—through e-mails and posting comments on blogs and news web sites—go on to join political or civic organizations. Rojas discovered, however, that there is an intermediary step, where these individuals try to convince their friends, family and colleagues to get involved in various causes online. Only then do they join more-traditional organizations. The spring elections may offer the first test of just how powerful that mobilization can be. “As happened in the Obama campaign in the United States, this is probably going to be the first election (in Colombia) where the Internet will be decisive,” Rojas says. “Grassroots web sites and online social networking are going to affect the course and outcome of this campaign.