Social media influence on Philippines' internet-driven elections

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Commission on Elections (Comelec) Spokesperson James Jimenez said it himself, the 2016 presidential election was the first and probably the beginning of the Philippines' internet-driven elections.

But back then, no one declared social media expenses in their Statement of Contributions and Expenses (SOCE) submitted after the elections.

While Comelec does not prohibit paid and free online endorsements for those running this May, the commission issued a set of guidelines through Comelec Resolution 10488 in monitoring how much was spent in creating and promoting online campaign materials. This is to ensure a level playing field for all candidates – whether or not they can afford an expensive campaign.

"For social media spending, we are monitoring basically at the end because we have the means to find out which ads came out and to whom they should be attributed," Jimenez said. "As it is now, you've already seen reports of people spending prematurely, right? So kung ganyan na nag 'yung disparity you are only reporting a small fraction of what you actually spent tapos di mo pa irereport and ginastos mo sa social (media) during the campaign period, di ba sobra sobra namang libreng gastos yan?"

[TRANSLATION: "For social media spending, we are monitoring basically at the end because we have the means to find out which ads came out and to whom they should be attributed. As it is now, you've already seen reports of people spending prematurely, right? So, if there's that disparity and you are only reporting a small fraction of what you actually spent and you would still fail to report social media expenses during the campaign period, wouldn't that be too much free expenses?]

The new resolution includes internet in what constitutes an election propaganda "subject to the limitation on authorized expenses of candidates and parties, observation of truth in advertising, and to the supervision and regulation by the Comelec."

This means social media expenses are included in the campaign spending limit set by the Comelec which allows a candidate running under a political party to spend a maximum of ₱3 per voter, and ₱5 per voter for independent candidates and party list groups.

With 63,665,923 voters both based in the Philippines and overseas, 2019 national candidates may spend a maximum of ₱190.9 million for those who have political parties, and up to ₱318.3 million for independent candidates and party-lists.

Low compliance

Comelec Resolution 10488 also requires candidates to submit Uniform Resouce Locator (URL) or links to their Facebook pages and blog sites.

While internet users have been bombarded by obvious candidate endorsements over Facebook and Twitter, only 29 out of 62 senatorial candidates have submitted their URLs to Comelec as of March 25. Meanwhile, roughly half or just 65 out of 134 party lists and 1,088 local candidates running this May have complied.

Despite low compliance, Comelec said it could still trace the campaign spending of those who did not submit links.

"If a campaign site is behaving like a campaign outlet, then we will look closer into it. Ultimately, whether or not they submit these URLs, we will be able to trace the ads in their name," Jimenez said.

While Comelec earlier said they only have 10 warm bodies assigned to monitor social media pages, internet companies have committed to help.

"They can help us by identifying the ads and telling us and how much each ads costs.So ibabangga natin ang information na yun sa claim ng candidate [We would compare the rates with what the candidates claim they have spent]. If the candidate says I only spent one million on social ads but the information we get they put out 10 million peso worth of ads, that can be a problem. That can be the grounds now for an election offense," Jimenez added.

Tapping social media influencers

Under the new Comelec resolution, social media influencers are referred to as "contractors." Comelec expects candidates to include payments for their services in the SOCE.

But "Miggy," a social media influencer based in Manila told CNN Philippines some political candidates might get away with big internet-based spending – at least for payments to online personalities's endorsements – because there are no paper trails.

"Wala naman talagang kontrata. Pero kasi itong mga nagpapapromote na 'to, talagang bantay sarado nila kung talagang nagpost ka," Miggy said.

"So ang gagawin nila, hindi kasi sila agad magbabayad. Since meron silang mga inassign na parang icheck 'yung mag post. Titingnan muna nila kung talagang ginawa nila ang napag-usapan niyo saka mo makukuha ang compensation," he added. 

[TRANSLATION: There is really no contract involved. But these people will closely monitor your posts. They will not pay you immediately. Instead, they will assign someone to check your posts to see if you did what you have agreed upon before giving your compensation.]

Although anyone is free to express support for candidates, Jimenez insisted Comelec would still find out whether or not the endorsement is paid.

"Again we are tracking the URLs and if a particular website or a particular blog is behaving like a campaign outlet, then the person behind it or person drives that blog should be ready to show their records," said Jimenez.

The offers to social media influencer 'Miggy'

Miggy, not his real name, has around 20,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram. He was separately tapped by two opposing senatorial candidates' campaign teams at the start of the campaign season.

They offered him money in exchange of his endorsements on Instagram and Facebook.

It was easy money. He could earn up to as much as ₱10,000 in just one post.

But there's a caveat: He just can't simply voice out what he really thinks of the candidate. His post should look and sound personal, so his followers would think he really endorsed the candidate on his own will.

The campaign team will give him guidelines on how to do it.

"May guidelines kasi hindi mo naman pwedeng ipost yun na parang ibinigay lang sayo. Dapat ikaw mismo ang nagpropromote na ganun pagkakilala mo sa politician," Miggy said. "Medyo nakakatempt siya… like in a day magpopost ka ng ganito, nakaupo ka lang kikita ka ng ₱1,000 to ₱2,000."

[TRANSLATION: There are guidelines. you cannot post about a politician as if it was just handed out to you. You should make it seem like you are promoting the candidate based on how you know him/her. It is really tempting … like I will just post this in a day, and I will immediately earn ₱1,000 to ₱2,000 while sitting.]

But despite the lure of handsome payment, Miggy turned down the jobs. He personally thinks the two candidates he was asked to endorse do not fit the bill of a true public servant. As an influencer, he wanted to set an example.

"Kahit papa'no, 'pag nilabas mo, parang binili din ang boto mo," Miggy said. "Kasi botante ako e. Parang di ko magawa na magpromote ako ng candidate, pero at the end of the day during the elections di naman siya iboboto ko."

[TRANSLATION: At some point, posting about the candidate would still feel I sold my vote. I am a voter and I could not promote a candidate whom I will not vote for at the end of the day.]

How much does social media promotion cost?

Advertisement charges on top social media sites Facebook, Twitter and Instagram vary depending on the number of users the client want to reach, and the contents and type of promotion.

An advertising agency handling social media promotions told CNN Philippines, the running rate for content creation and promotion ranges from ₱15,000 up to ₱35,000 monthly per account. This will reach 60,000 to 100,000 users. They will charge higher if the client wants to add another social media account or reach more internet users.

But, is social media campaign worth spending for?

University of the Philippines Political Science Professor Rogelio Alicor Panao said social media sites are good for exposure: to introduce candidates, raise issues for debates and highlight campaign platforms.

But social media campaign alone is not the ticket to a win.

As an example, Panao said there are senatorial candidates who have been active and popular on social media, but still do not make it to the top 12 senatorial candidates survey. Surveys, he said, are more reliable gauge on the candidates' winnability compared to social media popularity.

"Sa ating karanasan pag pumasok ka sa surveys, malaki ang chance mo manalo pagkatapos ng eleksyon, hindi pa ganun ang guarantee sa social media," Panao said.

[TRANSLATION: In our experience, if you were included in the surveys, you have a big chance to win after the elections, but social media does not guarantee like that yet.]

Candidates should also consider the demographics of social media users. Pulse Asia survey in December 2018 shows 47 percent of the population have internet access. A separate annual digital report for 2019 released by We Are Social and Hootsuite states there are 76 million Filipino social media users.

But Panao emphasized not all Filipinos have internet access and not all social media users are voters.

"Kasi sino ba ang nakakapagsocial media? Ang may access sa internet. Pangalawa, maaaring ang social media ginagamit ng mga hindi naman makakaboto dahil hindi pa sila 18 anyos. Kung survey to isang beses mo lang tinatanong ang tao sa kanilang preference, pero ang social media, maari kang makaboto ng ilang ulit para mahighlight ang kandidato. Pang-apat, hindi natin alam sino nag-organize ng social media (accounts), marami dito hindi naman totoong supporters no?" Panao explained.

[TRANSLATION: Who are using social media anyway? Those who have internet access. Secondly, those who use social media may not be eligible to vote. In the surveys, people are only asked once about their preference, but in social media, users may repeatedly vote to highlight a candidate. Fourth consideration, we do not know who organized these social media accounts. It is possible they are not genuine supporters.]

Patrick Gonzales, who has been involved in political campaigns in the last five elections, agrees with Panao. He is currently with the campaign team of former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. Gonzales said for social media, they just maximize the use of Facebook live streaming because internet users seem to like seeing what the candidates are doing at the moment. They also paid professionals to create good content like photos and videos to be shared on Facebook.

While Enrile initially thought of just running his campaign mostly on social media, Gonzales said they eventually realized their candidate still needs to do traditional campaign.

"We had to come up 'yung TV ads. It's not enough because the reach is not enough. … I'd like to think it should be a good mix of traditional, then social media and ground," Gonzales said.

How the voters would vote

Although social media have been added in the long list of campaign strategies, Panao said voters' would still choose who they think will serve them best on election day.

Panao said among voter's gauges on choosing a candidate are past performance, name recall, winnability and credibility to commit to campaign promises.

"In other words, kahit ganyan siya marami na tayong platforms, maraming paraan para makilala ang kandidato, boboto pa rin naman tayo base sa personal na assessment natin sa kandidato, that includes ano ang ineexpect natin na gagawin ng kandidato para sa atin," Panao explained.

[TRANSLATION: In other words, despite having numerous platforms to know a candidate, we would still vote based on our personal assessment of a candidate. That includes our expectations on what the candidates would do for us.]