Writing this piece on the eve of the national elections on May 9, I think all will agree that the presidential and vice-presidential contest has been the most bitterly fought since the 1986 snap elections.
The fight has been a no-holds-barred grudge fight. Chances are it will continue that way until Election Day, and probably even beyond. Several factors have created this situation. Mindful of column space and time limitations, I should mention at least three highly influential factors.
First, the factor of plurality. Five major political camps are contending for the presidency and vice-presidency. The rival camps have roughly comparable strengths, in that what one lacks in solid funding and machinery are compensated by mass appeal and alliances—and vice versa. Most of the candidates are still on their feet, fighting tooth and nail for every positional advantage.
Second, the role of sharply delineated issues. Noynoy Aquino’s mediocre presidency under the Daang Matuwid banner has generated much social unrest among the masses and political rejection by various political forces. The run-up to the elections has thus taken the character of a referendum on Aquino’s rule, since his favored horse, Mar Roxas, is the ruling party’s presidential candidate and wears the same yellow color.
At the same time, the so-called “air war” (in conventional and online media) allowed the protagonists to zero in on their opponents’ perceived defects and cracks in their supposedly flawless image, thus we are offered big chunks of entertainment and tiny tidbits of enlightenment.
The mudslinging and idolatry has worsened from week to week, often descending into the most cringe-worthy exchanges in the televised debates and interviews. We are reminded of the 2004 and 2010 showdowns that bloated up secondary issues about presidential credentials.
This specific point leads to the third factor—the immense role in the electoral campaign of online media, in addition to conventional media. More than during the 2004 and 2010 presidential elections, this year’s contest is being broadly fought in the relatively new arena of online media.
In Facebook (and Twitter to some extent), all five camps have engaged in online political brawls—vociferously and relentlessly on a 24/7 basis. FB is just the smoldering tip at the center of the lens, since it serves to channel and amplify the tons of political content generated by countless other websites, as well as e-groups and e-forums.
This is not surprising, since as of November 2015, 47.1 million Filipinos are already on the Internet. This is nearly 45% of the population, making us No. 7 in Asia and No. 15 worldwide in terms of Internet usage. With 29 million Filipino users of Facebook (probably much more if OFWs are included), we have become No. 9 worldwide in FB usage.
In fact, one powerful incentive for Filipinos (even in the rural areas) to get an Internet connection is to maintain inexpensive real-time links with family members working abroad. The country’s online mass base is expanding fast because Facebook access is now packaged neatly into mobile phone schemes.
This brings us to a political phenomenon that might have been foreshadowed in 2010, but is now as glaringly obvious as the scorching summer sun: tens of millions of Filipinos are using the most concentrated social media (as exemplified by Facebook) to participate in the country’s electoral process as never before.
In many past elections, mass participation was mostly in the form of attending rallies and actual voting. Volunteers (generally paid although some served for free) went on the campaign trail and sought to engage the mass of voters on the ground, often face-to-face. This traditional campaign mode remains crucial, especially at the local level where the tug-of-war is at its most ruthless, and where volunteers could get crushed—quite literally—while campaigning. (Remember the Ampatuan massacre.)
In recent years, however, mass participation has found another powerful medium: cyberspace. This arena is as instantaneous and far-ranging as radio-TV, yet nearly as interactive as face-to-face communications. The preferred platforms are Facebook, Twitter, and popular websites that encourage battles of posts, memes and commentaries to rage on and on.
What has evolved so far, in fact, is a huge virtual Plaza Miranda, which I wrote about in a 2013 blog piece, “Facebook is just a promenade.”
In this vast virtual plaza, anyone with Internet access and basic online skills can set up his or her own rostrum and attract an audience, who in turn might respond to the speaker and interact with each other. In the process, information and opinion are shared, issues are discussed, new converts are identified, and positional lines are publicly drawn as they unfold from day to day.
What is amazing is that the online public have a wide choice of how to participate. They could rant and rave about issues and candidates on their own rostrum; they could flit from one rostrum to another to check out or join an interesting exchange; they could comment carefully or troll maliciously. Some will even cross the line into outright cyber-bullying. Of course, one can always opt out for lack of time, interest, or patience, but at the same time continue to discuss and digest offline what one has picked up online.
I see this as a generally positive trend, because it heightens mass participation in our political processes. We see this not only during election campaign periods, but also at other times of intense political debates, such as during the Corona impeachment, various congressional hearings (on Mamasapano, for example), SONA, and various national controversies.
The growing sections of the masses now on Facebook (mostly urban, mostly young) are using it with raw passion—in typical newbie fashion. They post and comment artlessly, irreverently, heedlessly, often thoughtlessly. But most of them (except for certified trolls and online criminals) don’t do so maliciously. They simply try to behave online the way they learned (or were taught) to behave in real-life public interactions.
But precisely because of this, the political commentaries of newbie masses are often belittled as “jejemon” (infantile talk, full of misspellings), “mema” (may masabi lang, just so one has something to say), and “–tards” (incredibly naive if not outright stupid). To wear a certain campaign color or display a certain campaign slogan nowadays is to risk being attacked online as a “bobotante” (stupidly unthinking voter).
Indeed, the super-heated political season has so gripped us in recent weeks that—using our “virtual Plaza Miranda” analogy—the online exchanges are starting to turn into sporadic squabbles and melees. Friends are unfriending and blocking each other. Relatives, co-workers, classmates are trading taunts and insults, labeling each other as “trolls” and “–tards”.
It’s no exaggeration to say the online Filipino community is on the verge of a large-scale riot—but with different ideas about who the target is.
Before we all panic and swear never to use Facebook again, let us coolly review the situation. At least, the riots are still virtual, not yet real-life street brawls where people are killed and injured, where vehicles and shops are torched, with broken glass littering the streets and riot police hauling random people off to jail.
Shouldn’t we therefore see these online skirmishes, not as a threat to public order and our personal equanimity, but as a sort of a safe social outlet or mediation mechanism, even a virtual learning environment? Unless we can prove that a certain person on FB is a paid troll, shouldn’t we ease up on online misbehavior and our own insecurities as just lagnat-laki, or disorders associated with growing up?
I see trolls and brawls as the unavoidable side-effect of the newbie masses’ new-found and still-raw exercise of online power. It is like learning to cook with fire, where you risk burns but eventually master the skill and put it to good use. What the newbie masses now have is the power to inform and assert, to take a stand and defend it, to question and criticize, to shame and ostracize if it comes to that.
It is a power which traditional communities have been practicing, in real life although in small localized scales, throughout past millennia. The modern online communities have merely multiplied its effects a hundredfold. It is, in short, the power of public opinion.
We could also think of the newbie masses’ behaving wildly in Facebook as that of a young child who has discovered, for the first time, the power of crayons.
She has found the thrill of scribbling squiggly nonsense on all kinds of paper, on the walls. So do we ridicule or punish her? Do we take her crayons away?
No. On the contrary, we supply our innocent, precious, precocious child with plenty of paper and more crayons, while gently leading her away from the freshly scrubbed walls. We guide her to use this power more creatively, more constructively, more carefully.
There will be tantrums and tears, broken crayons and crumpled paper, slammed doors and sulking faces. Meanwhile, we quietly clean up the mess and proudly display her first efforts at self-expression, because that is how she realizes her worth and is encouraged to do better. It is, after all, a long process to teach a child.
Gradually, she will learn to write and sketch. Eventually, we hope, she will learn to create beautiful literature and inspiring works of art.
Every parent will understand this view of home, child, and art. Consider it now as a simple allegory on the higher plane of society, the voice of the masses, and political change. The crayon is media—including online media. We should give the child the freedom to use her crayons and create her first squiggly stick figures and letters.
Do not shame her. Teach her. Give her plenty of paper, crayons, and ideas.
I will leave it at that. Consider what steps we must do to nurture mass-based politics, in real life and online. I think every progressive political leader or social activist, with their feet on the solid ground, will understand the rest of my analogy. # Follow @junverzola
Author’s note: This is a longer and slightly revised version of a column piece I submitted for publication in the May 7, 2016 issue of the Baguio-based Northern Dispatch Weekly.