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Weekly Insights and Analysis

Social Media: A Game Changer in Philippine Elections

April 27, 2016

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra

Less than two weeks before May 9 presidential elections in the Philippines, it is still anyone’s ballgame and no one knows who will emerge as the frontrunner. With such a tightly contested race, it is bound to be a “last two minutes” kind of game, with each candidate scrambling to make the winning shot. How exactly will the candidates swing the votes in their favor on election day? It will likely be through a number of factors: track record (or lack of it), patronage, party machinery, vote-buying, and yes, the constant use of social media.

Supporters great VP candidate Leni Robredo. For the first time, the Commission on Elections partnered with print, broadcast, and online outlets to mount a series of presidential and VP debates ahead of the election. Photo/Leni Robredo Facebook

Supporters great VP candidate Leni Robredo. For the first time, the Commission on Elections partnered with print, broadcast, and online outlets to mount a series of presidential and VP debates ahead of the election. Photo/Leni Robredo Facebook

In 1998, texting became popular in the Philippines, which later earned the undisputed title of “texting capital of the world.” During the 1986 People Power Revolution against President Marcos, cellphones did not yet exist; the late dictator was toppled by activists using radio broadcasts, placards, and fliers. By 2001, texting played an important role in the ouster of then President Joseph Estrada, when corruption allegations resulted in his impeachment trial in the Senate. When prosecutors walked out of the impeachment trial to protest the decision to prevent the opening of an envelope which would reveal damaging evidence, people used texting to encourage citizens to mass in the streets to oust Estrada. In 2007, Estrada was found guilty by the Sandiganbayan of having stolen $80 million from the government and sentenced to life imprisonment. Pardoned later by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Estrada made a political comeback, ran for president in 2010 but lost, and ran for mayor of Manila in 2013 and won. He is currently seeking re-election for mayor in May.

Today, the Philippines has become the most “social nation” in the world. With 41 million active Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 65, netizens could very well swing the tide in this election, which many are calling the country’s first “social media” election.

For millennials, social media is the lifeline of information (or misinformation). Social media can provide free advertisement, highlight important advocacy work, make speeches and statements readily available, and help candidates promote their campaign messages widely and freely. In that sense, it can be seen as democratizing the electoral process. Except, that’s not what always happens.

For better or for worse, social media can also create an obsessive focus on one or two issues, magnify candidates’ warts and pores, poke fun at their looks or voices, amplify a misstep, an insensitive remark, expose a prejudice or bias – and all for all the world to see and hear in real time without delay. After May 2016, elections in the Philippines will never be the same again. As the campaigns have shown, social media (without editorial restraint) can throw decency out the window, divide families, unfriend friends, block would-be friends, and unleash rabid supporters that make The Walking Dead look like little more than a Halloween spectacle (and one that no doubt voters in the U.S. can well relate). What has become obvious in this election is that social media has rendered traditional campaign strategies insufficient, polarizing voters who have pinned their hopes and dreams on candidates who do not exactly personify and reflect the values, morality, and ethics of a nation. It therefore takes rigorous fact-checking by responsible media and citizens to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Recognizing the potent role of social media in the election, the Commission on Elections for the first time partnered with print, broadcast, and online outlets to mount a series of presidential debates (February 21 in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao, March 20 in Cebu, Visayas, and April 24 in Pangasinan, Luzon) and a vice presidential debate (April 10 in Luzon). The 2016 debates have been interesting, to say the least.

So far, the vice presidential debate on April 10 hosted by CNN Philippines, Commission on Elections, and Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), and the presidential debate hosted by ABS-CBN on April 24, were the most organized and professional. The April 10 debate received a total of 310,000 tweets from 5-9 p.m., with candidates Alan Peter Cayetano, Leni Robredo, and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. the most-mentioned candidates. Netizens even poked fun at candidate Francis Escudero’s robotic and monotonous voice and long, drawn-out answers to simple questions. Similarly, the ABS-CBN-organized VP forum on April 17 allowed netizens to weigh in on current issues by posting questions to candidates. The April 24 presidential forum generated over 1.9 million tweets using #PilipinasDebates2016, the highest engagement on Twitter for a presidential debate this year.

Even before the start of the campaign season, social media has helped to highlight the issues that needed to be addressed by the candidates and some powerful online campaigns have been launched as a result. For instance, VP candidate Bongbong Marcos’ attempt to urge voters to forget Martial Law and his family’s ill-gotten wealth gave rise to #Never Again: Marcos in 2016. Activists, civil society groups, and ordinary citizens’ clamor for decency and integrity in government led to a group on Facebook called the “Silent Majority.” Other viral videos include an expose about Presidential candidate Grace Poe‘s posh mansion Washington, D.C., the extravagant sneakers bragged about by her son, and citizenship questions; Presidential candidate Jejomar Binay’s overpriced Makati building and Batangas property that belied his claims to poverty; and VP candidate Leni Robredo’s bus commute to and from Camarines Sur (a 9-hour night trip and 12-hour day trip) to attend Congressional sessions. Even Senatorial candidate and boxing champ Manny Pacquiao’s slur against the gay community earned him strong criticism and withdrawal of commercial endorsements and led critics to expose his lack of political experience and “absenteeism” from Congress.

And, more recently, the viral video of presidential candidate Duterte’s insensitive remark on the rape of an Australian missionary led to the online campaign #CrossedLegsCampaignAgainstDuterte which “called on all women whose husbands and lovers continue to support Duterte to stop caring for them until they change their vote and to bar them from their beds,” similar to the Greek comedy Lysistrata which persuaded women to withhold sexual privileges to force their men to negotiate peace. The video criticizing Duterte’s remark was shared thousands of times among netizens who tagged tweets with #RapeIsNotAJoke. In the April 19 edition of The Washington Post, Duterte’s controversial joke was the fourth most-read article, with commentators likening him to GOP candidate Donald Trump.

While social media has changed the campaign strategies, it is not the only factor that will determine the election results. Surveys remain influential particularly for the undecided voters who may rely on results of pre-election polls and succumb to the bandwagon effect. Political party affiliation and patronage politics may factor in heavily for candidates who come from political dynasties. And the impressionable youth, die-hard loyalists, and rabid supporters who throw decency and ethics to the wind will also be a force to reckon with on election day. But, most importantly, the candidates themselves will play the biggest role in swaying opinion and whether or not they connect with voters, or implode once the bubble bursts and their lack of experience, less than sterling track record, corruption charges, historical atrocities, or human rights violations remain etched in the minds of the voters.

Social media has dramatically changed the dynamics of elections in the Philippines, sent spin doctors a-spinning, and apologists a-flurry whenever the damaging sound bytes, slurs, and insensitive remarks are let loose by their candidates. The posts, tweets, and viral videos have polarized the nation, making this the most vicious election season in history.

As one presidential candidate has aptly stated in the last presidential debate, “This election has been vicious and divisive. This is not us, we are a warm, generous people, we are decent Filipinos.” In less than two weeks, Filipinos will troop to the polls and make a judgment. Will sense and decency prevail? Or will madness, braggadocio, and false promises overtake our better judgment? Alas, “whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” Heaven help us. We are whom we vote for.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in the Philippines. She can be reached at mariaisabel.buenaobra@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Elections, Strengthen Governance
Related topics: Philippines Election, Social Media

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