During the third presidential debate last month, as candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump traded scowls and playground-appropriate insults on a stage in Las Vegas, some of the most searing critique came not from the U.S., but from Spanish and Arabic speakers tweeting from abroad.
Clinton and Trump, one Spanish speaker observed, seemed an awful lot like “old tamale selling women hitting each other with sandals.” The debate, an Eritrean Al Jazeera news anchor said, resembled Egyptian comedy more than it did any sort of political debate.
When Republican nominee Donald Trump declared that it would require an amped up effort to rid the United States of drug-dealing “bad hombres” from south of the border, even Mexican actor Gael García Bernal weighed in.
This election, far and away, has been the most multilingual in U.S. history. With multiple Latino candidates, the Republican primary saw punches traded in Spanish on the debate stage for the very first time. Clinton regularly tweets in Spanish, and Trump too has half-heartedly and offensively tried to cater to the Latino vote. Both Clinton and Trump’s misguided views of Latino people have spawned multilingual viral hashtag campaigns like #NotMyAbuela, #BadHombres and #Hispandering. While he was still in the running, Bernie Sanders tweeted campaign messages in not only Spanish, but Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.
But it’s not just multilingual American voters weighing in on the election cycle on social media. The internet is not one global place, but many diverse regional locations. And places like Spanish Twitter or Arabic Facebook can offer an understanding of what the rest of the world thinks about America.
In an effort to glean such insight, the social media translation startup Meedan partnered with Global Voices and PRI to translate Spanish and Arabic tweets throughout the election. During the debates and the party conventions, volunteers for the project have undertaken 1,768 translations: 1,132 from Spanish, 588 from Arabic and a handful from other languages.
Overall, they found that tweet users in the rest of the world share the surprise, concern and general befuddlement that many Americans have expressed over the rise of Trump. These tweeters have also found it shocking to watch America descend into populist chaos.
“A lot of people from other countries on Spanish Twitter have always believed that political madness happens in their own countries, in developing countries,” said Robert Valencia, a Global Voices journalist and Spanish language translation editor for the project. “They see the political mess in the U.S. and cannot believe what’s happening. Until now, they viewed the U.S. as impervious to populism. They want to know how a serious society like the U.S. ends up with these two candidates.”
Spanish tweeters compared Trump to Latin American leaders like Hugo Chávez, Enrique Peña Nieto and Vicente Fox. Arabic tweeters saw parallels between Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.
“Tweeters in countries that have experienced totalitarianism are saying to U.S. voters, ‘Be careful because Trump has all of the characteristics of a dictator,'” Valencia told me.
Tom Trewinnard, one of the project’s Arabic language translation editors, said that tweeters in the Middle East saw America’s choice between Clinton and Trump as an echo of Egypt’s 2012 elections.
“The problem of the choice of bad and worse is very familiar,” he said. “On Arabic Twitter, there’s a lot of dry knowing humor.”
Spanish tweeters attacked Trump’s treatment of women with #NiUnaMenos, a hashtag campaign against femicide in Argentina. The below tweet, for example, affixes the hashtag to a quote from Hillary Clinton arguing that Trump shouldn’t be president because he is a “sexual predator of women.”
And Colombian tweeters see the reasons behind Trump’s rise as similar to the forces behind their own failed peace agreement last month. This tweet, for example, argues that Trump talking about hate is as illogical as former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez talking peace. “The world is upside down,” it concludes.
Around the world, people worried how the election of either Clinton or Trump might impact their own nations and others. During the second debate, many tweeted about the volatility of the Mexican peso in response to the debates. On Arabic Twitter, tweeters expressed concern over Clinton’s record in the Middle East and the actions she might take there as president.
Some even felt Trump would be better for the Middle East than Clinton, despite Trump’s history of bashing Muslims.
One of the biggest takeaways, perhaps, is just how closely the rest of the world is watching—and worrying—about the U.S. election. Our politics and policies have wide-ranging reach all around the world. Arabic, Spanish and English Twitter are different places in so many ways, but they share an obsession over the America’s insane politics.
Oh yeah, and they would like our politicians to step it up with the translation: