Rethinking Filipinos’ social media use in the electoral process

Rethinking Filipinos’ social media use in the electoral process

The Asia-Pacific recently saw several countries in the region hold elections just days apart. Last month Australia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, all displayed their respective versions of electoral democracy. There were clear differences, but one commonality is social media having a big role in the entire election process, from campaigning to the casting of votes.

For Filipinos the use of social media in the election is exceptionally remarkable because for the past four years the Philippines has topped social media use worldwide. They rank first globally in internet usage with an average daily screen time of 10 hours. And almost half of the adult population use the internet.

But more importantly, a third of the 61 million strong electorate are from the 18-35 age bracket, where perhaps the majority of social media users actually belong. It is therefore imperative that Filipinos now undergo a critical examination of the interplay of social media and electoral politics because in three years they will engage in an even more volatile and divisive political battle: the 2022 presidential election.

Pertinently, CNN Philippines through its Digital Disinformation Tracker research project has had a dedicated team of academics monitoring online conversation relating to the midterm election since January of this year. And one of their preliminary findings is that practically all candidates used the various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote themselves and their political agendas.

Ostensibly, social media has enabled otherwise under-resourced citizens to run for public office. For instance, a majority of the 62 candidates in the senatorial race have no nationwide popularity nor the proper election machinery to implement a conventional political campaign. And many of these relatively unknown candidates profess that social media platforms have afforded them the chance to raise their profile with minimal cost. Thus, giving them some degree of confidence to compete in a national election against more known and well-funded politicos.

Social media popularity not a guarantee

This apparent democratizing effect of social media then raises the question of whether a strong presence in social media equates to electoral success?

First-time candidate Willie Ong is a good example. He has around 10 million followers in Facebook, which incidentally, is what actually emboldened him to seek a senate seat in the first place. As per the final and official tally of election returns, “Doc Willie” garnered only about 7.6 million votes. This was not enough to get one of the 12 seats up for grabs. The candidate who got the 12th seat tallied 14.5 million votes while the one who took the top spot received 25.2 million votes.

I asked Professor Gerry Los Baños, an active social media user and a lecturer at the University of the Philippines, why some popular online personalities did not perform well in the election and he said, possibly because “netizens pretty much stuck to their echo chambers.”  

There was no effort from the various political sides to “reach across the aisle” so to speak. Each side was only keen to promote their respective narratives while equally determined to suppress the claims of the others. Each side fiercely believed their story is the only one worth considering in its entirety and that their grievances are the only legitimate ones while the rest are utterly inconsequential. Interestingly, some Filipinos have even gone to the extent of blocking those who have different political views.

So, social media popularity does not guarantee electoral success. Possibly because a campaign ethos that only resonates with social media followers can deliver only a limited number of votes. But would offering a narrative that appeals to the middle-ground potentially bring a candidate voters who are not social media fans?

Obviously, such question requires a more rigorous academic analysis, but the case of the opposition party (Otso Diretso) wipe out in the senatorial race is illuminating.

Political analysts believe that their “attack mode” style of campaigning, directed principally at President Rodrigo Duterte himself, could have turned-off many undecided voters. Reinforcing perhaps, the point that by and large, the electorate may be more receptive to a less combative and more consensus-building political narrative.

Toxic environment in social media

The problem with an “isolationist mindset” is how easily it can evolve into an “us versus them” mentality. Factor in the anonymity the internet affords, it is not surprising that netizen interaction in social media can quickly become vitriolic.

In fact, another preliminary finding of the CNN Philippines research project is how “toxic” online discourse amongst the various political groups in social media was during entire the election period.

Negative campaigning is part and parcel of any electoral exercise. Pointing out the faults and flaws of opposing candidates is not unusual and in fact helps voters in evaluating whom to vote for.

But veteran journalist and news anchor, Christian Esguerra, who covered the midterm election closely, argued that “social media seemed to be a top weapon of choice for campaign disinformation, complementing old-school negative propaganda on the ground.”  Begging the question should more stringent measures regulating online political advocacies be adopted? A move which ironically could be viewed as an undemocratic curtailment of free speech.

Social media in the democratic context poses a huge dilemma. Negative campaigning, fake news, and other modes of disinformation in the web are preventing people from having an honest-to-goodness deliberation of urgent issues that impact everyone. This absence of open public discussion then enables purveyors of these type of unscrupulous tactics to put more garbage in the internet. This poisons the well even further for netizens, to the severe detriment of frequent social media users like Filipinos.

Social media community response

Clearly, social media gravely impacts the trajectory of Philippine democracy. Hopefully, efforts like the CNN Philippines research project will lead to more discussions on the concerns raised here. 

Notably, a coalition of civil society groups, news outfits, and universities have launched a website which provides updated fact-checking services. Moreover, Facebook recently took down more than 200 Philippine-based accounts because of “coordinated, inauthentic behavior”. So, efforts to clean-up the net of toxic materials, so to speak, are being undertaken.

A more reassuring development, however, are programs aimed at educating the youth on how to deal with social media being implemented by civil society organizations in the Philippines with academic institutions at the forefront of this effort. Indeed, formalizing instruction on social media protocol makes sense given the fact that internet use in the population is quite high.

It is obvious that “connectivity” is a unique possibility offered by social media to make democracy more meaningful for a lot of people. When used the right way, it can enhance political interaction within the polity, which then can elevate the level of political consciousness of citizens. But given the fluidity of the digital world, finding the “right way” is inevitably a process of reinvention. For internet savvy Filipinos, democracy must keep pace. To start with something basic, they must recognize that more open dialogue and genuine deliberation about political issues are needed in the “other” online world they live in.

Featured image: A screen shot of the Facebook page of senate candidate Willie Ong.

Michael Henry Yusingco is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Metro Manila and a Fellow at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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