Has the sinking incident in the West PH Sea polarized Filipinos?

Bonz Magsambol
Has the sinking incident in the West PH Sea polarized Filipinos?
Filipino netizens have been giving clashing opinions since the event was reported

MANILA, Philippines – On the evening of June 9, a Chinese vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea, sinking the boat and leaving 22 fishermen adrift. A Vietnamese vessel rescued these fishermen hours later. 

News about the incident broke, ironically, on June 12 – the day Filipinos celebrated 121 years of independence from Spanish rule. However, instead of uniting Filipinos, the event seemed to have pitted countrymen against each other.

While some Filipinos were agitated about what happened, others also came to the defense of China and justified the Philippine government’s lukewarm response to the issue.  (READ: WATCH: How alleged Chinese ship sank Filipino fishing vessel in West PH Sea)

Sentiments online see-sawed between pro-China and anti-China sentiments. Here’s a sampling of how Filipino netizens’ opinions clashed with one another.

Who’s wrong and who’s right?

Clashing opinions could also be seen in reaction to the takes of popular social media personalities. 

In a now-viral post, for instance, blogger Jay Sonza explained why he doesn’t believe the narratives of his fellow Filipinos and is instead inclined to believe that of China’s. 

According to Sonza, he found some of the statements of the Filipino fishermen questionable, citing the impossibility to swim approximately 5 miles just to get to the Vietnemese vessel. 

Sonza’s post has garnered over 11,000 reactions and 6,600 shares, with some netizens echoing his arguments.

However, other Filipinos stood by the fishermen’s insistence that the Chinese abandoned them as their ship sunk. On social media, they demanded that the government support its fishermen and hold China accountable.

These netizens also slammed political blogger Sass Sassot for trying to discredit the narrative of the Filipino fishermen, accusing her of being unpatriotic.

The falsehoods and pitfalls of taking sides

Despite what appears to be polarization among Filipinos, however, is there really a clear divide?

According to Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong, co-author of Architects of Networked Disinformation, social media reinforced the impression that there were two opposite camps or ways of viewing the issue.

“The whole aim of the game is to destroy your enemy and point out the stupidity of their argument. In reality, there are more people with more complex or ambiguous positions on the issue. But those voices won’t go viral. Social media favors a shouting match approach to political conversation,” Ong said. 

The issue of patriotism may also take a blow because of this. According to sociologist and Ateneo de Manila University professor Jayeel Cornelio, viral statements in favor of China were written to reframe the dominant narrative about the incident.

“These statements are less about their seeming loyalty to China than their commitment to protecting the administration,” Cornelio said. “All of this is in the hope of cushioning the impact on Duterte’s administration.”

For Cornelio, the sinking incident has affected Filipinos in two different aspects. The issue is not just a matter of geopolitics. It also has an effect on Filipinos’ everyday relations with Chinese workers in the country.

“We have pundits online and on the radio who vent their anger on the Chinese as a whole, which of course is a mistake,” he said.

He is also afraid that Filipinos’ distrust of China will eventually turn into everyday hostility towards Chinese workers in the country. “It is the kind of patriotism that engenders racism.” (READ: Only 2 in 10 Filipinos believe China has good intentions for PH)

The other matter has to do with exhausting different diplomatic means to assert the country’s concern with China’s intrusion. “The DFA has done it. Yet it is a missed opportunity that the president has refrained from making stronger remarks about this incident,” Cornelio said. 

Meanwhile, for Ong, patriotism could become sharply divided in social media and expressed as either loyalty to President Duterte, or anti-China with a tinge of racist anti-Chinese sentiment. But Ong noted that in-between positions on the issue that were more measured, ambiguous, or undecided were absent or even ignored.

Shades of gray

Ultimately, despite what appears to be a black-and-white divide online between Filipinos, it would not be wise to conclude that the sinking incident was polarizing. Narratives, as Ong and Cornelio have explained, can be fabricated and steered, and emotions can be influenced. 

One way to avoid being party to a false narrative is avoiding knee-jerk reactions on social media. Before reacting, do you have all the facts? From where are you getting these facts, and are they reputable? Do you feel pressured to take a certain stand because everyone else is? A little presence of mind can go a long way. – Rappler.com 

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol is a multimedia reporter for Rappler, covering health, education, and social welfare. He first joined Rappler as a social media producer in 2016.