Duterte, the social media president

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President Rodrigo Duterte’s powerful social media influence sustains his continuing popularity in his first year of service. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — President Rodrigo Duterte is a president propelled to power through the force of social media. For better or for worse, he enjoys widespread support through a keyboard army, paid or unpaid, bent on flooding Facebook with comments defending or praising him.

If Barack Obama was dubbed the first social media president in the United States, Duterte may as well hold the same title in the Philippines. He was elected to office by wielding the power of the internet; he enjoys continued popularity because of it.

He may not be as social media savvy in the manner of Obama, who posts constant updates on Facebook, Twitter, and even Snapchat, but Duterte has his army of supporters — including Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson — doing that for him.

In CNN Philippines’ third Town Hall on the Duterte administration — where seven top government officials came together to discuss with the public the president’s first year of service — there were more than a hundred students who flocked to Far Eastern University’s ninth floor auditorium. They were a young and active audience: they shared, in one word, how they described Duterte’s first year of service. Answers ranged from “bias,” unpredictable,” “fierce,” “strong,” “powerful,” “audacious,” “monocrat,” “purge,” “great,” “eye opener,” and even the quite esoteric “sesquipedalian” (meaning long-winded).

Town Hall 2017 Chief Correspondent Pia Hontiveros moderated the discussion on the state of transportation, economy, security, and peace and order under the Duterte administration. Photo by JL JAVIER  

The diversity of the students’ one word reactions reflected the nuance by which they articulated what they thought of the presidency. Most of them gave him a passing rate, starting from 75 to 95. One student, a Moro raised in Marawi, gave him a grade below 50. “Selfish po siya, ‘di siya nakikinig sa sinasabi ng karamihan, sa mababang sektor,” says 19-year-old Hissah, a communication undergraduate. “‘Yung airstrikes sa Marawi, bakit niya ba pinagpapatuloy ‘yung airstrikes doon? Madami na pong nanawagan sa kanya na itigil na po iyon.

Christian, a 23-year-old marketing student, gave Duterte a grade of 80. “Siguro kailangan niyang i-balance ‘yung lahat ng pangangailangan, like the economy, transportation, ‘yung mga pinangako niya before,” he says. “Kasi nahalata naman natin na bumaba ‘yung ekonomiya ng Pilipinas sa pamamalakad niya.

When Town Hall aired live on Facebook at 3 p.m., comments came by the second. Any keen observer of social media will know: a typical comment thread, where the public is invited to comment, will surely include well-wishers from abroad. Virginia Jarin types as Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla justifies how martial law facilitates arrests in Marawi: “Watching from Glassel Park Los Angeles CA. Thank you CNN Philippines!” Elizabeth Pamintuan Rosario watches from Rome, Italy. Doug Pittock watches from Adelaide, Australia. And so on.

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In the heat of a politically-charged comment thread (where some have already ganged up against a certain Bobby Villanueva, who decries the killings under the administration) these oblivious, if not mundane greetings pop up randomly, almost providing comic relief. While inside the auditorium, students listen with rapt attention, there is a delightful barrage of opinionated noisemakers who assert their online dominance with a few taps of a keyboard.

Rightfully so, since a town hall, more than anything, is an open space for the people to talk to the government. In this age the definition of that “space” has meant not only the physical but the ephemeral: the wide world of Facebook likes and Twitter follows, of emojis and live video streaming. When Senator Richard Gordon belatedly joined the panel of government officials, he was welcomed with more fervor online.

Town Hall 2017 CNN Philippines' Senior Correspondent Ina Andolong, with a student from the audience, listens as government officials answer a query about the administration. Photo by JL JAVIER

He quietly slipped through the auditorium, in contrast to the enthusiastic, figurative applause that could be heard ringing through the greetings of some netizens, set in capital letters, for more effect.

Sen. Gordon, when asked about the effort to rebuild Marawi and retain its identity, turned the talk to tourism, a Marawi masterplan, and the need to let go of fear. The audience’s response was not immediate, but online, Joel Paras gushes: “After the insurgencies, Marawi will soon be called WOW MARAWI! THANK YOU SEN GORDON!” (Capital letters his.)

The atmosphere inside the auditorium was akin to that of a classroom: polite, engaged, if not a bit academic. Online, there were suggestions and constructive criticism, yet emotions ruled supreme. The distinction is key not only to understanding offline and online engagement, but also on how audiences online can win an election and sustain support for a widely-criticized official.

Town Hall 2017 Town Hall aired live on Facebook, and invited comments from Filipinos all over the world. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Donald Trump won the U.S. election by optimizing big data and psychometrics, which focuses on personality and psychological traits as reflected by our Facebook likes, among others. Duterte may have unwittingly capitalized on similar data. His was an aggressive social media campaign, led by a few steadfast and influential supporters who captured the frustrations of a disappointed voting population, which drove the campaign forward.

A year ago, Duterte’s social media director Nic Gabunada said in a piece for Campaign Asia: “We used live people, not bots. When we want certain things to trend on Twitter, we have our Twitter warriors who post like anything or keep the same post just to have a quick trend.” Messages were amplified through groups with members ranging from 300 to 800,000.

As Assistant Secretary TJ Batan discussed plans to improve the Philippine National Railway system and addressed concerns on corruption along with Metro Manila Development Authority Chief of Staff Jojo Garcia, Jhune Rayos del Sol emphatically commented online: “Strict enforcement ng traffic rules ang dapat ipatupad hindi 'yung pagkakaroon ng additional coding day!!! Ang hindi ko maintindihan, bakit ang pagbabawas ng sasakyan sa kalsada agad!!!!” (Multiple exclamation points his.)

Town Hall 2017 Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez looks on as Sen. Richard Gordon shakes hands with a member of the audience. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Some offered suggestions of opening government agencies for 24 hours. Online, the comment threads hinted of laughter. The government officials onstage smiled at the idea.

The hour and a half of discussion concluded with Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez emphasizing investments built upon a foundation of friendship with China and Russia, and Budget Secretary Ben Diokno discussing infrastructure projects. The officials stood and mingled with the students. Requisite selfies were taken. Gordon, especially, was popular with the young audience, who milled around him.

Online, comments now came in trickles. Latecomers would have to wait to view the full video. One may now rely only on imagination: What of the commenter from Italy? Does she have a family in the Philippines, or is she permanently based abroad? What of the commenter who supported Gordon? Is he about to finish work delayed?

Town Hall 2017 The idea of a town hall is to gather leaders and the public together, where they can engage each other on issues of governance. Photo by JL JAVIER

There were more or less 500 live commenters, each sharing what they felt about their government: mostly praise, and some constructive criticism. Does this ring loudly offline, as it did online? Will they continue engaging? Will they write to their officials?

Or has it been enough, to have typed a few helpful suggestions on a keyboard?

 

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CNN Philippines Town Hall: The First Year of the Duterte Administration premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m. on CNN Philippines (Free TV: Channel 9; Cable: Channel 14).