POLITICS

Does social media really matter in the 2016 Philippine elections?

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In the Philippines, social media has become an instantly gratifying capsule of discussion on the national elections. What is its unlikely role in swaying political campaigns and the people?

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I once sat in a political science class where the professor decried the right to free speech as inutile. According to him, only those who controlled the means of production of speech, such as the owners of newspapers, printing presses, and broadcast stations, could effectively make their views known and actually affect the public discourse.

That was back in 1996, long before I — or most Filipinos, for that matter — heard of Geocities, the website that allowed users to create personal webpages. When I entered law school a year later, my professor in constitutional law already had his own evidently self-published webpage.

We who are online are now all publishers, participants in the world’s most popular essay-writing contest: that which takes place every day on Facebook. Pre-Internet, you had to join a political party or go to the post office to mail a letter to a newspaper editor to ensure that your political views were heard by somebody other than your friends. These days, the level of effort needed to publish your own stump speech or oracular warnings for thousands to see is minimal. Being stuck in traffic is usually incentive and opportunity enough.

But who exactly are we kidding, or more hopefully, affecting? In 2014, according to statistics maintained by the World Bank, only 39.7 percent of all Filipinos actually had access to the Internet. Of course, that online population did not entirely consist of Internet users who were of voting age, were actual registered voters, or had their own social media accounts. According to one poll conducted by The Standard on Jan. 9 among a sample of registered voters, only 29 percent of respondents had Internet access, while only 24 percent had social media accounts.

So, those viral potty-mouth videos, those clever infographics, those passive-aggressive ironic tweets that burn, those crowd photos Photoshopped to invoke Nuremberg? They would, at most, reach only one-fourth of those who are likely to vote in the elections. Contrast this with the higher number of Filipinos who view the nightly news on TV, or those who prefer the tabloids over the broadsheets.

Social media has become a convenient way for traditional media to take the pulse of the nation, even if the subjects skew toward the more affluent with way more idle time on their hands.

It is a fair assumption as well that social media usage would be more prevalent among those who belong to the rich and middle-class social strata, as opposed to the masa. Internet access in the Philippines remains among the most expensive in Asia. Since the bulk of Philippine voters are also those who cannot afford Internet access, the impact of social media on the elections is disproportionately higher among those in the upper tiers of the pyramid. The concerns of and the appeals to the ABC crowd significantly differ from those associated with the DE group, whose members would be less secure in their footing in this economy.

If one were to do an exit poll on election day, asking people if their votes were influenced by any post, tweet, or news story shared on social media, it is unlikely that more than half of the respondents would say yes.

The presidential campaigns are certainly conscious of these limitations of social media. It is expensive to run for president; proper allocation of resources toward earning the biggest rewards is key. Since I belong to the demographic that is online, active on social media, and within that ABC group, I did not expect any of the campaigns to go out of their way to cater to my own tastes. In that respect, the campaigns did not disappoint.

It would be delusional, though, to conclude that social media has been ineffectual in shaping the 2016 presidential race. Far from it. Even if social media does not reach enough people, it does reach and affect the right people, those who have the power to shape the narrative of this election campaign. This is because most of those who work in traditional media also belong to that unique ABC crowd with their social media accounts.

The evidence has been there for a long time, in the TV news broadcasts. Not a night goes by without a broadcaster mentioning the terms “social media” and “netizens,” followed by screencaps of tweets or Facebook posts that have been conveniently hashtagged for easier discovery by the network’s researchers. Social media has become a convenient way for traditional media to take the pulse of the nation, even if the subjects skew toward the more affluent with way more idle time on their hands.

Even so, social media posts are not useful to traditional media as space fillers for the nightly news broadcasts. Key events in this election campaign have actually been scooped by social media, long before the word even makes its way to traditional media. One example: the instantly notorious anti-Duterte TV ad featuring children expressing shock at all of the gambling. Days before these ads were aired on the networks, they were available for viewing on the Facebook page maintained by the senator and vice-presidential candidate Antonio Trillanes IV, who was identified as the funder of the TV ad. Granted, the viewership for the Facebook page of Trillanes is much smaller than that for “Ang Probinsyano.”

If one were to do an exit poll on election day, asking people if their votes were influenced by any post, tweet, or news story shared on social media, it is unlikely that more than half of the respondents would say yes.

A more fascinating example was the emergence of a video of Rodrigo Duterte at a Quezon City rally, in which he “quipped” that he was angered upon seeing the corpse of a raped Australian missionary because, “dapat mayor ang mauna.” The entirety of Duterte’s speech had first been uploaded on a Facebook page maintained by a supporter of the Davao City mayor. Within days, the offending excerpt had been clipped and packaged for easy sharing and maximum outrage, by a YouTube user who went by the handle Beatboxer ng Pinas. The clip was first shared online on the evening of April 16, a Saturday. It very quickly became the choice bread broken and shared on an easy Sunday morning. By about noon of April 17, the opposing campaigns of Jejomar Binay, Grace Poe, and Mar Roxas had already issued statements denouncing the mayor’s perverse remarks. The pace of social media virality has forced political campaigns into unholy Sabbaths. However, even our 24-hour TV news networks tend to be laid back on ordinary Sundays. The video was mentioned, but without the accompanying hysteria with which it was greeted online. The headlines of the tabloids on April 18 were more enervated — one of those rare instances where social media outrage dictated the front pages of the Abantes and Bulgars.

Still, contrary perhaps to the expectations of those in possession of good graces, the “rape joke” has not derailed the candidacy of Duterte, who remains poised to win the presidency if the surveys are to be believed. Social media may have been responsible for crystallizing a defining fatal issue against a politician, enabling a caricature played up in traditional media. But it has not changed the direction of the country, failing as it did to thwart the candidacy of one who, even before the video emerged, was already deemed by some as morally disqualified from the presidency.

Interestingly, Duterte does not even have an official campaign website, apart from an official Facebook page which I suspect he barely checks. His throwback image, that of a grandfather who never did take to the Internet, has not prevented or dampened his general popularity among the online set. That online caricature of Duterte has cast him as the candidate dictatorial enough to shut down the Internet. If he wins, the voters may have, wittingly or unwittingly, called for their own censorship. If he wins, the current libertarian atmosphere of Philippine social media will be radically altered, even if the growing trend has been toward increasing Internet access for the people.

Editor's note: The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CNN Philippines.

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Oliver X.A. Reyes is a lawyer and writer. He is a co-founder of Democracy.Net.PH, which drafted the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom.