MANILA, Philippines – #PHvote talked to Mon Isberto, the Public Affairs Head of Smart Communications Inc.
Isberto discussed the role telecommunications and technology play in the election, and its impact on election day itself. With the rise of mobile internet and the popularity of smartphones, Rappler asked his forecasts on internet access penetration rates for the year.
He also talked about Rappler and Smart’s shared advocacy this election season, #votesmart. #votesmart’s core premise is that the public can get the government it deserves through the power of votes.
In partnership, Rappler and Smart seek to help keep voters informed and up to date on the senatorial race so that on May 13, they can indeed vote smart.
Watch the episode below.
Maria Ressa: Welcome to PH Vote! Today we speak with Smart Communications Public Affairs Head Mon Isberto on the role of technology and social media in the May polls. With the rise of mobile, internet and smart phones, this is the fastest growing country in terms of android. How will telecom and technology impact the election of the Philippines’ next leaders? Rappler and Smart are partners in this election’s season with a shared advocacy. Use the hash tag, “Vote Smart!” Good Day! I’m Maria Ressa. Mon, thank you for coming to talk to us about this.
Mon Isberto: Thank you very much for having me here. I’ve had always been curious to see what does the future of television look like. Ok.
Isberto: Anyway. Yes.
Ressa: Thank you for joining us in this advocacy. First of all, what role will technology play in the May elections?
Isberto: Ok. Let me answer this way. Certainly it will be more – more than in the past, more than in 2010. But more than that, increased quantity will lead to some change in the quality of its impact. It’s really the jury is out on that one. Uhmn…You have uhmn…people on the social network…uhhh… You have larger mobile networks available. More capable faster speeds… (phone rings) I just have to put this one off.
Ressa: No problem…no problem…
Ressa: So there are more people who are online now. It’s 35 million.
Ressa: 35 percent internet…
Isberto: Well the numbers are…the numbers are…it’s a matter of debate.
Isberto: Some are saying 35…some are saying 40 percent. But certainly more than it was in 2010.
Ressa: In 2010, the results of the…what people were doing online – on the internet, blog, social media was still on its infancy.
Ressa: It didn’t reflect real world results at all.
Ressa: Do you think it will be closer this time around?
Isberto: It’s hard to say. But would certainly… I’m sure that social media will play a great role in the sense of people sharing their views about what’s wrong or what’s right about this election or this candidate.
Isberto: We’ll have much more than in the past because not only is the number of people increasing…
Isberto: It’s the velocity also of the conversations that are taking place.
Isberto: And I see it from my…I’m talking from my own personal experience. I mean two…three years ago, I wasn’t in Twitter.
Isberto: I joined Twitter about a year and a half ago.
Ressa: And you’re active on Twitter.
Isberto: Yes. I’m trying to be, anyway…
Isberto: So…and I can see it from the interaction that people interact a lot more.
Isberto: And…uh…in fact, my sense is that people’s views and opinions are being increasingly shaped by what they exchange in social media because you’re talking with friends.
Isberto: Uh…people whom you know. In fact that’s one of the things…uh…you know we have to watch out for. Because if you don’t…if you don’t…if you’re not conscious of it.
Isberto: You…you…you’re cocooning yourself with people…with like minded people…
Isberto: Ah… and maybe…uh…not allowing yourself to have the benefit of people whose views are contrary to yours. So those are the things that are happening and I think you’ll see more of that in this election, certainly more than in 2010.
Ressa: How do you think…uhmn…candidates are using social media right now?
Isberto: Well, a lot is trying to…uh…but you know I think a varying degrees of success…uhmn…the difficult thing about social media is that…it’s…it’s hard to heard people. Uh…it…It’s…it’s a space where opinion can be absolutely brutal.
Isberto: (Laughs) and…uh…what is fake is quickly exposed…uh…in one way or the other. So…uh…you know when you…you have to be a very stern stuff and (Laughs) strong stomach to go out into the social media environment.
Isberto: Uh…and just be ready to accept what comes along.
Ressa: How do you know what’s real and what’s not?
Isberto: That’s a tough one…I mean because…uh…appearances in reality you know…uhmn…I think you know that’s where your judgment has to come in. And I think this is one of the great challenges that social media now faces. How do you cultivate the judgment of people?
Isberto: How do you educate people so that can make their own independent judgments? Putting together all that they hear from their friends and their not so friends. Uh…and then coming together in their minds “Ok, I think this is the right thing and this is the wrong thing.”
Ressa: How important for Smart – largest telecommunications? I mean how important is social media? What role will it be playing?
Isberto: It is certainly very important. It already occupies a large space in the way people communicate. That’s why we have been orienting our services to address this particular market. Uh…and it’s…like I said…it…it’s…uhm…How do I say it? Uh…It’s creating an environment. It’s creating an ecosystem. So it’s now just me to you…
Isberto: When I send a message for example in sms. When I send a message out on twitter, it’s me to so many people…uh…I don’t know who they are…some of them sometimes…uh…and then you end up interacting with so many people…uh…much more than you would in a normal one-to-one communications.
Ressa: And everyone else can see it, right? Everything is so transparent. Is that good or bad?
Isberto: Good and bad. (Laughs) You know the thing about technology as…most are the things is that you have everything all-in-one package – you got the good and you got the bad. And I think the challenge for young people especially is to…you know…know the difference between the two and just realize that life is always like that. You get (laughs) both the good and the bad. That’s why I think the critical element now for people…uh…young people especially is how do you develop critical thinking and judgment in a social media environment. And that’s a challenge…well, for older guys like us…
Isberto: How do we share our opinions and our views in a responsible way so we develop critical judgment among people who are now living in this world. And I really think about that, Maria, because even on a personal basis, I see my grandchildren…
Isberto: Who are two, three years old. They are playing around with smart phones and tablets like…you know…it’s a natural thing to do.
Isberto: In fact…you know…for me the big insight I had once was I saw a kid. I think…I’m guessing around two or three years old.
Isberto: He was looking at this colorful magazine and he was trying to move it like a tablet…and of course he was disappointed because the picture wasn’t moving. But that told me that the frame of mind of that child…
Isberto: Was already very different. To him the tablet was the norm.
Isberto: And so…ohs! When I saw that, oh my gosh…that the frame of mind and the point of view people…young people these days are really being shaped by this kind of technology and we need to be aware of how this impacts on the way people think.
Ressa: Is there a generational gap?
Isberto: Certainly. I mean every generation has a generational gap.
Isberto: Uhmn…but I think the gap is…is…uh…technology the way technology is developed is that user interfaces eludes challenges to make them as easy to use as possible…
Isberto: So we have grandmothers and grandfathers like me (laughs) learning how to use technology so it is not…it’s not an unbridgeable gap.
Isberto: But you have to make an effort. I mean the older people have to make an effort.
Ressa: It’s normal for journalists to tell people to vote smart. I mean…but actually now Smart is jumping into the game to also tell people to vote smart. Why?
Isberto: Well, it first of all as a civic duty on the part of all citizens in all corporations to assist in that process. It’s a very simple and straightforward advocacy – share the information, make the information available, stimulate intelligent discussion and help people arrive at decisions that make sense.
Ressa: And yet when you put that together with the way things work, it’s quite chaotic on social media. What makes you think people will listen?
Isberto: Well, finally there’s hope. But you’re right it’s not easy because in social media it can be rather chaotic.
Isberto: But you know at the same time it’s a question of how people impose some order in that chaos.
Isberto: Because at the end of the day, it’s what the individual or the individuals think. Uh…How they approach this issue or this question. Let’s say, in this particular case is, “How will I vote in this election?”
Isberto: At the end of the day technology is great but its people who matter. It’s how…uh… what objectives, what aspirations people have and then how they use the technology in order to arrive at aspirations. Uh…so the first question and the most important question for me, Maria, is that…for young people because young people are the ones using this technology.
Isberto: What do they want out of this election? And…you know…if they…if they figure that out first. What do they want to achieve in this election? What kind of candidates do they want to vote for this election? Then…then…using the technology becomes more effective because then they would know for what purposes and to what ends they will use the technology for.
Ressa: This elections have…you know, the nay-sayers largely dismiss it because it’s not presidential elections.
Ressa: It’s only the senatorial election.Why should they matter? Why should people make an effort?
Isberto: Well, first of all, all the local elective posts are up for grabs and certainly local governments do matter to everyone…you…everyone lives in one local jurisdiction in one way or the other and really…uhmn…it matters to people how good their local governments are. Then of course you still have senatorial elections.
Isberto: And you would want to have a good quality senate in place because at the end of the day many of the national issues and are decided or influenced by the senate so you know, this election still do matter. But of course there are people at this stage who are thinking of what’s going to happen in 2016.
Isberto: That’s another story altogether.
Ressa: The way to get more people involved…the infrastructure that actually powers social media. Is what you guys do…How will you…the great criticism about online world is that there is a digital divide. One, is there a digital divide and how are you going to break it?
Isberto: Yes, there still is. We have still…well…the internet penetration is what, 35-40 percent?
Isberto: So that means we have still 60 percent who are not…who are not in the game so to speak. But the…the good news is that the story…the situation will get better and better over time. And in fact, It will…I think it will be sooner rather than later. The networks are getting better, they’re getting more extensive. In our case for example, we’ll have 3G networksby the end of this year that’s covering about 90 percent of the country. We’ll have LTE networks becoming much more extensive so the networks will be there. Uhmn…the devices are becoming cheaper.
Isberto: And…you know, I think that’s…that’s one of the…one of the significant developments. The economics are working in your favor, Maria.
Isberto: It’s really working on your favor…
Isberto: Because many of the devices are now reaching that sweet spot in terms of pricing that will make it more possible for more people to access this kind of technology.
Ressa: In the United States more people access the internet through their mobile phones than through laptops computers in 2010. When will that happen in the Philippines?
Isberto: I don’t have the precise time but definitely it will happen. Markets like the Philippines, everybody is saying that the primary experience of most people will be increasingly mobile rather than on fixed. Uhmn…and that’s a…actually a significant difference because the behavior can be very different when you’re on…using a fixed terminal and on mobile.
Isberto: Mobile is much more interactional.
Isberto: And it’s more spontaeneuous…it’s…it’s…it’s something that should do while on the go.
Isberto: So it’s really a more action-oriented kind of environment rather than on a fixed terminal where you tend to be more contemplative, you’re thinking more deeply. So I mean, if you’re looking at us, we are an integrated operator – we have both fixed and mobile services.
Ressa: Yes. Correct.
Isberto: Our message to people is, “Use the technology in the appropriate way.” So the tech… the technology…the uses for which fixed technology is much more appropriate, use that. Mobile, use that when it’s more appropriate. But definitely, for Filipinos, as in many developing countries you will find that mobile will be the first and perhaps primary experience for many people of the internet.
Ressa: Interesting. So…well, again let’s talk…
Isberto: But that’s great news for you, Maria.
Ressa: Oh! I’m waiting for it, Mon. (Laughter) Rappler is bid for that time.
Isberto: Because that means that the news and media business is going to be much more interactional. Uh…
Ressa: And more personal…
Isberto: More personal and more immediate.
Ressa: Correct. Correct, but let me ask you again, infrastructure-wise when I look at the rankings of where we stand globally. Last year we were at 101 of all the countries in the world. How can you make our services better?
Isberto: Ok, that’s a real challenge, Maria, because well…well in the industry balance we are low in the upper market.
Ressa: Explain ARP. Not many…not everyone know what an ARP means.
Isberto: Yeah, rich in campus subscriber.
Ressa: Per subscriber…
Isberto: Of…in this…in this market is relatively lower, five dollars or less while other markets, let’s say Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand – they have much higher than ours.
Ressa: So the Tel Cos in those companies makes more per user than they do here, right?
Isberto: That means for operators like us.
Isberto: We’ve got to be much more creative. (Laughs) And how do we offer services that are relevant and useful for our customers so they will actually use it. Now, one thing we have discovered is that…you know, once you present the internet to customers in ways that they will understand and in ways that inspires confidence in the ways they use it, they will actually use the internet. We have a service delivery platform that we call Smart Net, which has a number of features. One of the features that is has is that, with a single button.
Isberto: You can turn on…turn off all your internet services. I mean everything off.
Ressa: So people can control their bills.
Isberto: This is to give people a sense of control.
Isberto: That when they want to use the internet, they can do so. When they don’t want to use the internet, they can actually do so in a very convenient way. Young kids can do it themselves because they can…they can figure out their…their phones. But for older people who are migrating from feature phones that can be a very unsettling experience. You don’t really know whether your internet is off or not.
Isberto: But with this…with smart, you can turn everything off in one button. You know the fascinating thing we’ve discovered? Is that when people know that they can control the internet use, they actually use the internet more.
Ressa: So…so by giving them that control, more Filipinos can access the internet through their mobile phones, through Smart Net.
Isberto: Yes, they have made a confidence.
Isberto: That they can actually use it in a way, you know, that will fit their budget.
Ressa: Yes. Yes.
Isberto: And at the same time they can choose the services that they really want to use.
Ressa: Let me ask you again about the demographics on the internet. I’ve seen statistics that actually shows that the people on the internet mirror the people are real life demographics. So what is…what is the digital divide if you have about the same proportion of “masa,” of DE…
Ressa: On the internet and on social media. What’s the digital divide? Is it because most people…most of the DE will access it through the internet cafés. I mean, what are people talking about when they’re talking about digital divide?
Isberto: Ok. Uhmn…Well there’s still a substantial number of people who don’t have direct access to the internet. Uhmn…even those for example who access the…uh…internet cafés…
Isberto: Ok. Uh…because the uhmn…broadband…uh…internet access is not penetrating for all areas so you still have areas that don’t have that kind of power.
Ressa: How large? How many of those areas? 20 percent, 30 percent?
Isberto: Well, I don’t have the numbers right now
Isberto: Because it keeps changing.
Isberto: It’s getting smaller and smaller.
Isberto: Because the networks are reaching out farther and farther, and getting faster and faster. But I think the point is that is the other element of the digital divide is income.
Isberto: Because you know, at the end of the day you still have to pay for internet access in one way or the other. So how do you make it more affordable and at the same time physically more accessible to more people?
Isberto: That…That’s the challenge. But like I said earlier, Maria, that’s…that’s a…uh…its good news for people like you because the trends are headed in that direction. You…you will see more and more people accessing the internet.
Ressa: I just want to give you some of the reactions; you ask a question about the young people. So from @leafrancis, she wrote, “Pera?” I think the reaction of how or what do the people want, “Haha! Well, even though may vote buying, youngsters are still responsible enough to vote for the right people” then from @cuetoes, uhmn…the question, what do the young people want for this election, you asked that, he said that “A promise that our voice and opinions will never go unheard.” Uhmn…I’m jumping off again, I mean very vibrant, lots of people commenting on it. What’s the difference between today and…and the internet social media five years ago. I mean the quality of discourse. We talked about this a little bit; it’s more chaotic, and the trolls taking over. That’s another big debate of people who are on social media.
Isberto: Ok. Ok. Well, it’s certainly more of anxious and much more lively and active. Ok. I’m…
Ressa: You’re so diplomatic – lively and active. Is there a meaning in it?
Isberto: There…unfortunately there’s a lot of trash.
Isberto: But like I said, that’s life. You…you get the good and the bad.
Isberto: You go around, it’s really hard, you know. A ball of sensors doesn’t work in life.
Isberto: So you get everything together in one package. It’s really up to people to…to sort out what is real and not real. And that’s why I kept harping on people developing critical judgment. Because at the end of the day that’s what’s gonna happen. That is what will make the difference. And I’m hoping that, you know, through activities like vote smart and…we…encourage people to use their discernment, to think about it, to stop and think. Because what tends to happen is we…you know, sometimes, the herd mentality takes over – you just go here, you just go there, depending on what is the trend.
Ressa: Yeah. Well, what’s interesting is you can see. I’m a believer in the wisdom of crowds. But I’ve also seen the wisdom of crowds turn into a lynch mob and well one of the victims obviously was Chris Lau. You know.
Isberto: Yes. Yes.
Ressa: Chris Lau, the guy from channel…who was a…I’m not going to name the network The guy who professes…who said he was cyber bullied actually talked about wanting to commit suicide. And these are real world impact of actions online.
Isberto: That’s true. Uh…but you know, catch both ways.
Isberto: That’s why people need to learn how to deal with social media also. Uhmn…the off button is the most important tool that you have in social media. There are times that you need to cut off when it doesn’t makes sense anymore, when it doesn’t help you that you just keep connected. There are times when you need to do that. And there are the times that you need to be absolutely connected. That’s part of the discernment thing that I’m talking about, Maria. I mean people…I get asked by executives so…how to use mobile…mobile phones and these falls many years ago and I still get asked that question from time to time and I tell them, “One of the things that you have to learn is when to turn the damn thing off.”
Isberto: Ok? Because you need…executives need quite time to think. You know when there’s nothing on your schedule, it’s free time. And you need to call that out of your day and part of carving that thing out of your day is that you’ll inform your secretary or your colleague that so that…because otherwise…they’ll keep…you know…intruding into your time, into your mind.
Ressa: But kids today don’t seem to think that you need that time for solitude. I mean that’s another generational gap.
Isberto: Yeah. I’m really…I’m really am asking myself if is that a generation gap issue or I mean we have kids being able to adapt to this kind of situation…I really don’t know. But my sense is that, you know I’m old fashion in that sense.
Isberto: Uhmn. Everybody – young and old, needs a bit of quite time because otherwise you get lost in the crowd. You can’t hear yourself thinking. (Laughter) So I think that’s one advice I could give young kids today. There are times that you need to put that away.
Isberto: I hope I could practice that more often. (Laughter)
Ressa: Me too. Actually, it can take over your life. At least that’s what we’ve found in Rappler.
Isberto: Yes it does.
Ressa: We live on this. Well, probably because again, I talk about this all the time, the emotions of being online…
Ressa: Also drives you. And part of the reason I think it’s more chaotic at times.
Isberto: Well, I think you… you should see neurologists and neuroscientists study this phenomenon because it…behavior impacts you physically.
Ressa: Correct. Yes
Isberto: So it can change the way your neurons are connected and…uh…I think this is really an interesting area of study…of scientific study moving forward. How people’s brains are being wired differently because they are connecting with other people in different ways.
Ressa: It’s…It’s true. And it is…there are studies now…Stanford has done several…physically we’re being changed, our brains are being rewired but we can talk about this forever. Let me bring you back to elections. What’s at stake for Smart in this election? Is there anything at stake for you guys?
Isberto: Well, it’s the same as everybody else in this country. I mean, I think it’s in the interest of Smart as a company and people as individuals that the elections are held peacefully. That they reflect the real will of the people both in the national constituencies as well as the local constituencies. And that it’s done in a way that encourages more confidence in the process.
Ressa: Yes. Yeah.
Isberto: Because you know there are…there are differing opinions about the wisdom of this, or that course of action or this or that kind of technology. Well these debates will have to be settled…uh…as part of the process. What we would like to see is that the process is done correctly and that it reflects the real will of people. We are discussing off hand earlier that there’s this saying that, “people get the government that they deserve.” And I was telling you earlier there’s something unfair and at the same time relevant about that statement. Unfair because there’s a tendency it can be interpreted
Isberto: or misinterpreted – as putting all the blame or the responsibility on the electorate. And I think there’s an element of truth to that observation. But also we have to admit there is a certain element of validity to that also too…
Ressa: Absolutely. Yes.
Isberto: In a sense that, well, this may sound very cruel but there’s a Darwinian logic that work here meaning, if a country or a community is unable to foster and develop a process that will enable them to select their right leaders for their community or for their country, then, they have to pay for it. I mean, right or wrong…
Ressa: Which we frankly have…
Isberto: Fair or unfair, that’s the way it goes.
Ressa: Yeah. Yeah.
Isberto: So I think that the…I think the wisdom or insight that we can draw from that, is people need to be involved. Because at the end of the day, you know, if something wrong happens in this country because not the right people are put in office then, well, whether we did something or not, we pay for it.
Ressa: Yes. Yes. Last question on this, Mon, is uh…uhmn…all the issues of elections have remained the same since 1986. I mean, you’re still talking about dynasties; you’re still talking about vote buying. PPCRV says that 2010 elections moved from retail vote buying, “tingi-tingi” to whole-sale, barangay, buying entire barangays. So people are selling their votes. On social media, the kids, the young guys are…I hope you guys could stick to say that they won’t sell their votes. But these problems have been there, forever, through our generation.
Ressa: Technology is now a factor. Do you think there’s a possibility? I guess…is there a chance these problems can be solved with technology?
Isberto: Well, uhmn…yes and no. I mean technology does give you the ability to do certain things would simply had not been possible before. For example, if you wanted to report something happening, that was anomalous or wrong in the situation…
Isberto: The tools are there.
Ressa: Yes.The tools are there.
Isberto: The tools are there for people to report this and get to the right people actually literally in seconds.
Isberto: And you can put a photo on it. (Laughter) In fact…uh…with the right technologies you can put a time stamp, a location stamp on it so that it’s authenticated.
Ressa: So the question there is that, “Do you have the courage to do it?”
Isberto: At the end of the day, the technology is great. At the end of the day, it’s people who matter. So it’s whether our people, young or old, use the technologies in ways that will help create a process that yields a much better and fair result. That’s it. That’s the question.
Ressa: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much. We’ve been speaking with Mon Isberto. He is on Twitter. You can continue sending your questions to him. Uhmn…his Twitter handle is @monisberto. Uhmn…we’re talking…we just spoke about the May 2013 elections, the role of technology and the Vote Smart Campaign. We all have a share; we all have a stake in this. Vote Smart. I’m Maria Ressa. Thank you for joining us.
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