Notes from the Field

Social Media in the Philippines is Widespread, but what is its Impact?

October 12, 2011

The Philippines long had a terrible reputation for telecommunications, with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew famously saying that in 1992, “98 percent of the population are waiting for a telephone, and the other 2 percent for a dial tone.”

Farmer in the Philippines uses a mobile phone

Above, a rice farmer in the Philippines uses his mobile phone to send a text message. Photo: IRRI Images.

However, beginning with the administration of Fidel Ramos (1992-1998) and followed by President Estrada (1998-2001), the telecoms industry was liberalized, and phone ownership skyrocketed. While there were more landlines available, much of the growth was in mobile phones. Soon the Philippines was the texting (SMS) capital of the world – to the point where the practice played a part of the ouster of President Estrada early in 2001. When the Senate impeachment trial was suddenly adjourned without verdict, the text message went around “meet at EDSA.” Crowds gathered in the middle of the night and refused to leave the main Manila thoroughfare until he left the presidential palace.

Fast forward to the present, and we have Facebook being used by more than 25 percent of the population – ranking 8th in the world, while other social media networks (such as Twitter) are rapidly growing in popularity. In September 2011, the Philippine Trust Index, commissioned by EON The Stakeholder Firm, was released. The study revealed that 68 percent of the respondents view online news sites as the most trusted sources of news and information while 49 percent trust social networking sites.

These impressive metrics are telling about usage, but more needs to be done to understand the impact that social media has. A good example was the exciting initiative by ABS-CBN, “Boto Mo Ipatrol Mo” (patrol your vote) that was part of the general introduction of new technology in election coverage. The network aggressively reached out through advertisements and roadshows to get people to sign up for the system, and to post their observations and comments. The effort received per day 500 reports by email, 103 calls, and 3,058 texts during the electoral campaign. BMPM peaked with 87,419 “Boto Patrollers” in its database, 125,487 fans on Facebook, 23,111 supporters on Twitter, 6,960 members on its microsite, and 3,701 members on Multiply.

The May 2010 automated election was indeed much improved, with lower levels of violence and being generally accepted as producing honest results. But any impact of BMPM needs to be assessed in context – for instance, the fact that there were 76,000 different voting places across the country means that many observers are needed. The long-established Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, along with its Muslim partner organizations in Mindanao, mobilized well over 400,000 volunteer observers who not only sent in reports but forwarded copies of election returns so that results could be cross-checked.

The Asia Foundation has long partnered with organizations who try to move forward through technology, helping to sponsor in May 2005 the first Philippine Blogging Summit. Five years later, in the rapidly transforming social media landscape, we supported civil society organizations to leverage this technology to reach out to the general public – in this case as part of human rights advocacy work in the Philippines. Learning to exploit the popularity of online social networking sites to advance their social and political campaigns and to drum-up public support, human rights-based organizations underwent a training on “Digital Activism.” This focused on the use of social networking sites (Facebook), blogging (WordPress), microblogging (Twitter), web tools and applications (Google documents), live streaming, and mobile activism.

With the support of USAID, we conducted the first series of trainings in June 2010. Out of 37 human rights-based organizations, including representatives from the Commission on Human Rights, that participated, 30 created their official Twitter account while 16 have official Facebook accounts. Monthly monitoring of these social media accounts reveal that they continue to be active with an average of one post per week that is human-rights related.

Digital Activism Training in Zamboanga

Representatives from human-rights organizations participate in a Digital Activism training conducted by The Asia Foundation in Zamboanga City.

Building on the gains of the June 2010 training, the Strengthening Human Rights in the Philippines (SHRP) program conducted an Expanded Digital Activism Training in partnership with DAKILA – Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism. The second series of trainings saw over 100 NGOs and key government agencies trained throughout the country. An online communication plan was introduced as one of the new modules for this second series. Social networking sites are incorporated in official communication plans of the organizations, thus optimizing digital media as one of its components.

A total of 74 new blogs, 11 new Facebook pages, as well as 188 posts in 89 blogs were created during and after the training. Many participants initially shied away from creating Twitter accounts due to the perceived hassle of maintaining the account, yet 36 new Twitter accounts were created. Each organization represented in the Expanded Digital Activism Training has established at least one form of web presence for their organization.

The participants have since started using either organizational or personal online accounts in promoting their causes and have adopted a strategic approach to conduct human rights advocacy work in digital media. Some examples of these are:

  • Ardan Sali of the Bangsamoro Center for Just Peace in the Philippines used the blog he created to design a prototype website of Tiyakap Kawagib. He demonstrated his understanding of website architecture in organizing the pages of the site in a clean and user-friendly interface.
  • On the International Day of the Disappeared, Aug. 30, 2011, participant Ed Atadero posted about removing profile photos in remembrance of the disappeared. This became part of a large Facebook meme, which was covered by GMANews.TV.
  • Right after the Davao City training, Liezl Bugtay, one of the participants, used the online application Storify to document Davaoeños’ Twitter reactions to a news item on Mayor Sarah Duterte in her blog.
  • During the actual trainings, participants used the twitter hashtag #Digibak (short for Digital Tibak. Tibak is the local term for activists) for information they learned during the training. The same hashtag was used to identify all attendees of the training nationwide.
  • The collective Philippine human rights blog HROnlinePH organized a fellowship and participants to contribute to the blogsite.
  • During the 2011 State of the Nation Address, some attendees initiated the use of the hashtag #WeWantPnoyTo, a call to make President NoyNoy Aquino aware of the different concerns of advocates. This spread among Expanded Digital Activism participants, as well as among members of their organizations. It became one of the 10 most trending hashtags in the Philippines during that week.
  • Emil Tapnio, co-author of this article, gained prominent Twitter followers from opinion-makers and international and local media whose interest was captured by his recounting of the training.

Clearly, development workers saw this avenue as an inexpensive yet effective way to instill advocacy into the stream of public consciousness. The civil society organizations we trained knew that social media is most effective when it supplements the traditional mode of campaigning to encourage collective action against human rights abuses. As mobile phones reach even the most remote citizens, and internet penetration – and along with it social media usage – widens its reach in the Philippines, these tools will become potentially more valuable to civil society, citizens, and officials in their advocacy efforts. As skills in these tools are acquired, careful attention needs to be paid to how much impact is generated on the daunting development challenges facing the country.

Editor’s note: this version has been edited slightly from the original.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations, and Emil Tapnio is an assistant program officer in the Philippines. They can be reached at srood@asiafound.org and etapnio@asiafound.org, respectively.

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