Social Media and Philippine Politics

The Increased Synergy of Two Platforms in the 2016 Elections


Internet connection speeds in the Philippines remain one of the slowest in Asia. This limitation however has not stopped Filipinos from using the web and maximizing their use of the applications and service available online.

In the recently concluded 2016 national and local elections, social media platforms were again used by candidates, political parties and interests groups with political, social and economic agenda. The intensity of use however significantly differed from the two previous electoral exercises.

For University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance Professor Prospero De Vera, social media became an important platform in the recent elections, where candidates and their supporters launched their campaign, promoted their agenda and criticized other candidates and support groups.

Having ran political campaigns for some candidates in the past, De Vera noted how the use of social media in the recent elections, particularly during the campaign period, has changed. In previous years he said, people merely disseminated campaign materials produced by the candidate’s team through social media.

For sociologist Nicole Curato of the University of Canberra’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, social media in the Philippines has significantly changed from being a merely platform for communication and entertainment to one where users spend much of their time in a day. “Social media has not just been a platform, but it’s a place where people live,” she said.

Compared with how social media platforms were also used in previous elections, Curato observed that this time, some users and interest groups also used these networking websites to challenge the news from mainstream media by creating counter-narratives.

UP Diliman Political Science Assistant Professor Nelson Cainghog also noted how narratives were shaped on social media in the recent elections. He noted that there was an increasing number of Filipinos who took part in discussion of social and political issues online. And with the increasing number of Filipinos using the networking websites, he sees these as able to “shape the terrain of public discourse and the contestation of power in the next elections.”

2015-state-of-the-broadbandInternet use in the Philippines according to the International Telecommunication Union and UNESCO.

In the 2015 State of the Broadband report from the International Telecommunication Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Philippines was noted as having 39.7 % of its population as having access to the Internet, ranking it as 106th out of 195 countries worldwide, and the 60th in 146 countries from the developing world.

The State of the Broadband report also noted about 23 Filipinos in a hundred, as having access to broadband subscriptions, while 26.9% of households in the country are said to have to have access to the Internet, landing the Philippines in the 59th spot in a list of 146 countries.

With social media platforms being accessible via the internet, it is can be said that many of these users covered by the report also have social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.

An avid social media user himself,  UP Diliman Journalism Associate Professor Danilo Arao said that the figures from internet analytics resource websites such as internetlivestats.com and internetworldstats.com, which peg the number of users as at least 40% of the population, does not capture those which access social media through their mobile phones.

While these numbers already appear significant as they are, Arao said the actual percentage of the country’s population which has access to the Internet may even be greater. “We all know that if we take into account mobile internet, the number could be higher,” he said.

quote-card-danny

UP Diliman Journalism Associate Professor Danilo Arao. He is the former Director of the UP System Information Office (UPSIO).

Social media platforms are services based on the internet which allow users to disseminate, generate and promote content produced by the users themselves or those whom they interact with online. Media materials such as photos, graphics, videos and text are published by users through their accounts. Among the more popular social networking websites are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.

Since 2010, political strategists, social media enthusiasts and media observers have predicted social media platforms to play an important role in shaping public discourse on political platforms and public issues. And while it was used to promote some candidates and political interests online, the impact of these media materials were limited only to those who frequently accessed the internet.

One of the efforts De Vera noted was the active involvement of social media influencers in the recent elections. “A new development during this campaign is the influencers, actually posted online, their choice of candidates, and staking their claim,” he said. For him, the act of endorsing a candidate not only reveals the decision of a public figure but also generates support for a person, a partylist group or political party running for an office or seat in the legislature.

De Vera also noticed the vigorous social media use of supporters of some political candidates not only to promote their choice but also to engage and even attack supporters of other candidates. Notable in this form of active engagement were supporters on Liberal Party candidate Mar Roxas and Partido Demokratiko Pilipino – Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) candidate Rody Duterte.

duterte-supportersDuterte supporters using a template for their profile pictures on Facebook, expressing support for the candidate.

Unlike previous elections, De Vera observed the engagement of social media users in the 2016 election to be higher compared to the last time the people trooped to the polls to choose its new leaders. “The good news is engagement has increased. The bad news is that a lot of people say the engagement was very toxic,” he said.  But this high level of exchanges on the platforms was also riddled with confrontational experiences for some users. “There were a lot of very angry people online. A lot of bashing. And a lot of intentional misinformation,” he added.

Aside from the confrontational attitude of some social media users, De Vera also noticed the intentional preparation and dissemination of fake photos of the candidate’s sorties where crowd sizes are manipulated. And then there was also the spread of false testimonials of support or stories endorsing some political aspirants.

Curato also observed a similar phenomenon on social media in the run-up to the polls on May 9. Like De Vera, she also saw stronger engagement among users in the platforms. Unlike how social media used in the 2010 elections, she said supporters of some candidates are more active and they also nurture their preference by mingling with people of similar choices online. “You have people who are very selective in terms of the people they talk to. You have people who just read a particular thread which they are comfortable to,” she said.

Curato also noted the increased preference of some social media users to share links from non-traditional information sources. “What is particularly interesting in this election is the increased credibility and currency of alternative blogs as sources of information,” she said. This increased appreciation for alternative sources of information, she said, poses a competing reality with the traditional forms of media which are readily available.

Curato added that while this shift to blogs and personal websites can be a challenge to journalists and news organizations in terms of providing information to the public, this can also be viewed as allowing more people to impart their own views on social issues which affect the country. This phenomenon she said, has “given voice to people who didn’t have access to the infrastructure of corporate media.”

quote-card-nelsonUP Diliman Political Science Assistant Professor Nelson Cainghog. He is also currently the Director of the UP Padayon Public Service Office.

Viewing social media as a platform where more people participate in public discourse, Cainghog sees the possibility of the networking websites as avenues where sentiments on public issues may be viewed. As the number of Filipinos who access and frequently use social media in the coming years increase, these can be used as representations of public opinion.

Like De Vera, Cainghog also noticed how some individuals used social media to spread disinformation and actively promoted these materials even after they have been called out. “There was democratization in the access of information, at the same time, there was also this possibility that the information disseminated are not really true,” he said.

As a journalism professor, Arao also noted the proliferation of unverified information and how it was picked up by established news organizations and publicized on news programs and publications. “We saw the flooding of misinformation on social media, and it didn’t help that the so called traditional media, particularly television, would tend to pick up on such disinformation, instead of either ignoring the misinformation or simply exposing such information for what they really are,” he said.

As for the possible reasons why an increasing number of social media users tended to share content from blogs and personal websites rather than from those of news organizations, Arao viewed it as a challenge for establish news organizations to package news stories better. “For the so called traditional media, they need to package their information much better, of course not to the point of trivializing the information, but rather making it more understandable to people,” he said.

Arao also emphasized the lack of contextual accuracy in some stories which came out during the election period. He said that while most newsrooms are concerned with and maintain good standards in factual accuracy, the context in which the stories they produce are prepared seem to be absent in how these are published or aired in the news programs and platforms.

In the recent elections, several news organizations have been criticized on social media by supporters of various candidates. These organizations and their news personalities have been called out and accused to be biased against certain political hopefuls. This criticism of journalists and their newsrooms gave birth to the widespread use of the term ‘bias’ as an adjective instead of being used as a noun.

karen-davila
An example of a criticism of ABS-CBN news presenter Karen Davila circulated on Twitter and Facebook by Duterte supporters. Photo from https://twitter.com/uqbaaisha

The use of social media platforms for criticism was not limited to television news personalities and news organizations alone. Ordinary individuals professing support for a particular candidate were also attacked online via comments on their posts on Facebook and Twitter, as well as via the messaging functions of these networking sites.

Among all candidates for the presidency, Duterte had the widest support from social media users, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. And these same supporters defended the candidate whenever he was criticized by supporters of other candidates, news organizations and advocacy groups online for his record as a public official, the statements he made in public during the election period and for his supposed support behind the vigilante group Davao Death Squad.

In an article on Stack.com, telecommunications and technology writer Chris Marasigan offered a possible explanation on the Duterte’s popularity on social media. The platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter he wrote, “Opened up opportunities for outsiders like him, who would otherwise rely on traditional media to introduce themselves to the public.” And through the same platforms, he added, “Duterte has been able to directly talk to his audience, put his message out for free, and in the process, build a formidable mass of supporters who make content for him.”

Despite the criticisms against him, Duterte won the recent elections, where the unofficial count of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting said he gathered 15,970,018 votes or 38.6% of the total ballots cast in 96.14% of the precincts in the country. With these figures and the other candidates conceding, he has been acknowledged as the winner for the presidency – a win which can be partly attributed to his visibility offline in political campaigns, and online through the efforts of his supporters on social media.

The manifestation of overwhelming support for Duterte was not absent from the observations of the political strategists, academics and social observers. Asked if the Duterte-model could be the mode of future electoral campaigns in the country, De Vera said “it may be a template that some candidates would try to do in the next election.”  He said that while he does not agree in relying heavily on social media, it would not be unthinkable to find “some of the candidates [who will] look into that option very seriously.”

While the contribution of social media in the election of Duterte into office is recognized, De Vera said candidates will still need to visit barangays and have face to face interaction with the people. This strategy, while considered by some to be traditional, will still aid in the securing of votes candidates need from areas and social classes which have difficulty accessing the internet and social media platforms.

While social media may have helped Duterte’s campaign, Arao said it was not the only medium which his supporters used in promoting their candidate.

It should be noted, Arao said, that Duterte’s camp still had television advertisements. While the PDP-Laban bet’s camp was a huge success on social media, they still spent at least P 300 million for two months (March and April 2016) on TV ads based on Nielsen and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism data.

This however does not take away the importance of social media platforms in engaging followers and maintaining their support for the Davao City Mayor.

quote-card-nicoleSociologist Nicole Curato of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance of the University of Canberra, Australia. She is a former Associate Professor of the UP Diliman Department of Sociology.

In her observations, Curato noted that supporters of the PDP-Laban bet were as enthusiastic of their candidate offline, as they are online. And this intense profession of support could be one of the reasons why many of them confront supporters of other candidates whenever Duterte is being criticized by other social media users of the traditional media.

“If I compare the discourses of Duterte supporters on social media, it’s more or less the same in terms of the sentiments offline. The only difference is yung sa online media, mas emboldened lang sila, to be more confrontational, to take such strong, sometimes harsh words,” she said.

quote-card-popoyUP NCPAG Professor Prospero De Vera. De Vera is also the Vice President for Public Affairs of the University of the Philippines System.

Curato is not alone in her observations of the devotion of some supporters to their candidate. De Vera also noticed the same in his own observations. “People are amazed by the level of loyalty that online supporters had for Mayor Duterte. That they would really go all out, you know, bully people with contrary views,” he said.

As a member of the academe, De Vera is looking forward to future political engagements on social media would be more informative instead of being confrontational and fueled by anger. “Maybe we also have to ask ourselves, is there a better way to make the engagement more productive? To make the engagement less toxic and more educational?” said the political analyst.

Cainghog hopes that the increased engagement of social media users would continue beyond the elections. And instead of focusing only on political or ideological lines, this would also include monitoring of the behavior of public officials and the performance of government institutions.

The political science professor is optimistic that with increased internet access to more Filipinos, ordinary citizens, fueled by their sense of civic responsibility, would be the “eyes and ears of the public.” “If you have that,” he said, “maybe more and more candidates would be mindful of their actions (as aspiring public officials).”

Considering the huge support the next president gathered in social media platforms, the next question which begs to be asked would be: will his supporters on social media become his best supporters or worst critics when he assumes power?

Banking on the slogan ‘Change is coming’, Duterte has created a lot of expectations in the minds of his supporters and many of them, particularly on social media, would be expecting these to be realized in his term. For De Vera, these supporters would expect dramatic things to happen. “Once these dramatic things don’t happen, they’d be the first to bash the administration,” he said.

Cainghog for his part viewed the incoming president’s social media support as both asset and liability. While these supporters can help amplify the new president’s message and promote his programs, these very same people also expecting him to fulfill his campaign promises.

“It’s a double-edged sword. It can also turn against him if he fails to also deliver what he promised to do, especially in the first six months, because he committed to do a lot of things in the first six months in office,” he said.

For Curato, it would still be difficult to say what would happen to the incoming president’s social media supporters. Using a similar observation with what happened to supporters of outgoing President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, it is possible she said that there would be some who will continue supporting Duterte throughout his term. But on the other hand, there will also be some who will start criticizing the new president once he fails to keep the words he has given to his various supporters, including those on social media.

“I imagine a parallelism with the Duterte supporters, you will have a core of supporters who will defend the President, no matter what. But you will also have what you will call the ‘soft supporters’ who will kind of be part of the critique and engagement, but still maintain a general sense of satisfaction with Duterte considering he has a strong mandate,” she said.

With the proclamation of the new president just a few weeks away, it remains to be seen which of these prognoses on Duterte’s supporters would turn out to be true. What has been proven genuine and verified in the recent elections though is that social media platforms, used by an engaged citizenry, driven by passion for change, can be used to promote, defend and ensure the win of a candidate regardless of his age, background or choice of words for speaking in public.


This feature story was submitted as a final requirement for my J 202 class on 21 May 2016. I would like to thank Prof. Prospero De Vera, Assoc. Prof. Danilo Arao, Asst. Prof. Nelson Cainghog and Dr. Nicole Curato for setting aside some of their precious time for the conduct of interviews. Thank you also to Agnes Kristine Arban for the encouragement and inspiration.
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