'The internet was a marketplace of ideas, but now it's a battlefield'

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Despite a political shakeup that finds him in the minority, Senator Bam Aquino speaks up and stresses the value of dissent in the social media age. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The first time I saw Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV up close, he was sitting quietly in front of a stage set for a fashion show. He would later walk the runway as one of the show’s “models,” along with Senators Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri and Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, in the name of charity. While cheerful and welcoming to greetings and handshakes, he declined to be interviewed.

That was August 2016. It was a different day months later in Far Eastern University, where Aquino had just finished giving a talk on entrepreneurship for young college students in the Manila Mini Auditorium on the ninth floor. Emerging from large double doors, he strode, with purpose, to a small room across, sitting and smiling expectantly, waiting for my questions.

Here are some facts: Aquino is the youngest senator in the Philippine Senate as of the moment. Out of all his advocacies, he is best known for championing social entrepreneurship. One of his more popular projects was Hapinoy, an anti-poverty program that centered on micro-financing and micro-enterprise support. He bears an uncanny likeness to democracy icon Benigno Aquino, Jr., even more so than the latter’s own son, former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, his cousin. Fun fact: he also takes a keen interest on cameras, which was evident from his curious questions about the photographer’s gear after the interview.

Now here are some opinions: as a member of the Senate minority, Aquino, like his other colleagues, continues to work silently for his own causes. He has been consistent with his own stands, speaking up on the illegality of the cases against Senator Leila De Lima and pushing for the Senate to hear the testimony of Davao Death Squad whistleblower Arthur Lascañas. He’s an efficient and articulate speaker, and in a political atmosphere muddled with scandals, inconsistencies, and controversies, to hear him speak is quite refreshing. But again: that’s an opinion. To distinguish between fact and opinion is a key topic in this brief chat with Aquino, who, while seemingly relegated to the backseat in the Senate’s minority, has been vocal in airing his dissent — even while it may fall to deaf ears.

bam-aquino-2.jpg "Tanggap na rin natin that there will be some issues that will be unpopular, where you’ll be met with a lot of trolling," says Senator Bam Aquino. "But if you feel that this is what the country needs, or if you feel we’re not going in the right direction, then it’s your duty to speak up." Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

As CNN Philippines Life caught up with Aquino for a nine-minute interview, he shares how it is being a member of the minority in this administration; what he thinks of trolls; how he keeps speaking up; and how he has learned to turn online criticism into something productive. Here are a few edited excerpts from the interview.

You’ve been speaking up a lot as a member of the minority in Senate. In this age where dissent is seemingly discouraged, how do you keep speaking up?

Good question. My take has always been: you’re elected to your position not just to be popular, to go along with the flow, but to really stand up and be firm about your beliefs and your ideals. If sometimes that requires that you dissent,  or sometimes requires that you disagree, it’s your duty to do that. I think we were all elected because people want us to speak out. At times, we would agree with the administration, at times, we would disagree. Now, if disagreement is frowned upon, so be it. It is our duty to uphold the democracy and be true to your mandate that if you perceive things to be wrong or aren’t going well, you need to speak out.

Definitely, as a representative of the people, you have to represent also that alternative idea, that alternative perspective.

Has it become challenging for you to push for your advocacies?

Well, ako kasi … yes, it has become challenging. Especially online, when you’re met with a lot of trolling. I think it’s just par for the course these days. It’s the new reality we live in. So I think tanggap na rin natin that there will be some issues that will be unpopular, where you’ll be met with a lot of trolling. But if you feel that this is what the country needs, or if you feel we’re not going in the right direction, then it’s your duty to speak up.

"We used to say that the internet is a marketplace of ideas, now it’s a battlefield already. And the difficulty with being in a battlefield is that maraming casualties. And sometimes the casualties are democracy, good ideas that need space to be able to come out."

Do you read posts online about you?

‘Di na.

Before?

Before I used to, especially in 2013. But I find that if you read everything, it will really affect your ability to speak out as bravely as you want. It’s hard to speak na rin online. It’s hard to sift online what comes from real people and what comes from trolls. So what I do is our office tries to condense and analyse things, and if there are issues that come out genuinely, we try to address them. If it’s obviously coming from trolls already, then their role is to really … kumontra whatever you say. It’s very difficult for you to make your policies and statements based on what the trolls would say.

But it’s good that you welcome those comments … albeit it’s condensed already.

Actually, this is the sad part — we’re open to people disagreeing with our bills. In fact, most of the time, when they disagree with us, they offer solutions. And eventually the policies become better. You’ll be able to tell naman if the people are genuine. ‘Pag sinasabing, si senator, dapat … you should also look at this, there’s a blind spot, there are things you can also look at, maybe this might have a detrimental effect on this particular sector, modify it … we actually take a lot of cues from the online world. This is what we try to condense, what we try to incorporate in our bills, especially our policies. To a certain extent, it’s sort of crowdsourced already. Pero kapag ‘yung comment, ‘Ay wala kang kwenta, anong alam mo,’ kapag ganyan, obviously ‘di na ‘yan constructive. If you spend a lot of time looking at those negative comments, it’s really going to affect the way you work.

bam-aquino-3.jpg As a lawmaker, Senator Bam Aquino is best known for championing social entrepreneurship. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

I’d like to think that a lot of our policies are still crowdsourced, na if merong mga nira-raise na issues or changes, our office can analyse it and be responsive. But in terms of responding to each and every troll, I don’t think it’s responsive anymore.

Do you remember any particular comment that got to you?

Wala na eh. At this point, talo ka na eh. If it gets to you, ikaw ‘yung talo. And I think largely, people already perceive it that way. People already know that there are close-minded groups on all political sides, and before when we used to say that the internet is a marketplace of ideas, now it’s a battlefield already. And the difficulty with being in a battlefield is that maraming casualties. And sometimes the casualties are democracy, good ideas that need space to be able to come out. And it’s really unfortunate. Maybe three or four years ago, you would look at the internet as a marketplace of ideas where people would disagree with each other and debate. Unlike now, where you have people closing doors on each other.

It’s really changed the way you create policy, the way you reach out to your constituency, but that’s the way it is. You just have to find ways to navigate through.

How do you address the immediacy by which some citizens online would label any kind of dissent as ‘dilawan’? Especially since you’re an Aquino.

It’s unfortunate because in that case, you refuse already to listen to other perspectives. Truth of the matter, wala naman talagang monolithic group pushing out these ideas, no, to be branded as such. The way I see it, if you want to argue, let’s argue on facts, let’s argue on the basis of the policies. Arguing kung kanino galing ‘yung idea … it’s not worth going into.  Kasi as a policymaker, you have to keep an open mind eh. Just because galing sa ibang partido ‘yung idea, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But if the attack or response is, I don’t like your idea because of who you are, your political party, or the color you wear on your t-shirt, there’s already something wrong with that. And I think people, if they haven’t already, will eventually learn to sift through what are genuine comments and criticism, and comments that are meant to malign or shoot down any type of alternative ideas.

"You’re elected to your position not just to be popular, to go along with the flow, but to really stand up and be firm about your beliefs and your ideals. If sometimes that requires that you dissent, or sometimes requires that you disagree, it’s your duty to do that."

What advice would you give to young people who are navigating their way online in this political climate?

You just have to be more discerning. Don’t take our word for it — even ‘yung galing sa politiko. Have the effort to analyse things further, to really check on facts, ‘wag lang tayo tanggap ng tanggap on everything we see here, or see and hear on the internet. We owe it to ourselves and the country to be more discerning. That’s for everyone no.

That’s one. Two is, allow for safe spaces where people can disagree without necessarily hating on each other. Don’t devolve to name-calling or using expletives against each other. If we’re able to have those spaces, if we can stop ourselves from devolving to name-calling, and if we’re more discerning, then maybe we can back to a place where the internet is that marketplace of ideas rather than the battlefield it is now.