That new animal: Can Comelec catch up with social media?

Sofia Tomacruz, Paterno Esmaquel II

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That new animal: Can Comelec catch up with social media?
The Commission on Elections takes baby steps by attempting to regulate social media in the May 13 elections. It faces a number of challenges.

MANILA, Philippines – Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, as concluded in the recent Mueller Report, raised questions about similar foreign interference using social media in the Philippines’ May 13 midterm polls.

Is the same thing possible in the Philippines? How prepared is the Philippines’ Commission on Elections (Comelec) to face similar threats?

The Comelec runs on a 34-year-old election law, the 1985 Omnibus Election Code. It was signed at a time when social media did not exist, no one knew about the internet, and most people used typewriters, not computers.

The year 2016 changed the battlefield. It saw the first social media elections in the Philippines – with the unprecedented victory of a city mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, as Philippine president. Experts attributed this to Duterte’s social media campaign.

“We all saw how 2016 turned out. We all saw how social was leveraged for various political purposes, and it was obvious that this was a trend that will continue well after 2016. It would have been criminally negligent for the Comelec not to at least make a start,” said Comelec Spokesman James Jimenez in an interview with Rappler.

The 2016 experience prompted the Comelec to take baby steps in 2019. Yes, the Comelec is far from detecting foreign interference using the internet. But for the first time, the poll body has published rules to regulate social media – at least to track the campaign expenses of this year’s candidates.

Comelec facing challenges

“The most important change, really, is we will be requiring candidates and political parties to register their official accounts,” Jimenez said.

Comelec Resolution No. 10488, containing the poll body’s new social media rules, lists the following requirements:

  • Candidates and political parties must register their official blogs and social media pages
  • Website owners must submit records outlining campaign expenditures
  • Internet-related companies must submit information on ad agencies and candidates who place political ads online
  • “Social media associates,” more commonly known as “influencers,” must submit reports on paid services done for any candidate
  • Each campaign material should indicate who paid for it

While the Comelec’s new set of rules sounds promising, it faces considerable challenges.

First, it is difficult to regulate social media platforms. Supporters can create several social media pages for a candidate, while candidates can – under the table – pay “influencers” to rally support for them.

In a media forum on February 13, Jimenez said the Comelec has only 10 warm bodies in charge of monitoring social media pages. He is their head, and the social media unit is composed of regular Comelec employees.

How will the Comelec deal with trolls, for example, that crop up like gremlins?

“You either work hard or you work smart,” Jimenez said, adding that the Comelec will run after the source and is not obsessed with “tentacles.”


Still, for election lawyer Emil Marañon, the Comelec should find a way to check how much money is poured into social media campaigns.

“The problem here is when you hire influencers, you want to make it appear organic,” Marañon said, adding that no one among influencers will say, “I was paid.”

“How do we actually trace who was paid and who wasn’t? That is the challenge,” he said.

Duterte campaign an example

This was seen in Duterte’s presidential campaign, which used a social media network of up to 500 volunteers, who in turn, tapped their own networks.

Former activist and former ABS-CBN sales chief Nic Gabunada – who headed Duterte’s social media efforts – told Rappler in a previous interview that he built the network with P10 million ($190,270).

He said each volunteer handled between 300 to 6,000 members, but the largest group had 800,000 members. Each group of volunteers created its own content, though it was based on key daily messages centrally determined and cascaded for execution.

In his report on his 2016 campaign expenses, however, Duterte did not detail the money he spent on social media. The report only lists “newspaper, radio, TV, and other advertisements to promote the candidacy, including website/internet ad placements,” which were reported to have cost P343.69 million ($6.55 million).

Photo from Comelec Campaign Finance Office

So far, for the 2019 elections, not all have complied with the Comelec’s requirements. A partial list showed only 13 of 62 senatorial candidates, and 23 of 134 party-list groups, have registered their social media pages as of March 6.

What exactly will happen to candidates who fail to abide by the Comelec’s rules? Marañon said consequences remain unclear.

“This is something that Comelec needs to study because if you look at it under the Fair Elections Act, there are no punitive consequences since there was no concept of social media when it was passed,” he said.

Because of this, Marañon said the Comelec will need to work with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram so that companies can report how much candidates spend on social media campaigns. The Comelec, he added, can, in turn, use information from these companies to cross-check what candidates report in their Statements of Contributions and Expenditures.

Marañon, who served as chief of staff of former Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes Jr, said the Comelec will have to juggle this with other election preparations, such as the printing of ballots.

“I can see that if it comes to a point where Comelec will be made to choose what to prioritize, I have a feeling to a certain extent they won’t really be able to give attention to social media regulations,” he said.

But Marañon said, “The mere fact that we have this at this point is already a huge improvement for Comelec, and they should be commended for it.” (READ: [OPINION] What are the limits of Comelec’s social media monitoring?)

RULES QUESTIONED. Election lawyer George Garcia expects the Comelec's social media rules to be challenged before the Supreme Court. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Seen to reach Supreme Court

Like Marañon, veteran election lawyer George Garcia said that “we have to commend the Commission on Elections for at least attempting to regulate social media.”

“Although the rules may not be that tight or the rules may not be that accurate or specific, at least that can at least be the start of everything,” Garcia said in an interview with Rappler.

Garcia pointed out, for one, “The Comelec cannot just regulate social media without a law.”

The veteran election lawyer cited examples of loopholes in the rules. “What if my opponent, whether national or local, will just produce a website that is extremely favorable to me?”

He also commented on a provision that prohibits the showing of “any movie, cinematography, or documentary…portraying the life or biography of a candidate,” not only through traditional media but through “a video sharing site” or a “social media network.”

“What if somebody uploaded it for purposes of somebody violating the provision of the Comelec resolution? That is really so unfair,” Garcia said.

Garcia said these “are the issues that will be raised definitely in the Supreme Court.” He asked in a February 13 media forum, “Is the Comelec legislating when the Comelec should only be executive?”

“These are valid issues, but at the same time, the Comelec’s hands are tied that they have no choice but at least attempt and tell the candidates, ‘We will punish you and prosecute you.’ Now if there’s a loophole then let them defend themselves,” Garcia said.

But social media being the animal that it is, the Comelec will eventually need to go beyond monitoring it for campaign expenses. The experience of the US, with Russia’s interference in their 2016 elections, serves as a cautionary tale for the Philippines.

Here, it has just begun. –

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.


Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at